Childhood obesity has become a global public health epidemic, particularly in urban environments. Data from 2015-1016 from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 1 in 5 children aged between 6 and 19 in the United States is obese. Due to urban sprawl cities are constantly competing for space to accommodate residential, commercial space and auxiliary space for urban development such as children’s playscapes which encourage activity. Tezuka Architects have designed an innovative award winning solution by integrating a playscape onto the rooftop of Fuji kindergarten, which doubles as a playground and running track - encouraging physical activity, as well as improving the learning experience overall.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of Paul Stallan via Architectuul
Playscapes are more than just about play & physical activity, well-designed classrooms can boost learning progress in primary school pupils by up to 16% in a single year, research reveals. Japanese architect and founder of Tezuka Architects Takaharu Tezuka believes traditional classroom design to be unnatural and counter-productive to creating a positive learning environment. This is evident in his design of the Fuji kindergarten in built in Tokyo in 2007. The design mirrors the school’s Montessori teaching method - which advocates for freedom, collaborative play and learning from discovery. The oval shaped deck doubles as a running track, encouraging children to run around the endless loop with a lot of elements to jump, climb and slide onto. This physical exertion helps maintain children’s physical health as a minimum of 60 minutes of daily activity is recommended.
Image: Courtesy of Katsuhisa Kida via Dezeen
Tezuka Architects managed to incorporate a lot of elements necessary for enhancing learning and improving mental and physical health through the design of the kindergarten - by incorporating appropriate sensory stimulation.
How Fuji Kindergarten Playscape Encourages Freedom, Play & Discovery
The free plan design of the classroom spaces encourages a sense of independence and facilitates collaboration among the students.
The full height sliding glass doors that circle around the entire interior perimeter of the building provide access to outdoor views. In favourable weather the classrooms are left open, allowing the children visual access to the outdoor elements, giving off a sense of freedom. In lieu of solid diving walls, the architects designed light wood stackable display shelves which can be configured to suit the desired activity - enhancing that sense of autonomy of the space. Soundscapes of classroom and play areas play have the power to influence children’s behavior and learning. The design also accounts for appropriate sonic stimulation, as the sound of the 600 students in this structure creates the level of white noise found in natural environments when the classrooms are left open.
Image 1: courtesy of Katsuhisa Kida via Archdaily; Image 2: Courtesy of Katsuhisa Kida via Dezeen
Unstructured, free play is the key to exploration and growth- unlike most playgrounds, the rooftop deck playscape has no play equipment installed. The architecture serves as an open plan playground - protected by handrails on the perimeter, allowing children to play freely in a safe environment. Skylights on the deck serve as a peephole, allowing students playing on the deck to peek into their friends’ classes, triggering their curiosity, encouraging indoor-outdoor interaction and discovery.
Image 1: Courtesy of Katsuhisa Kida via Dezeen; Image 2: Courtesy of Tezuka Architects via Inhabitat
A Learning Environment That Connects Children To Natural Elements
The building resembles a large scale contemporary one-story treehouse as it is built to be one with nature. The indoor and outdoor spaces are in constant interaction through glass sliding doors, which optically break down physical barriers found in traditional school structures. Nature plays an important role in child development: access to nature has proven beneficial to academic performance as well as has a positive impact on mental health and cognitive abilities. True to the essence of Japanese architecture which seeks to harmonize spaces with nature, Tezuka Architects made it a point to integrate trees into their design - three 25-meter zelkova trees are encased as part of the building, growing from the ground through the roof. AAs a safety measure nets stretch around the trees to allow up to 100 children to climb them at a time. In addition five gargoyles were installed, which act as a rainwater channel and makeshift waterfalls perfect for the children to splash in.
Careful attention was paid to the building’s access to natural light, which is important for mental stimulation and focus within a learning environment. The Skylights built into the deck, let natural light into the classrooms below in addition to the full height sliding glass doors which bring in ample daylight and views. The skylights also give an added dynamic to the classroom, sparking imagination and a sense of wonder.
Image: Courtesy of Katsuhisa Kida via Archdaily
Natural materials are seen throughout the building, from the child-sized boxes made from light wood that serve as shelving and room dividers in the interior, to the wooden roof deck flooring and tall tree the children are able to safely climb. These natural textures create a warm atmosphere in the space, while adding to the diverse textures the children are exposed to in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Different textures provide tactile stimulation - another form of learning which improved problem solving and language processing.
The project was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s 2017 Moriyama RAIC International Prize for "transformative within its societal context", however the real award was the children's initial reaction to the space - you could say it was 'love at first sight' as "...they started running" Tezuka says. He remembers it being an emotional experience for him, "It was beyond our expectations. I was sitting with the principal and everyone had tears. It was amazing, an instant reaction." He hopes this design will create a future where children's natural instinct will be to play n nature and not reach for gadgets.
Tezuka's approach to children centered architecture is based on his own family values, he believes children should grow into open minded people who not exclude anything or anyone. Architecture has a role to play in instilling this principle through being open and less rigid...he adds: "When the boundary disappears, the constraints disappear. Children need to be treated as a part of the natural environment.”
We need to see more human centered architecture of this nature, dedicated to social development and improved health.