It's becoming more common for teachers to take elementary school students outside to get a math or science lesson—especially in places like California, where the state hopes to add a garden to every school. But a new design takes the idea of the school garden further: Instead of a small plot on the corner of a playground, the entire school is a farm.
"We think that kids should enjoy nature," says Edoardo Capuzzo, one of the Rome-based designers who won a recent architecture competition for their concept of a preschool farm. "So we designed this strange school: No classrooms, but open spaces where vegetables grow inside and animals can come in too. It's a mixing of the two things, school and nature."
Capuzzo, along with co-designers Gabriele Capobianco, Jonathan Lazar, and Davide Troiani, realized that young children are naturally drawn to study plants and animals, and that the school could take advantage of this—and amplify it—to make children more engaged. Numerous studies point out the benefits of learning in a garden: Kids are more likely to remember what they study, test scores go up, and, after seeing where vegetables come from, students are more likely to want to eat them at home.
In addition to learning based on the plants and animals around them, the students would also learn about technology like wind and solar power that keep the school running.
"We tried to make a different way to learn," Capuzzo says. "So not reading a book, or listening to a teacher, but experience directly based on practice. A typical school has desks and chairs—in our school, there are not these things. And there's the freedom to stay inside or go outside."
It's a very different approach than the traditional industrial-era school. At the turn of the 20th century, this is how the U.S. Commissioner of Education—who created the first permanent kindergarten—thought schools should be designed:
"The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop their power to withdraw from the external world."
The designers see the new model of preschool as especially useful in cities, where students are more likely to be isolated from nature. "In the big cities, like London or Rome, we think that it's very important to put out green space where kids can grow," Capuzzo says.
Though the idea was a concept for the competition, the team is already talking with a Rome-based child psychologist who is interested in trying to build something similar. The challenge, they say, will be dealing with local regulations that assume schools have to look a certain way. Still, it's happened elsewhere: After the competition ended, the designers learned that a farm-like school exists in Norway.
"So, we are not so original about this," says Capuzzo. "But it could be a wonderful thing. I'm trying to apply these ideas here."