Why post-COVID school design must still centre around proximal play

As architects, we’re constantly asked about how we will adapt. New technologies, new ways of thinking, new societal expectations – they all affect how we design. Architecture is dynamic in its nature, constantly adapting and changing with society.

And while it’s important to think about how we will adapt to post-pandemic life and the ways in which this will change the parameters of design – because it absolutely will – it’s arguably just as important to think about what needs to endure; which elements of our lives will remain unchanged even as the after-effects of the pandemic remain.

When it comes to schools, the key ingredient that must endure is play; the physical, proximal, intimate engagement that is so crucial to childhood development.

Digital learning vs. social interaction

Parents across Australia have had a recent crash course in home schooling and online learning. And although teachers have proven the curriculum can be effectively delivered digitally, we can’t ignore the fact that while exclusively learning online, children miss the social engagement that’s so crucial to their development.

The advancements in digital technologies have completely transformed the classroom curriculum in recent years, with many students engaging in distance learning even pre-pandemic. And yet, the widespread lockdown during COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that there are some things that are not replicable through technology – one of those things is social interaction. Even the most collaborative technologies with a pedagogical focus cannot replace a child’s organic social engagement and play.

The importance of play

The social interactions of children, particularly the youngest primary school children, form the building blocks required for collaboration in adulthood. Play is a way for children to learn how to engage with their peers without unnecessary penalty or loss, where a “wrong” choice is of minimal consequence. And while some forms of play can occur remotely in smaller numbers, ultimately, we cannot learn to fully grow as social beings at constant distance from each other. The need for physical proximity for children at school is of utmost importance.

As society grapples with the best way to move forward in the wake of the pandemic, so do schools need to find a way to adapt to the new normal. One aspect of this will be finding the right balance between keeping children and teachers safe, while ensuring early education still centres around proximity and play.

Spatial redundancy

One change we can expect to see in this time of crisis, is communities becoming more insulated. For example, regional communities will need to become more self-sufficient, with housing, schooling and health facilities all within reach, reducing the need for travel. The more insulated the communities, the easier they are to contain.

The same principle can be used when it comes to thinking about schools; the concepts of insulation and containment could very well be the way forward. If schools are planned or adapted to provide some spatial redundancy, adjustable space that can serve multiple purposes (a classroom or a music space or reading room) without impacting the student numbers, then the school could maintain a large majority of its student body on site while a relatively small group is quarantined as necessary.

The goal is to provide flexibility that allows a segment of the school to be temporarily shut down and made safe while the remainder of school and student body remains fully functional. The remaining space could provide some physical distancing as needed through soft boundaries rather than hard. These soft boundaries s created from furniture, colour, and segregation rather than locked doors or walls could further assist teaching staff in maintain safe conditions until the isolated area can be made safe.

Of course, no one has the answers as yet – any solutions would need to be determined on a case by case basis, based on the individual needs of each school. But the notion of implementing soft boundaries as a way to increase a school’s adaptability is an idea worth exploring – and will be an interesting one to work through as we look to resolve these issues.

What must endure

As we consider how best to adapt our designs to suit a post-pandemic world, we need to ask ourselves what needs to change and what must endure. After all, it’s not only COVID that will disrupt our economies and social structures; recessions, climate change and a plethora of other calamities can and will disrupt our lives as we know them. But through them all, the fundamentals don’t change. And when it comes to designing schools, we must never forget that for children, especially under the age of 8, direct proximal play and the social interaction of learning must always be front and centre.

If this pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that technology cannot replace some of the most fundamental aspects of society; and for children, the crucial element that technology cannot replace is proximal physical, social interaction with their peers.

Richard Pearse, Principal

Richard Pearse, Principal

Richard Pearse brings a great passion for leadership in Education, Science and Research, and proven performance over two decades with extensive Australian and International experience in complex educational, civic, commercial mixed-use, multi-unit residential, and military projects from concept through construction.

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