Post-occupancy survey reveals CCSD59 Early Learning Center design capitalizes on outdoor learning and the power of play to change attitudes
[Mount Prospect, IL] – Giorgia Spentzos Dravilas’s son felt anxiety each time he stepped out of the car and approached his preschool. Then came the time for him to walk into his new school: Community Consolidated School District’s (CCSD59) Early Learning Center (ELC) in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
“There’s this little blue door in the front,” said Dravilas. “It’s small and it’s perfect for three-, four-, and five-year-olds. That really helped.”
And the blue door was just the beginning. The CCSD59 ELC greeted the young man with playful shapes, vibrant colors, intriguing materials, and lots of natural light. Large windows displayed safe outdoor learning areas where his peers tended small gardens and experimented with sand and water.
Many students like Dravilas’s son have had a similar experience—no matter where they are in the facility, students are surrounded by the spirit of play, community, safety, and exploration.
“The outdoor courtyard, the indoor play area, and the learning gardens have enhanced our ability to use fun and play in combination with learning,” said Dr. Art Fessler, CCSD59 superintendent. “The attitudes of not only our students and staff, but also our parents, have changed incredibly.”
The CCSD59 ELC, completed in August, 2015, united the district’s early learning students and teachers (previously dispersed at facilities throughout the district) in one 57,000-square-foot building. It was designed by Legat Architects and built by Nicholas & Associates.
Eighteen months later, Legat (architect of record) and Hitchcock Design Group (landscape architect) led a post-occupancy evaluation. The survey and workshop gathered observations of nearly 50 faculty and staff members, who shared their opinions on everything from how often classes use each space to the air and light quality within the building.
Though some respondents offered suggestions for minor improvements, the majority of comments support Fessler’s assertion: “I think we’ve designed what I believe to be one of the best early learning facilities in the country.”
It’s About the Outdoors!
“Who doesn’t love to go to the beach and play in the water?” said Dave Frigo, project manager with Hitchcock Design Group. Such was the thought that inspired one of the most popular CCSD59 ELC outdoor play areas: the sensory garden, which features water play tables and a large swath of sand with diggers and tools.
When asked about their favorite spaces, most survey respondents named either the three learning gardens or the large outdoor courtyard.
When the weather cooperates, classes typically go outside in 30- to 45-minute increments in both the morning and the afternoon.
“From the very beginning, the district stressed the importance of outdoor learning,” said Robin Randall, Legat’s director of preK-12 education. “At community workshops, the progressive curriculum pushed the architecture and vice versa. The result is four secure outdoor spaces that support teacher plans and encourage experiential play.”
During planning, every school that teachers toured had a strong indoor/outdoor relationship. Design charrette leaders used inspiration boards to keep tabs on what teachers were excited about. According to Randall, the building’s corridors and rooms were designed around the outdoor spaces.
Melissa Ward, CCSD59 coordinator of early childhood, said, “We were very fortunate to have staff participate in a series of workshops with the architects. We wanted to make sure we were incorporating the perspectives of the different service staff and teachers so that we could really address the whole child.”
One teacher said, “I love the sensory aspects of this building throughout the seasons.” Classroom and corridor windows display the outdoor spaces, offering a shifting perspective of the Chicago area’s seasonal variations.
Another teacher creates scavenger hunts that challenge students to identify shapes and colors as they search the playground and gardens, as well as the school’s interior.
Large Motor Skills Courtyard: Activity Central
CCSD59 ELC’s large courtyard isn’t the typical outdoor play area. The courtyard, only accessible from within the school, offers many choices for cooperative play and is large enough for several classes. Different colors within the rubber play surface identify places for running or playing, as well places where students can sit on logs or limestone terraces for a lesson. A roof extends over part of the courtyard to create a shaded area.
When asked how often they see this area being used, 70% of respondents said 5 to 8 times a day, while 17% said 2 to 5 times a day. Most other respondents were administrators based in other district facilities.
Unlike many outdoor play areas, CCSD59 ELC’s courtyard is not only handicap accessible, but also has changes in elevation. Students enjoy riding scooters on the circular pathway and going up the slight embankment, which has a double slide built into it. The grade change also means that the construction crew did not have to drop the foundation to build the school.
Another courtyard favorite is the central wood playhouse, a semi-enclosed space that offers opportunities for imaginative role-playing. “It’s a fort-like element that gives kids a little separation from teachers,” said Frigo. “However, the spaces between the wood slats still allow teachers to see the children.”
