K-1 Update: Learning to playOutdoor spaces take shape
Research shows outdoor play is among the best exercises for a child's brain. As the steering committee, administrators and architects combined forces to design the K – 1 Neighborhood, one of the driving themes was the need to connect children to outdoor spaces.
Junior School Principal Mike Walker said the planning was influenced by Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods," which argues that this generation is more disconnected from its natural environment than previous generations. "If we are not connected to the natural wonders, beauty and delicacy of the natural environment, by implication we will be less inclined to care for it," Walker said. "We want this next generation to understand, marvel at and care for their natural surroundings and resources." Louv cites studies that suggest young students who are more comfortable in and connected to their natural environment tend to demonstrate higher levels of creativity.
Walker sees the outdoor space as a natural extension of the learning that occurs in the classroom. "We want the children to interact with and experience the relationship between the air, wind, sun, soil and water," he said. "As opposed to designing an environment that isolates from the elements, we want to connect the children with those elements and have it lay the foundation for their learning. We want to be teaching them about their world by intimately connecting them to it."
Outdoor Creative Learning Center
Perhaps the jewel of the outdoor spaces is the outdoor creative learning center. Prominently situated behind the K – 1 dropoff area beside Wilcox Hall, the space will serve as a gateway to the neighborhood and classrooms. The pie shaped swath of land that will stretch from Piper's Pali to Rocky Hill was designed both to solve a need for a gathering space and manage the steep grade of land using greenery. The design evolved through a collaborative effort with steering committee members and landscape architect Stan Duncan '73 of PBR Hawaii & Associates.
At the base of the outdoor learning center, a large, terraced grassy area will incorporate outdoor seating, where teachers will be able to bring their students for performances or classroom activities such as drawing and writing. The flexible, multi-use space also could serve as an outdoor venue for parent gatherings.
Walking up the steps toward Rocky Hill, above the seating area, a Hawaiian educational garden will feature native Hawaiian plantings, such as taro, banana, kukui, 'ohi'a and 'ulu. The landscape architect hopes teachers will take advantage of that natural setting. "We are using some large lava rock boulders that the kids can sit on and the rocks are clustered together such that a teacher could hold an outdoor class," Duncan said.
Here, students will be able to explore nature, turn over rocks and look for bugs - activities which Punahou kindergarten teacher Donna Reid '78 Hayes said are necessary components of teaching young children. "We take off our shoes, we get dirty, we have grass stains on our pants; it's part of life," Hayes said. "All this matters to their brains. It matters to their creativity. It matters to their imagination. It matters to their resilience." For example, she said, "Do they know what to do when their clothes are covered in mud? Does it shut down their day or can they figure it out and get on with it? It seems small to some people but it's an enormous lesson for little guys."
Peter Balding '77 sees firsthand the value of giving children that connection to the outdoors and unstructured play. He teaches PE to kindergarten through second-graders at Punahou and also coaches varsity volleyball at the other end of the age spectrum. "I see those athletes that are leaving as being deprived of what we had as kids in a neighborhood," he said.
Balding recalls a time when 15 to 20 kids of varying ages would gather in their neighborhood or at a park. "Our current kids that are graduating never had that because they grew up in this organized sports era. For whatever reasons, both parents are working and the kids are going to all these different activities that are either guided or run by adults. And so for me, this K-1 Neighborhood is taking a step back into that neighborhood that we grew up in. It's a place where everybody will benefit from the outdoors."
The K-1 Neighborhood steering committee determined that the outdoor spaces should be attentive to the needs of all children. "There are things to do for the very physical, very athletic, but there are also places for the very quiet, contemplative child to go off and not feel like they need to be in the middle of a soccer game, to be able to find a quiet spot," said Hayes.
"There will be wide-open spaces for those kids who want to throw and kick balls and play tag," Balding added. The site will also feature sandboxes, water-play areas, slides built into the hillside, and even an area where students can play konane, a Hawaiian game that is similar to checkers, according to Duncan.
The entire site is designed around the bioswale, a system that naturally collects and dissipates the runoff so that as the water drains, it replenishes the site instead of channeling it away to underground drainage, Walker explained. "The bioswale, which runs the perimeter of the play areas, will consist of plant life, rocks and, we imagine, an assortment of interesting bugs and critters; it will be a living and breathing part of their school environment," Walker said, adding that it is not designed just to be looked at. "The children are going to be allowed and encouraged to explore and play in the system because, as we know, that is how children learn."
A windmill will allow students to pump water from the catchment system into the bioswale. And on the upper edge of the Hawaiian garden, a vertical retaining wall will offer opportunities to display student-made artwork on themes such as sustainability.
Balding sees the outdoor space as solving that need for children to wonder and discover.
"Students who are coming to Punahou see this as the first part of their neighborhood. How could you not want to be a part of this?"
A Gathering Space
At the entrance to campus on Piper's Pali, before you reach Wilcox Hall, which sits majestically and patiently awaiting its renovation and restoration, you pass the concrete foundation of what will eventually become a community room and classrooms.
The multipurpose structure will serve as an indoor gathering place for kindergarten and first-grade students. The first-floor community room will hold chapel and other large gatherings and is where lunch will be served. The second floor will be home to four of the 12 new classrooms, which open up to ground level on the mauka side.
Classrooms will be divided four apiece between three groups of houses creating a neighborhood. Despite the hillside setting, plans call for all 12 classrooms to be on the same level, opening onto the large outdoor play space. "That was the intention behind it, that the classrooms would all be together," said Balding. "They've done a great job with leveling the space."
Each classroom will open onto its own lanai and each will have a garden where students will be able to grow plants. This will support the first-grade curriculum with "Garden to Market," in which students grow plants and make crafts that they then sell to the Punahou community at their classroom market in the spring.
Gardening also is a key part of the kindergarten curriculum, and Hayes said having this space directly outside the classroom creates flexibility in the curriculum. "To go out and find a bug, pick a flower, find a cool seed pod is a huge experience for kindergarteners. Your whole day turns into a lesson based on something that gets found or something that gets caught," Hayes said. "It makes science the easiest thing to teach."
Adjacent to the upper playground area in the mauka corner will be a separate PE pavilion. The building, which will be open on two sides, will be on the same level as the playground. Directly outside the pavilion, will be a concrete area that, while serving as a required fire lane, will double as an outdoor game area, offering traditional playground games such as hopscotch and four square.
Balding, who currently operates K-2 PE out of the Flanders Dance Pavilion, is excited by the potential a permanent PE space offers. "Currently everything I do is in a box, so to speak. Every day I take it out of the box and set it up. At the end of the day I have to put it back in the box, and that's because it's a shared facility with the dance school. I think with this kind of environment, I can take it out and leave it out." He envisions, for example, being able to set up a complex obstacle course that teaches students the circulation system by having them behave like the blood cells traveling through the heart and the lungs and getting pumped to different parts of their body. "I could make it as intricate and complicated as I wanted and leave it up, not having to worry about it at the end of the day."
Whether the children are climbing boulders or looking for bugs, teachers and administrators agree that the outdoor spaces and the unstructured play these spaces support are as important to the curriculum as what is inside the classrooms.
"We've spent a lot of time explaining what very young children are like," Hayes said. "They see things from very low to the ground, they experience things a certain way, so I think it's been exciting to be able to be the voice for the kids, that the outdoor space is super important to them. It's not just some grass. It's where they live half their lives, they love it and they need to be there."