Redesigning the learning space

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Imagine a kindergarten where an outdoor courtyard transforms into a giant paddling pool when it rains, or where a rooftop playground can only be accessed by climbing a vertical rope tunnel. Japanese architects Youji no Shiro are taking a creative approach to redesigning and redefining learning spaces for kids.

A typical Australian kindergarten is a chaos of colour. Artworks and posters cover the walls. Shelves are crammed with craft supplies, building blocks and puzzles. The inside space is crowded with different activity stations and the playground is scattered with primary-coloured play equipment.

These cluttered, bright and busy spaces are a stark contrast to the simple, minimalist and neutral learning environments created by Youji no Shiro. While both approaches have equal merit, it’s fascinating to see how another culture caters to early childhood philosophies and the developmental needs of children.

Based in Kanagawa, just south of Tokyo, Youji no Shiro is a branch of Hibino Sekkei Architecture that specialises in designing spaces for kids. The name means ‘Castle for Children’ because, as far as these architects are concerned, kids rule! Or at least they should, when it comes to the spaces they learn in.

A few of Youji no Shiro’s key principles are simple design, lots of natural light and ventilation, organic materials and a connection to nature. Over 24 years, Youji no Shiro have created more than 350 spaces for children, and their portfolio extends into countries including Germany, the Netherlands and China.

Much like in Australia, Japanese preschool education is child-centred and revolves around social and emotional development, friendship and responsibility. The focus is on fun and learning through play, rather than academic study. Youji no Shiro support child-centred design for a child-centred education, and operate on the understanding that kindergartens are for kids first, grown-ups second.

Taku Hibino, CEO of Hibino Sekkei, sums up their approach. “Some people are surprised by the fact that the childcare facilities we design are very simple in colour,” he says. “This is because we think the children themselves are already colourful: once they come in and use the facilities, the entire architecture will be coloured by their acts, clothes and energy.”

Youji no Shiro’s large, open-plan areas are flexible and diverse spaces that encourage communal activity and act as a blank canvas for kids to project their imaginative play onto. This simple design strikes a balance between education and entertainment. 

“Kindergartens and nurseries are places dedicated to education—not simply a playground,” says Hibino. “Through the design we want to inspire children to study and gain knowledge from their environment, stimulate their creativity, and increase their physical and moral strength. The best design is one that encourages children to grow and mature.”

This is architecture that puts the fun into function and incorporates playfulness in creative and wonderful ways. Youji no Shiro’s design includes many elements that stimulate open-ended play, such as large blackboard walls, indoor sandpits, and built-in nooks and cubbies where kids can hide out. While many of these features are designed with a specific purpose in mind, Hibino says they refrain from telling children how to use them. Being their creative, unstructured selves, kids will often come up with new ways to use a particular feature that the architects didn’t anticipate. 

“The way the kids use the facility is always beyond our imagination,” he says. “You can tell kids have plenty of imagination and also that they are challenging themselves to create new ways to play. Most adults will say, ‘Don’t do that!’ to stop kids doing anything outside of expectations. I’m not surprised by kids’ creativity but I am surprised by the adults who are trying to stop it.”

In Youji no Shiro’s design, the boundaries between indoors and outdoors are often blurred: classrooms are located around central courtyards, walls slide back to create open-air learning spaces and large windows look out onto a beautiful view. This connection to nature is central to the company’s design philosophy. 

“Especially in the big cities, it’s difficult for children to find places where they can commune with nature,” says Hibino. “The knowledge kids learn from indoor toys is limited because they don’t change. But they can keep playing and learning from nature because it is always changing. I think it’s very important to let kids connect with nature as much as possible.” 

Hisae Shinji is the principal at Hanazono Kindergarten and Nursery, which Youji no Shiro built. There are 120 students, from babies to five-year-olds, at the preschool and, on a fine day, the kids will spend between four and five hours outside. The kindy features large terraces, a courtyard where kids can spread out to do their work or eat lunch, and a spacious, grassy playground for them to let off steam. 

