The Importance of Play: Education and Play in Design

August 17, 2022 by Clayton Truscott

This week, we’re discussing ‘play’ as a design and engagement element that can help transform buildings, public sites, and communities into more connected spaces. In Part One, we interviewed Jeanne Bennett and Mary Sisson, Board Chair and Secretary at Columbia Play Project, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to creating exploratory play opportunities for the young and young at heart. Today, we’re shifting our focus to environments that are much closer to home for the team at LSW: educational learning environments.

When it comes to delivering a new school or updating an existing school building, the design process is measured in months and the success of the designed environment is evaluated every day for the life of the building. The people who will do the evaluating have an especially unique bond to the premises. As a school building ages, learners undergo a parallel process: one of growth, development, and self-awareness, until they become adults themselves.

The built environment is no substitute for the essential work that teachers, aides, volunteers, and administrative staff do to create an uplifting, nurturing school culture, but it can be a supporting backdrop that people reflect on positively for decades.

To pull the discussion back to play, we spoke with LSW Associate Principal, Kurt Zenner, who has served as Senior Project Architect and then Project Manager at Vancouver Innovation Technology and Arts (VITA) Elementary School, one of Vancouver Public School’s brand-new sites, due to open its doors as a learning lab for K-5 learners when the 2022-23 school year begins.

VITA is a prime example of ‘play’ elements being used to help drive and activate a broader pedagogy, in ways that enhance the learning environment for everyone. With limited space and a very demanding set of program needs, the space-themed school offers kids an entirely novel and exciting environment to learn that fits naturally within VPS’s goals for VITA: to be a unique destination for students to participate in hands-on learning while exploring the past, present and future of the local area.

The school is also a great case study for what happens when a design team works closely with a group of dedicated school and community stakeholders to co-create a concept that works for kids.

Thinking Bigger and Going Higher

At the very beginning, the big goal was to deliver a project-based learning environment, centered around innovation, technology and the arts. “As we were talking with the school’s core planning team, there were a lot of ideas thrown out – one of them being the solar system,” Kurt says.

VITA -space
Space and the universe are evocative, magical concepts. There’s no shortage of kids with NASA and solar system posters on their walls. Our human fascination with the vast ocean of stars above us at night starts when we’re little and is primed by history, pop culture and classic films. In the case of VITA, using something as grand as the solar system really helped provide shape and parameters around the whole project.

“We were very limited in terms of acreage. VPS was given five acres to basically have all the required spaces. The design needed to go vertical, and we had to compress all of the play zones, parking areas, functional entrances, exits, and pathways,” Kurt says.

“The solar system became our central organizing point in the site plan and the building. This theme permeates vertically, up through the building, from where ‘the sun’ is located in the middle of the cantilever, directly over the kinder play area,” he continues.

Carrying a Theme Beyond

Play can be subtle. To keep the mystery of the building alive, there’s a treasure hunt embedded into the design of VITA. “The solar system runs directly through the building and intersects with all the different grades that are represented by the student body. In the kinder play area, we have scribes on the floor that show the orbits of each planet with the brass plaques that tell what the planet is, where it’s located - and it’s scaled from the sun all the way across the planets.”

Central to the school design is the concept of ‘Voice and Choice.’ “What this means is that students have a choice in what they’re going to learn, how they are going to learn it – this is a big component to project-based learning,” says Kurt. “Because every student has their own modality of learning – visual, auditory, reading, writing, or kinetic based-based. We try to provide opportunities for students to enter into learning wherever they are at, starting at every level."

VITA Easter eggs

The “Easter Eggs” placed throughout the site are meant to create long-term learning opportunities that engage students at varying levels. Here, the building’s exterior has binary code weaved into the wall through window placements; The south side says: CREATE & INSPIRE. The north side says: EXPLORE & INNOVATE.

With this in mind, the range of hidden nuggets and design mysteries vary in scale and complexity. This does well to honor the need to learn and discover through play at every age and create a lasting connection with the site.

“Part of it was thinking, ‘if I was a kindergartner, what is my experience of this place?’,” Kurt explains. “We were contrasting that to a fifth grader who has been at the school for four years already. What are the new things for a fifth grader to explore and uncover?”

That is the key to connecting educational design and play, in Kurt’s mind: constant discovery. This makes the experience holistic, cohesive, and shareable. “The excitement of the game leads to learning and becomes a central part of the school experience. It’s a way to engage kids in both play and learning.” Just like any game needs to present new ways to challenge and engage players, school environments like VITA are designed to reveal new things to students over time.