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This week, a project that I know well and is close to my heart won an Education Facility Design Award. Presented by the AIA (The American Institute of Architects) and its Committee, the benefactor is LPA Design Studios for the creation of the Environmental Nature Center Preschool based in Newport, California, under the category: Design Excellence.

This is a well deserved honor and I’d like to share my warmest congratulations, as well as their story.

The Education Facility Design Awards program was developed in order to recognize projects that represent state-of-the-art learning environments and the Environmental Nature Center Preschool is exactly that. I first heard about and then became involved in the project when the educators reached out to Natural Pod because of our mutually aligned values around the importance of play, the power of nature and the need for outdoor learning.

Their Educational Philosophy: ENC Nature Preschool is a developmental play-based emergent curriculum where children’s ideas, inquiries, discoveries, and investigations are nurtured and implemented. With hands-on daily experiences children acquire a deep intuitive understanding of nature and the natural world. Engagement in the environment and with others is where real learning occurs. Attributes of the Outdoor Classroom Project, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf approaches contribute to the curriculum foundation.

The ENC Nature Preschool occupies a five acre campus set within the Environmental Nature Center, providing quality early childhood education through hands-on experience with nature. The early learners spend around 80% of their time outside, with the remaining time being enjoyed in their beautifully designed indoor/outdoor integrated classrooms.

“This space is well integrated and serves a hugely impactful mission. This project is both a dynamic learning center and an example of the sustainable values it teaches.” – Award Jury comment

“This project is an excellent example of how to apply the Framework for Design Excellence to a small space. The jury valued the incorporation of biophilia and children-centered spaces that support play-based and hands-on learning,” said the jury. “This space is well integrated and serves a hugely impactful mission. This project is both a dynamic learning center and an example of the sustainable values it teaches.”

Mixing free play and nature into its daily curriculum, the school fosters an ideal atmosphere to encourage early brain development and an appreciation for nature. The interior program includes three learning studios, space for staff and administrative support, and a kitchen supported by an adjacent children’s garden. The classroom spaces are open, flexible, and flow into the outdoors, encouraging students to explore the world on their terms. This freedom is essential to the school’s pedagogy, and the school’s green features help root students in ecological responsibility at a very early age.

The Natural Pod team had the opportunity to support the Environmental Nature Center Preschool building during the time that the educators were considering how to reflect the sustainable ecological values that had been created through the fabric of the building into the interiors. Natural Pod’s sustainable furniture was chosen to outfit its three indoor, outdoor integrated classrooms because of our aligned values around sustainability and environmental responsibility, as well as our stringent adherence to every component of our products being truly safe, healthy and sustainable. The center has the highest standards possible in these areas and we were excited when challenged to show if Natural Pod products meet those standards in addition to being aesthetically beautiful. Some of the questions asked were; Is there any off-gassing? What varnish is used? What is the edging made from? Where have the materials come from, and who made them? As we also hold ourselves and our products to the highest standards of sustainability and environmental sustainability, we passed the challenge and formed a great partnership. We’re very proud to be part of the solution in creating and bringing to life this amazing preschool and all the educational opportunities it provides.

The Environmental Nature Center Preschool really is an incredibly unique learning environment. I’d like to offer my congratulations again to LPA Design Studios for both this prestigious award and their commitment to bringing to life the vision the educators had of a truly immersive environmental learning experience for the children in their care.

Photos courtesy of Cris Costea

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