The good of small things

9th March 2001 at 00:00
When it comes to designing buildings for little people, the UK could do with being more small-minded. In the first of two articles looking at architecture in education, Stephanie Northen gives the lowdown on the nursery sector.

The first thing Mark Dudek's architecture students have to do is sit down. Not on a chair, mind, but on the floor. There they can see the world from the perspective of a small child. It is a perspective that many people would say the United Kingdom lacks. Compared with the rest of Europe, we are still in nappies when it comes to family-friendly attitudes. Working mothers often feel they are pariahs doomed to raise delinquents. Parents dread taking toddlers anywhere but the park. As far as they are concerned, British society is more in tune with the scream of fast cars than the whine of three-year-olds. Certainly, few car owners would dream of garaging their vehicles in the kind of environments we foist upon many of our pre-schoolers.

But perhaps we have at last taken our first steps towards a more enlightened attitude. The Government boasts that it has created more childcare places in the past 18 months than have been provided in the past 18 years. The Education Secretary may mutter about nurseries encouraging teenage motherhood, but his colleague, Yvette Cooper, plans to be the first minister to take maternity leave. Initiatives such as the working families tax credit and Sure Start reveal that, for now at least, the Chancellor is convinced of the economic case for supporting parents with young children.

"We are not where the Swedes are, but we are a hell of a lot further on than we were three-and-a-half years ago," Margaret Hodge, education and employment minister, said in January.

And just where are the Swedes and their youngsters? Not in the chilly church halls, leaking Nissen huts or child-minders' front-rooms that constitute the pre-school experience of most UK under-fives. No, the Swedish babes are probably in kindergartens designed by architects such as Mark Dudek.

Mr Dudek, who runs the London-based Education Design Group and whose book, Kindergarten Architecture, is in its second edition, specialises in buildings for young children. He and a small group of fellow believers have been campaigning for years to improve the environments for small children in the UK. The government initiative on neighbourhood nurseries, launched at the end of January, has given him hope that attitudes not just to children, but also to architecture, are changing. Quite a breakthrough in a country that spawned Rogers and Foster, but secretly prefers Barratt.

The scheme, to set up 900 50-place nurseries in deprived English communities, comes with pound;100 million of capital funding - money for bricks and mortar, even a little decking and a buggy park. Much more cash will have to be found, though, as the Government insists most of the nurseries will be new buildings. Designs will be assessed by a panel that will include Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate.

"Design is at the forefront now," says Mark Dudek. "As a nation we do not have a tuned-up sense of architecture, but it's all happening now. To me it is like a new building type that is evolving." He believes the political will is there. The talk is all of "whole-life costs" - based on a belief that a wise country invests in pre-school children to save money later - and the environment. "Studies have proven the link between high-quality environment and long-term benefits," he says.

The UK has so few examples of architecture for young children that when Sure Start money began to flow in 1998 no one knew what to do with it, says Eva Lloyd, chief executive of the National Early-Years Network, which last year organised a debate on how public buildings fail children. "You have to get back to basics, and the most basic thing of all is the size of a child," she says. "People come to me and say, 'We've been designing schools' and I say, 'Yeah, that's great, but we're talking under-fives here, babies and toddlers'."

Successful building for young children "is about being practical and sorting things like window height and toilet size, but it is also about listening to children and taking their perspective", she says. "The most important thing is space. The smaller the child the larger the space needed. Under-threes have to learn by touching and moving; they should not be cooped up. If you cramp their style, you affect the way they learn and develop."

Many private-sector nurseries and cr ches try to make their environments as "homely" as possible. But this, says Mark Dudek, overlooks the need for challenge. Indoors and outdoors, children should feel secure enough to be adventurous. Buildings should inspire their play in practical and subtle ways. A transparent drainpipe can show them rainwater coming off a roof while a high platform lets them look down - an empowering change for those used to everything going on over their heads.

Mark Dudek believes we still fail to understand how children relate to space, although we know that feel and touch are important. He says:"If you drive kids to see a wonderful mountain landscape you are likely to find them concentrating on how they can splash each other with water from the car park's drinking fountain."

He and students at Cities of Childhood - the studio he runs at Sheffield University's school of architecture - have been observing children playing in buildings such as church halls. In one session they were fascinated by the change of level created by a low ledge overhanging a short staircase - the result of some conversion work. "Four girls would shuffle out and sit there, legs dangling, for 15 to 20 minutes, just watching. Then they would shuffle back and four others would take their place."

