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Around the start of the new millennium, Anne Taylor, Ph.D., the 85-year-old president of School Zone Institute (501-c-3), gave the keynote speech at a conference called Better Schools For a New Century, hosted in San Francisco by the America Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Committee on Architecture for Education. Then the director of the Institute for Environmental Education at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, Taylor had recently received a life-long honorary membership in the AIA for her contributions in the field of child-focused environmental design.

It was well deserved. She’d worked with architects, including current collaborator George Vlastos, a Wyoming-based architect and olive farmer, on the design of a new model for U.S. preschools and trained over 3,000 teachers on her method. Her school designs, resembling those of schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, were often studio-based multisensory learning environments, where students could work on creative projects according to their interests and abilities. According to an account by writer and design thinker Randall Fielding, now the chairman of Fielding Nair International, the talk woke up the crowd seated in a sterile conference room.

“Anne began her talk by placing a large, colorfully wrapped box near the podium, and asking two volunteers to open it, as though they were five-year-olds. The anticipation, movement and noisy unwrapping immediately transcended the windowless, institutional setting of the conference room. The box revealed two elementary classroom chairs – one battered wood and steel, with a cracked back; the other, a new, plywood-molded, contour chair, scaled just right for children. Anne used the chairs as an example of the disparity between school districts in this country and the continuing use of old and bad design.

She went on to speak about her design philosophy:

“I am very interested in Architecture for schools as Pedagogy … architecture which is NOT passive volumes of space, or landscape design never used for more than gross motor development or recess. I am deeply interested in working with imaginative and receptive architects who want to study user needs, who want to involve users in participatory planning and who want to understand deeply the developmental needs of the population being served as well as the content of the subject matter being imparted and the learning processes that help us all gain access to knowledge, which I call the order in the universe.”

Since then, Taylor, now the ACSA Distinguished and Regents Professor Emerita from University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, has continued her more than forty-year crusade to transform the architecture of early childhood education environments. This work has taken her from disadvantaged schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Anchorage, Alaska where she and Vlastos created an exhibition called Phantasmagoria presented as an immersive learning environment, including “the Zen of Nerf-balls,” at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. She has set up a design center at the University of Washington in Seattle, worked with the city’s AIA chapter to bring architects into classrooms, and lectured university students and emerging designers in Tokyo and Hiroshima.

Though the focus of the School Zone Institute has shifted from building learning environments to writing design curriculum, the end goal has remained much the same: to promote architecture and design as a grounding method for multidisciplinary learning. As described by Architecture and Children Around the World, one of the Institute’s programs: “The current artificial separation of subject matter is in contrast to the way the world is constructed and the way children perceive it. Architecture and the study of the built, natural and cultural environment synthesize the world of ideas and the world of material things. Things become integrated thoughts and ideas.”

Here Taylor tells us a bit more about her work and the challenges she confronts as she aims to transform early childhood education.

Preschool model building | photo courtesy of Architecture and Children Around the World

How did the School Zone Institute begin?

It came from children themselves. I was on a beach in Mexico looking for a dissertation topic when I came upon kids picking up shells, throwing others away. Imagine the aesthetic and education possibilities. These kids were making critical aesthetic judgments about their natural environment. They were picking up certain shells because they were beautiful or different. These decisions were sans training, innate. I based my dissertation [at Arizona State University (ASU)] on early childhood development and began an experimental study to test it. It’s described in my first book, School Zone: Learning Environments for Children, co-authored with George Vlastos.

Tell us about your experimental study. What classroom environment did you create and how did children respond?
It was four non-literal environments set up in the basement of the College of Education at ASU. The locus of imagination was in the student’s mind promoting very creative and integrative play which helped with language development. We also found that environments should be multisensory, so kids can use all their senses. The other thing we learned was the importance of scale.

Bridge Building Workshop in Clayton, New York | photo courtesy of Architecture and Children Around the World

Since then you’ve developed classrooms around the country, using the architecture of buildings as a lens to distill multiple subject areas. Can you tell us about some of the designs?
We began by remodeling two schools in Albuquerque, one called Monte Vista built by CCC Labor in 1940. It had a weather station, newspaper areas where children could write and publish what they wrote, a quiet upstairs area with soft pillows and soft lighting, and a 70-person amphitheater. Teachers loved it. They did individual lesson plans and would stay until 6pm. We had special environment to do work and keep things. We took out all desks and replaced them with fishing tackle boxes that could move around with supplies: pencils, rulers, and scissors. The outdoors had lain fallow for fifty years. We made it into a playground with railroad ties, telephone poles, and included a solar greenhouse designed by Steve Baer of Zomeworks.

How do you work with teachers to help them bring design education into their classrooms?
One recent example is a project we did with fourth and fifth grade students studying southwest architecture. They developed a plan view of Bonito Canyon, which is steeped in Native American history. It’s incredible the spiritual connection Pueblo peoples had with the sun and the moon and their directional path through the seasons. This was our inspiration. We used the model to plot the sun’s movement on the windows of the classrooms.

Are there obstacles to integrating design education in schools? Why don’t we see this more broadly?
There’s resistance in the United States, rooted in the system of training and certifying teachers in certain subjects. We’re trying to integrate those subjects and pressing for more creativity. Giving children the power to do their own learning in their own milieu: art, science, music. It’s important for the American classroom to change its environment. I don’t want to do any more research; the research is established. I want to take design parameters into classrooms and make them more flexible. Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming upstream.

This year, though, I got a call form the Dean’s Office at the University of New Mexico’s College of Education. I’ve been waiting for this call for fifty years. It looks like we’re going to do an interdisciplinary course for pre-service teachers and architecture students in the School of Architecture and Planning. That’s where this begins, the training of teachers. In past years, in the teacher training program, the COE had 130 applicants. This year there are ten. Nobody wants to teach anymore, because teachers are evaluated on student test scores.

Interdisciplinary Bridge Building Teacher Workshop & Preparation for Eubank Fine Arts Academy Student Studios | photo courtesy Architecture and Children Around the World

Your work has recently turned from designing spaces to integrating design education into schools. Can you share an example of this in practice?
We’re working with the Mark Twain Elementary School to integrate design education. Architects in the Albuquerque chapter of the AIA are going into schools, like Mark Twain, to teach every other week for ten weeks. Architects are so busy it’s hard for them to give their time, but when they do, the kids respond; they love doing design. We’re trying to see how design can integrate the disciplines and meet STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) standards.

The sustainable design of learning environments is a great vehicle for this. An HVAC system can be a museum. The door of every classroom shows us a basic hinge machine and a swing of 90 or 180 degrees (math). Everything in the environment can be a learning tool, including playgrounds, which can be used for observational plant study, measurement, and landscape design.

What risks do you see in sticking to the status quo?
Here in New Mexico, we’re at the bottom of the list academically. We have a diverse, multi-cultural population. Anglos are in the minority. We keep doing the same things over and over, and still come out on bottom. According to state department data in New Mexico, of every 100 kids who go to middle school, only 30 percent go on to college, and only 10 percent graduate from college. But all over America the education system is in trouble. Kids see education as irrelevant. I’m not saying design education is a panacea, but things are changing and our kids are telling us we need to do something. We need to redesign schools and make our education real.