Kindergarten children are not young “students in training.” They are first and foremost just children, learning about the world to be sure but through creative play and de-stressed interaction. This conclusion, supported by extensive consultations with teachers and classroom observation, is the key principle architect Martin Kohn (of Kohn Shnier Architects) distilled from Dr. Charles Pascal’s best-practices report for full-day, 4-to-5-year-old learning. His Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in Toronto’s ethnically diverse Thorncliffe community, therefore, provides simple, naturally lit and highly flexible spaces dedicated solely to its 700 4-to-5-year-old kindergarten kids.
Located smack in the middle of a dense superblock of high-rise apartment buildings, the 80,000-square-foot, two-storey facility is in plan a slightly distorted triangle with a “tail” that slips out toward the street. A fully segregated basement level houses a city daycare that boasts a floor-to-ceiling glazed wall opening onto a large 12-by-60-metre sunken courtyard providing secured play in a more temperate micro-climate.
To ensure abundant natural light and schoolyard views to help orient the young children, well-glazed classrooms are all located on the periphery surrounding a central, two-storey triangular atrium topped by skylights. Rooms along the tail are single loaded with views to the schoolyard from the hallway. “Based on Pascal’s report and our own research,” Kohn tells me, “the classrooms were as large, as simple and as versatile as we could make them.”
The atrium is a key element. Its wide, open ramp spirals up around the edge to the second level serving as the main means of vertical circulation. Without stairs and minus rambunctious 5th-graders threatening to bowl over the smaller children, “kids in this school are very quickly allowed into the hallways on their own thus encouraging responsibility,” Kohn says, “and you can tell they really like this freedom.” Required enclosed stairs are extra wide to accommodate a hand-in-hand child with adult while lower risers accommodate little legs.
The atrium floor doubles as an indoor playground as well as a venue for larger events like a puppet show with the kids watching from the ramp. “Various parts of the oversized hallways,” Kohn adds, “are used as art and music stations while the white-painted walls serve as galleries for student work.”
Toon Dreessen, president of the Ontario Association of Architects, sums up why Fraser Mustard recently won an OAA Award: “The building is designed from a child’s perspectives, from how a child uses space, how a child feels welcome and how a child feels less stressed interacting in a very multicultural environment.” •