How Co-Creating Learning Spaces Develops a Connection to Place

“This is for you, we knew you were coming”

In the late 1930s, Frances Presler was tasked with opening the Crow Island School in Illinois, in the US. Which, some 80 years later, is still considered a lighthouse for timeless and humane architecture for children. But at the time, Frances was struggling with how to create a new school that truly belonged to children. In 1941, she penned A Letter To The Architects, in which she answered a single question — “What Spirit Shall It Have”. In it she says:

“The building must not be too beautiful, lest it be a place for children to keep and not for them to use.”

“It must be inspiring — with a beauty that suggests action, not passiveness on the children’s part. Yet it must give children the basic feeling of rightness and the belief that they too can be, act and create, and that They, their action and creation are needed.”

It must be a place for living, a place for use, good hard use, for it is to be successively the home, the abiding place, for a procession of thousands of children through the years. It must be warm, personal, and intimate, that it shall be to each of these thousands, “My school.”

How do we create places and spaces that are, to those thousands of children, “My School?”

School environments must be places where children can create and act — and kids need to feel that their creation and action are not only warranted, but needed.

I want to throw a couple of scenarios at you.

1) A school finds some money, maybe the governing council and parents have scrimped and saved, and they commission a designer and builder to create a new play space. And when the fences finally come down, there is a big celebration and kids can experience the new space that has been carefully and deliberately given to them.

2) A school has next to no money for gardens or fancy play equipment, so children identify neglected spaces and reimagine how they might be used. They work with community experts to design and co-create new spaces in close consultation with their community. They work with real tools to breathe new life into forgotten places, they use native plants to create habitats for local wildlife, paint murals, build furniture, and they do it all as a part of their day-to-day learning.

Which scenario would create the most powerful sense of belonging and connection to place?

I’ve seen both of these scenarios play out. I’ve seen well-meaning adults work incredibly hard to raise money which was directed into tokenistic, cookie-cutter nature play spaces that, after the initial excitement of the opening, was barely used.

I’ve also seen schools littered with neglected and out of bounds spaces completely transformed when kids and staff and families come together to create a shared vision of not only what they want learners to do, but who they want them to be.

We couldn’t micromanage any of these projects into being. Learners were involved in every step of the design and creation process, so they knew exactly what they needed to do during each phase of the build.

How do you think those children feel when they walk into that space?

Through this project, and over several years, these learners became experts in play, risk management and place-making. They used experiential learning to become researchers and designers and made real decisions with adults about every aspect of the project. And the results were stunning.

Not in terms of beauty, but in functionality and impact. We kept talking about the aggregation of marginal gains, that every little improvement we made would eventually add up to something significant. And it did.

We know that when you love something, you’ll care for it and protect it. We saw that from children, and with more play choices in the yard, there were fewer issues to deal with during break times. As I wandered around during one of my last yard duties, I realised that almost every child in the playground was engaged in play that simply didn’t exist five years earlier.

There were kids in the Secret garden playing imagination games, mud pies and potions being made, kids creating cubbies in a forest space, and a few bikes and scooters rolling around on the courts. It became impossible to turn a corner and not see the impact of the many students who contributed to this place-making.

This photo and text was sent to me by a staff member who was helping these kids dig log rounds into ridiculously hard ground. It took hours, but they persevered, and created a pathway with graduated risks connecting two play spaces. I love this photo so much I wrote a short poem about it called “Now, They Know”.

“Now, they know the weight of a mattock and the effort required to swing it 100 times. They know the value of time and how quickly it dissolves in the rush to meet deadlines. They know what it means to be trusted and trustworthy. To work with real tools. To make decisions, not unimportant ones, real decisions, which carry real consequences. They understand the challenge of placemaking and how breathing life into unloved spaces impacts a community.

Now, they know.”

For each project we tackled, no two students had the same experience or built the same bank of knowledge and skills. We used a strength-based approach, plugging learners into mini-projects they felt they could impact the most.

During these years, we saw young people bursting to get in the door in the morning, not desperately waiting to get out of the place. Kids reported feeling more engaged, challenged and connected to the learning and people and places in our school.

We held many exhibitions, where proud parents and guardians and the entire community could stand in the children’s creations and celebrate their effort and achievements. Past students constantly dropped by to check on their spaces, proof that for them, it really had become “my school”.

Our attachment to nature and connection to place has been described as a “fundamental human defence against loneliness.” Can you think of a place that you feel a strong sense of connection and belonging to? I wonder how many of us would say we felt that same sense of connection to place during our school years?

When curriculum, the hidden curriculum, pedagogy and the built environment align, we can co-create incredible experiences and opportunities with children. When kids feel can create and act, it only serves to strengthen their sense of connection and belonging to places, which has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

We should want our classrooms and schools and gardens and playgrounds to say “This is for you, we knew you were coming.” We know children are competent and capable, we should be co-creating and acting with them to build that sense of belonging and connection to place at school. And like Frances Presler, whether we are creating new spaces or reimagining old ones, we should be asking ourselves, “What spirit shall it have?”

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Abe Moore

Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor