The Learning Pod, Part 1

"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”--Winston Churchill

Not often do new kindergartners arrive at school to hear they are going to be the teachers that day; however, when Mrs. Ranjbar and Mrs. Salmi’s afternoon class arrived on a Monday in early October, they heard exactly that.  

Mrs. RanjbarMrs. Salmi, and Principal Hurley had made plans to team up their kinder students with Professor Kevin O’Brien’s college students, all studying architectural design with a focus on education spaces at Cal Poly Pomona.

These soon-to-be architects have been assigned to design and build a “Learning Pod,” which Professor O’Brien described as, “A furniture-type piece designed for the classroom, that will be interactive, educational, may involve technology, and will involve play in some way.”

Since they are designing the piece to enhance the Kindergarten classroom experience, they figured the best consultants they could possibly find would be the future users themselves.

To get started, Professor O’Brien explained that architects are people who design and build buildings. Then, he introduced his students, “All these people are students like you who are studying to be architects. We design some of the most important buildings there are--schools.” As he spoke, many of the kinder students could not help but notice their visitors were carrying bags loaded with paints, legos, blocks, glitter paper, play-doh, and other diverse materials like fabric, plastic mesh, fuzzy sticks, cork, rope, and paper towel rolls. Seeing so many interesting items to play with definitely kindled their curiosity. “Today,” he continued,  “my students are going to do crafts with you in your classroom so they can talk to you about what you like and how they can make your classroom better.”

Principal Hurley added, “Architects design things to make them easy for you to use. We see examples all around the room, for example, smaller seats. They need you to help them because they don’t know anything about kindergarten, but you do. You are the experts!”

After everyone broke into groups, the discovery began. The kindergarten students delved into the items while the architect students asked them questions and took notes about which colors, shapes, and textures the kinder students enjoyed most. As one architect student explained, “We want to learn from them what they like, what they gravitate toward, what environment they’d prefer. Do they like to crawl over, under, or through things? We don’t know what we’re going to build yet, but we want to fabricate something with materials that are fun and safe for the kids.”

The idea for “The Learning Pod” came to Professor O’Brien while he was planning projects that would offer his students real-world learning opportunities and get them out of their own classroom. He thought a kindergarten classroom would be a great place to start because, “If anyone is thinking outside the box, it’s kindergartners. They don’t have a box yet. No preconceptions. They accept any and all ideas.” When the time came to choose a school, he reached out to Principal Hurley, because he also happens to be a PCR dad.

At the end of the day, several architect students shared their observations. One said, “They are very abstract thinkers. They really like working with their hands, and they were drawn to bright colors and sparkly patterns.” Another commented, “I think it’s refreshing that doing things with their hands and playing brings them so much joy! We don’t appreciate that as much as we get older. We’re on our computers and phones so much, but these guys are using their hands to build.” Another was surprised at the level of imagination and attention to detail demonstrated at such a young age, “They’re always making something--I love that. They’re making one thing, and two seconds later, they’re making something else. One kid started making a planet, but then it became a volcano. He used different colors of play-doh to make the mountain and the lava. He even put holes in the volcano. I was surprised he already knew all that. Then, he built a TV with an antenna. Then he turned the entire thing into a spaceship for his turtle.”  Whether they realized it or not, both classes were learning by playing.

With data in hand and energy from a day of play, Professor O'Brien's class returned to their studio to design and build their pod. Later, they will return to PCR to present their mystery design and donate it to the kindergartners who inspired them!

This project will prepare them for another larger project later this semester. They will have to design an entire school, and in the process, attempt to predict what future schools will need. “It’s a great time to be an architect in education,” said O’Brien, “There’s so much much change right now.”

Thanks to their kinder friends at PCR, these next-generation architects are already developing some great ideas for next-generation schools!

Kids, their instructors, and their art projects.