There are examples of exciting design for children in Europe. Architects in Soest, the Netherlands, recently gutted a three-storey building to create a nursery full of ramps, stairs and tunnels and spaces where adults cannot go; the nurseries of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy are often cited as inspiring examples of the influence of environment; and Frankfurt has a showcase of more than 40 architect-designed nurseries, each costing pound;2-3 million.

UK visitors to the west German city talk of feeling as if they have come from the developing world, and speak reverentially of the beauty of the buildings and of what they say about the city's attitude to its young. "The Frankfurt nurseries are regarded as major institutions for children and the community," says Mark Dudek. "They are big, they are open all day and at weekends and they are slap-bang in the middle of residential areas, not a drive away. They are a visible statement that this society cares for children."

Back in Britain, the Government clearly intends its neighbourhood nurseries to make a similar declaration. They are to be in the heart of their community - and will cater for everyone. Early-years campaigners hope the process of building the nurseries will encourage the British to think through what they want for children. In Scandinavia, for example, the vogue is for "forest kindergartens" to help youngsters develop an affinity with nature. And the Reggio Emilia nurseries have grown up around an idea of community, of the importance of the group. The Diana nursery, for example, is built around a central piazza.

The Reggio nurseries are also renowned for their art; an exhibition of the children's work tours the world. "The youngsters can use the buildings as laboratories where they can develop and experiment," says John Jenner of London-based architects Greenhill Jenner. "The emphasis on quality of light, on colour and on inside-out spaces, on a whole raft of ideas, is producing art of a fantastic quality. The buildings are obviously stimulating the children's development."

Mr Jenner, whose practice designed the award-winning Patmore nursery in south London, talks of the strong connection between pedagogy and building design, something neglected in the UK, but exemplified in the work of Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861 in Croatia. His still influential idea was that children should develop through playing in harmony with the natural world. His nurseries are examples of organic expressionism, buildings that reject right angles, often growing to resemble fairy-tale cottages.

The Steiner nurseries still interest people, says Mark Dudek, because they can grasp that the building is an expression of the belief. While Britain has no big idea about childhood around which to design its new nurseries, Mr Dudek does detect a bookish bent. "We are probably not going to produce a race of wonderfully creative, artistic people with an atelier on every corner, but, if there are national tendencies, we are more literary, more oriented towards theatre and reading."

His practice tries to build on this with story-rooms, the walls of which can have letters in relief so children too young to read can feel the symbols and pick up the idea of words.

Mark Dudek is working on a pound;1 million early-excellence centre in Richmond, west London. Eva Lloyd's early-years network is about to publish his guide to creating the perfect space for young children. John Jenner's partnership has several Sure Start contracts to keep it busy. All three are optimistic that the UK might finally be developing a mature attitude to the building blocks of life.

Kindergarten Architecture is published by Spon Press, pound;29.99. Tel: 020 7583 9855. Next week: rebuilding Chicago's schools


Less than a year ago, Judy Stevenson worked in a cold, draughty, asbestos-roofed school constructed for the children of armaments workers during the Second World War. Now she runs what the Government has labelled the UK's first "neighbourhood nursery", where ministers chose to launch their new scheme for 900 new nurseries.

The pound;1.5 million Robert Owen Early Years Centre in Greenwich, south London, is light, airy, warm and carpeted. Open 50 weeks a year, it caters for 140 under-fives, including babies, and for their parents and grandparents - who were asked what they wanted. Aside from the nursery, there are impressive community facilities and services, including a cyber-cafe, meeting rooms, community room and a cr che. There is a children's library and literacy classes for adults who missed out on such luxuries.

Judy Stevenson, helped by Mark Dudek and Helen Penn, professor of early years at East London University, agonised over the design. Every detail had to be right. The main corridor, for example, is "wide enough for two double buggies to pass each other without the parents feeling embarrassed". There are child-height showers, a child-sized kitchen, a well-thought-out playground, and even the banisters are within reach of small hands.

Nevertheless the centre, a pale brick box from the outside, is a compromise. UK social services and planning regulations are strict, and often constrain a design. For example, in ecological Frankfurt, none of the nurseries has a car park. In not-so-green Greenwich, the car park is the size of the playground.

Also the Robert Owen centre was a "design-build" scheme, which saves money because the builders act as architects. "It is not a signature building," says Judy Stevenson. "Other countries have invested an incredible amount in appropriate buildings for young children. We could not afford that, but what we have got is just brilliant. It works."

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