School design, particularly public school design, is often lumped in with the design of other institutional structures like jails, civic centers and hospitals, to detrimental effect. My high school, for example, had the dubious distinction of having been designed by the architect responsible for San Quentin. (The convicts got the better building.) Schools fulfill a practical function, to be sure, but shouldn’t they be designed to inspire? Many preschools already are: outdoor activities are emphasized — swinging, walking, digging. But as kids get older, in this generation more than any that has preceded it, the time they spend in nature decreases significantly. Throughout the United States, students are installed in institutional, even citadel-like environments early on: they arrive at school in cars or buses (where once they might have walked) and step directly into buildings, where they spend 8 hours in classrooms, interacting with the outdoors only in prescribed spaces and only for allotted amounts of time. (This is not just an urban problem; watch “Radiant City: A Documentary About Suburban Sprawl” for a devastating assessment of what contemporary suburban and exurban subdivisions are doing to Americans’ relationships with nature — and one another.) The “teach to the test” curriculum stipulated by No Child Left Behind further restricts the sort of creativity and exploration integral to a good education. What amounts really to…
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