Learning Gardens: Artistry and Exploration
Many people are taken aback when they first see the eight staggered classroom bars that step across the CCSD59 ELC floor plan. This irregularity allowed three learning gardens to be placed between the classrooms.
Frigo calls the community-inspired gardens “less physically and more mentally active counterpoints to the larger courtyard.”
The gardens give preK students early exposure to cross-curricular science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) experiences.
One survey respondent called the gardens her favorite areas because, “I get to watch [students] explore and grow in spaces that encourage them to get in touch with their inner artist, musician, naturalist, explorer, and more.”
The most popular garden, the sensory garden, involves the senses with sand and water tables. Students can even get a little messy as they have fun taking on simple problem-solving challenges: How can you make your boat move faster in water? How many cups of sand/water does it take to fill a bucket? How can you get the water from the pump to come out faster?
Andy Howard, Hitchcock Design Group designer, said, “The popularity of the sensory garden suggests that students are more engaged and have longer play patterns when they’re able to manipulate their environment.”
On some warm days, chiming drifts through the school’s corridors. The sound comes from the fine arts garden, which includes chimes, a xylophone, and a small stage. Musical notes are even embedded in the concrete.
Melissa Ward said, “In the fine arts garden, children can thoroughly explore the creative process through singing, acting, and dancing.”
The nature garden supports lessons in natural life cycles and agronomy. For instance, students plant pumpkin seeds in the spring, then use magnifying glasses to observe their growth. Fall brings the most fun part of the process—picking and carving the pumpkins.
Learning Around Every Corner
The facility groups children into four “neighborhoods,” each of which has five classrooms. Each pair of classrooms connects via a sliding glass door and an “integrated therapy room” in which specialists help students with special needs.
“At each step in the learning process, we asked how the building can be a teaching tool,” said Robin Randall. “Around virtually every corner, there’s something exciting to see, feel, and explore.”
Designers focused on the corridors—just outside the classrooms, breakout spaces called “exploratories” enrich the learning experience. Ceiling and floor patterns curve. Large windows display learning gardens. Wall materials welcome touch. In one exploratory, for instance, a rough rock wall corresponds to the sensory garden it displays.
“Therapy stairs” between classroom bars signal another corridor innovation: teachers use the stairs (three steps each) to train children how to climb, or as seating for breakout learning.
Even the welcome center offers a family support area where students can safely engage with learning tools while their parents are at the reception desk. Ninety-one percent of survey respondents gave the welcome center a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale.
Ward said, “It reflects the children. They really get the feel that ‘This is my place. I feel good about it. I want to be here.’”
The Power of Play
“At this age, children learn through their play,” said Ward. “That is how they learn about their world around them. It’s how their language develops. It’s how their brain develops. It’s how they learn critical thinking skills and problem solving.”
The outdoor areas certainly encourage play, but Mount Prospect, just 25 miles northwest of Chicago, has its fair share of subzero or rainy days. How do students get out some of their energy during those times?
The CCSD59 ELC has a response—a light-filled indoor motor skills area prioritizes play with a small gym, soft flooring, and plenty of space for physical activities.
One teacher said, “I’m often working on motor skills and I like the indoor gym because I can bring in fine motor activities to use with students as they run and play.”
Where Learning Is Fun
Many parents and school district leaders have toured the CCSD59 ELC. Some notice the exterior’s dancing window patterns, while others comment on the playful brick arrangements. Still others take note of the daylight streaming through classroom clerestories, or the metal walls that slope within the learning gardens. All these observations support the same reality—that this is an environment designed with early learners’ needs in mind.
“This space was a game-changer for us,” said Fessler. “It truly gets students passionate about wanting to be at school. If kids have the right mindset early on about school, their chances of being successful significantly increase.”
Tony Rossi, CCSD59’s director of facilities, offers an engaging anecdote to explain the difference the ELC has made: “Before we had this facility, our early learners often had separation anxiety and cried during drop-off out front,” he said. “After the first month the ELC was open, we noticed the reverse—several students were upset that they had to leave the facility! We appreciate that this environment helps the students feel comfortable to explore and makes learning fun.”
The CCSD59 ELC demonstrates that an innovative curriculum coupled with an architecture that embodies the educator’s mission transforms a district’s purpose into place.
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