At first, we thought Patti Purcell thought quite differently than most elementary school principals. My SWA colleagues, John Loomis and Yoonju Kametani, and I were meeting with Patti to get her thoughts about a new outdoor classroom that we were designing for Bel Air School in Tiburon, California. “When students move on to 6th grade and up, all they really want to do is to hang with their friends, so why don’t we make this space for them to learn how to hang? Even a 5th grader needs to know how to hang properly.”

The vision from the school side was to look at the space as an outdoor student lounge where kids can hang out during the recess. But instead of beginning our designs based on our first instinct, we asked “What do the students want?” We asked Patti to have the students draw up their visions of this outdoor space and we would be back in a week to look at their plans. With that exercise in mind, we went back office and sketched our own version of the outdoor lounge space.

A week later, Patti brought the students’ sketches and gathered the teachers that would be involved in this project to look at the designs. The discussion was fruitful, as we walked the school staff through our design thinking, they ideas for a “conflict resolution mosaic path”, a place to display art work, and an area for outdoor learning.  We also learned about Bel Aire’s sister school in Liberia and how the school had raised money and built a well for drinking so that students there don’t have to walk 3-5 hours each day to get water, and can use the time learning instead.

With this new awareness, we went back to our office to study the drawings from students.  We were amazed by what is in these kids’ minds. The drawings reflect the world and vision they need. We created lists of the icons they drew and the words they used and created a word cloud to help us analyze their designs.

We analyzed the similar and different programs and came up with a revised drawing that included the key components.

The design is pretty much driven by the kids’ programs, and we found a home for the mosaic path, art display, and outdoor learning as well.

The final design incorporates the conflict resolution mosaic path, which resolves the grade changes at the lower hillside and provides a terrace for watching sports activities. The canopy structure uses donations to create recycled sails that can be pulled out to provide shade, making it easier for remote learning with mobile devices, and a comfortable escape from the black or white boards inside. We also created a series of new vine structures by reusing the existing fence and a solar-powered drinking fountain as a reminder of their contribution to their sister school in Liberia.

With the exposure of the project in the news, the school was able to obtain the preliminary funding to get the project going. It is estimated that phase 1 will be complete by August 2012 when students return school from summer break.


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Scott Chuang

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