Shinji says that Youji no Shiro’s organic and flexible design invites connection and collaboration between students and teachers, and supports the kindergarten’s mission statement of ‘Bright, Strong and Warm-Hearted’. “The design of the building isn’t overdone, so children take the lead and we can enjoy their perspective. It is designed so people can connect naturally.

“The benefit of [kids] playing outside is just letting them be and play—playing with friends, teachers, play equipment, flowers, sand, soil, bugs and rocks. Every day is different and the way they play is always evolving. Being outside, under the sky [and] in the fresh air, allows the children to be relaxed and full of life. From there they learn observation skills, curiosity and communication skills, without even noticing it.” 

Youji no Shiro take an alternative approach to safety, too. They believe creating a completely risk-averse environment for kids deprives them of important learning experiences. In Hibino’s opinion, many safety measures create peace of mind for teachers and parents, but don’t really benefit kids. Uneven flooring, a ladder up to a loft, a sharp edge on a benchtop or a blind corner won’t result in serious injury, but will teach kids a lot.

“Teachers don’t want parents to complain so they don’t want any kids getting hurt in kindergarten, but it’s pointless to over-protect kids,” he says. “It’s better to teach them curiosity, to let them be active and learn from little hurts and falls. Failure is the best source for children’s growth. It’s good to teach kids how to avoid risk through trial and error and let them use their heads to figure out how they can prevent hurting themselves next time.” 

Hibino says the biggest challenge they face is convincing well-meaning adults to encourage, rather than impede, kids’ development and give the kids more chances to explore, experiment and make mistakes. But as a kid-centric approach to learning becomes the norm, parents and teachers are embracing the concept that kindergartens are for kids, not adults. 

You won’t find any scratchy synthetic carpets or tacky vinyl floor coverings in a Youji no Shiro kindergarten. These materials may be easy to clean, but the architects believe that, from a kid’s point of view, comfort takes priority over cleanliness. The architects prefer natural materials such as wood, glass and iron—elements that have different textures, temperatures and smells that nurture the tactile sensations. These materials also contain fewer chemicals, are more durable, and are better for kids and better for the environment.

Youji no Shiro also do amenities a little differently. Toilets are often dark, confined spaces, and it stands to reason that many little kids are reluctant to go into the loos alone. Youji no Shiro design toilet blocks that are bright, clean and colourful, and a fun place to go. Some blocks feature floor-to-ceiling windows—a foreign concept in Western communal toilets. Cubicles and urinals still give privacy to little people, but the spaces are filled with sunlight, which also acts as a natural disinfectant.

Throughout the design process, the Youji no Shiro architects exchange ideas with kindergarten teachers. They also conduct workshops with children and parents, and Hibino draws on his own experience, too. “The memories of my own childhood help me a lot with my work,” he says. “Especially the fun and happy memories, which I want to let kids experience through my design.”

Youji no Shiro base certain aspects of their design on scientific data, site-specific research and child psychology. All the consideration given to the needs of little people isn’t just for their creative and emotional wellbeing: it benefits them in practical ways, as well. Good design makes kids walk further and eat more in the course of a day. At Hanazono Kindergarten and Nursery, the architects created a comfortable dining room and outside terraces for lunch; as a result, rice consumption increased and the children ate 1.7 times more food than they did before. 

The kids who play and learn at a Youji no Shiro kindy don’t know that the uneven floors they traverse each day improve their balance and spatial awareness. They have no clue how good it is for their upper-body strength to climb a rope tunnel to the top. And they haven’t cottoned on to the fact that eating outside increases their appetite. The simple fact is that these children love their learning spaces, and that in itself has a powerful impact.

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This article is from Issue 6 of Lunch Lady. You can order back copies here or why not download our app here and have Lunch Lady issues on your phone!

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