When designing for early learning, the most successful environments are those that are equally created to support parents and working families. By including early childhood programs, that include before- and after-school activities, larger goals that focus on parental needs for childcare and workforce stability can be achieved, and are essential for a healthy sustainable community.
When we first saw the design of the new Childhood Learning Center in San Bernardino by LPA Design Studios (LPA) the Natural Pod team was excited to see such a fantastic facility that really models an environment that prepares children for learning while also supporting their families and the greater community. A key part of the overall design that truly fulfills on the goals it set out to achieve, is that it’s built around nature.
“Working with the district, we had this realization that this [the new Childhood Learning Center] could be treated as an oasis in the city for the community and for the kids,” says LPA Design Director Ozzie Tapia.
The facility was designed around the existing mature trees. All the classrooms have direct connections to outdoor spaces, which are shaded by the tree canopies. “Putting all of that natural space at the core of those buildings really activated the whole space,” says Tom Pace, director of facilities for San Bernardino City USD
The volume of the spaces was lowered to fit the perspective of children. “It doesn’t necessarily feel institutional,” Tapia says. “It feels more like a nature center, where children can learn by playing and interacting with nature.”
Outdoor pavilions, play spaces, outdoor classrooms and seating areas are interlaced within the landscape. Areas were defined around learning, exploration, socialization and reflection. For example, an area dubbed the “Playhouse” is designed as a gathering spot. The “Grasslands” provides a small, shaded learning environment; the “Hills” offers mounds of different heights for social interaction and playful movement; the “Pond” is a sensory zone designed for contemplation. A tricycle path connects different areas.
If you’re already familiar with Natural Pod’s work and ethos, you’ll know advocating for outside learning experiences and opportunities is a large part of what we do. So the holistic planning and design of this Center really speaks to us and the impact it can have on children and their family’s wellness and best outcomes, alongside that of their community.
“We wanted to create different destinations on the site to help children learn from their environment,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Kari Kikuta. “It was more about the experiential component versus the need for slides and swings.”
For most of the children, it will be their first foray into learning. The zones are designed to stimulate children in different ways. “Some of it is just more about learning through play and engaging with other kids,” Kikuta says. “We want to give them opportunities to express themselves.”
The play equipment will support different types of play while looking to provide an inclusive environment to engage all students. Designers focused on all the senses, considering texture, light and acoustics. They wanted children to be able to experience nature and have the tactile experience of touching the different materials.
“It’s important to engage all the senses in children,” Tapia says. “Our goal was to use the natural context as a way to inform and complement the educational curriculum for the preschool.”
The facility also provided a testing ground for developing a net zero facility. It is designed as all-electric, with efficient building envelopes that maximize daylighting and natural ventilation. Photovoltaic panels will generate on-site energy to offset 100% of the electricity use.
Earlier this year , San Bernardino City USD approved the design and is moving forward with building the facility. It will serve as a centerpiece for the district’s larger master plan and provide insights that will help guide the design of the district’s future early childhood strategies.
As well as further, more detailed information about this project, there is also a fascinating Q&A within the original article with Tom Pace, San Bernardino City USD’s Director of Facilities, discussing larger goals and strategies for early childhood development centers and their potential to lift communities.