The venue was more Bohemian than most – the top floor of a celebrated French restaurant in Soho. I had been asked to give a talk about nursery design by My Montessori Child. The theme of the conference was Quality – Quality in Spirit, Quality in Space and Quality in Service. I was asked to speak on quality in space.
I opened my talk with an overview of ecological design, which sits perfectly with Maria Montessori’s philosophy on living in harmony with nature. This part included how to make a healthy indoor environment and how that can benefit a child’s health and well-being. I then went on to describe various aspects of design for young children – scale, movement, materials, exploration and learning from buildings. Finally I showed some examples of both my nursery buildings and some amazing Japanese nurseries – some of the most innovative and impressive in the world.
Although many delegates will be unable to build their dream nursery, mainly due to the exorbitant land prices in and around London, they did say that my talk had given them ideas of elements that they could incorporate into their nurseries.
The main design themes that I covered in my talk were:
Indoor / outdoor relationship
Otherwise known as the biophilia hypothesis. In rural areas this is easy – just provide a lot of South-facing glazing and doors to the outside. In urban areas, especially with small or non-existent gardens, this becomes much more challenging. Suggested solutions include windows positioned strategically to frame specific views of trees/clouds that might otherwise be overlooked; using shadows, again of trees/clouds to bring an internal surface to life. Plants can be introduced indoors – smaller movable planters for nurseries which are in shared space and have to clear away at the end of the day or ‘living walls’ as a permanent feature.
Simplicity in all things. I advocate few and simple elements of play for children – whether as part of the architecture or pieces of furniture or play equipment. If you build a boat in the playground this can only ever be a boat and nothing but a boat. If you turn a tree on it’s side and put it in the playground it can become a boat, a train, a dinosaur, a dragon or anything else the child has the imagination to conjure up. Try and leave as much for the child to invent as possible.
Don’t waste space
I have always had an aversion to ‘circulation space’. Why cut off one of the most potentially interesting elements in the building – the staircase. In my buildings the staircase becomes an integral part of the play area. With larger than normal landings – often large enough to be a small room – and the stair itself, wide enough and shallow enough, to double up as stage seating. The space underneath the stairs is the perfect den – don’t waste it. And why not introduce a slide alongside the stairs – it saves time carrying the children down! Similarly with corridors – they are a waste of space on their own, but they can readily be designed so they can double up as breakout spaces.