Last summer, Mentor Graphics in Wilsonville, OR wanted to bring the natural world into their classroom.
Sarabel Eisenfeld and I arrived for a design meeting and listened to the ideas of Dawn Kenney and Gillian Brune, the lead teacher and program director, respectively. Inspired by a cob tree in another preschool’s basement classroom, they were unsure what design would be most appropriate for their own school. It wasn’t so much a tree that they wanted, but the allusion to the natural world using earthen building materials, the opportunity for the children themselves to get dirty and build with us, and the introduction of more visual height amidst surroundings that were mostly low and uniform.
So, using sketches and our bodies to feel out the space, we ultimately chose a structure that acted somewhat like a wall, working in conjunction with a bookcase to form a separate play area within their larger, open space. We created a structure of curving, swooping topography, with lots of nooks to hide within, get small inside, run toys along, and an arch to crawl through.
Although during the year the children using the room range from infants to preschoolers, our building helpers were a group of 6 to 10 year olds in the last week of their summer camp. Their contribution is intended as a gift of service to the younger kids who are usually in the class space, some of whom are their siblings.
At Mentor Graphics, they emphasize experiential, explorative learning utilizing many styles. They value moral and personal development, beginning with the basis that children are already whole and competent.
As we brought a mess of mud and straw into the classroom, it was interesting to observe the parent’s reactions. Some were fascinated from afar, some confused, “Why not just buy a wall?”, but my favorite parents walked up to the structure, examined it all over and asked their child which part they’d built.
While the footprint and shape that it took were almost exactly what we had envisioned, our methods of building actually dictated their own organic form.
On the left, we used cob- great for creating nooks and windows. However, the other side of the arch, was made using straw wattles woven around sticks chosen from the nearby forest by the kids.
This caused undulations in the walls of what became a hiding cove, and formed odd shapes for windows.
Once we cut off the remaining sticks and plastered it, the top had a way of smoothly rising and falling, inviting touch and all kinds of imaginitive play.
Thanks to Sarabel for many of these pictures and Auguste Mann for connecting us with the job and giving guidance along the way!