Schools Of The World: Tokyo

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should all kindergarten’s be like this?

We all wonder what it must be like to teach in another school. The world is full of unusual schools and learning spaces. In the UK, most teachers teach in a box and their classroom box is part of a bigger box. But not all schools are cuboids with fixed walls and rigid classroom spaces. Some are daring, innovative and offer children and their teachers something different.

Traditional Boundaries

In Tachikawa, a suburb of Tokyo, there is an open-air kindergarten called Fuji Kindergarten that breaks the rules and traditional boundaries. Architect Takaharu Tezuka says that children can get anxious when they feel boxed in and this constrains them. He says:

When you put many children in a quiet box, some of them get really nervous. In this kindergarten, there is no reason for them to get nervous. There is no boundary.

This is a kindergarten in the shape of an oval with a perimeter of 183m, made for 500 children and functions as a single village. The roof serves as a running track and the interior is an integrated space softly partitioned with furniture and projecting through the roof deck are three preserved zelkova trees 25m in height. The roof was built to give teachers enough headroom underneath, but low enough so the adults could see kids running around up top.

Image: Tezuka Architects

The building’s distinctive shape was designed to support the kindergarten’s Montessori education method and provide a flexible, robust and secure space where children can be independent and free. Parents love the openness of the kindergarten because their children can play and learn unrestrained and without any stress.

Fit For Learning

The design of the building and the running track roof means that children cover a surprising distance of around 4000 meters per day just running and playing on it and some many more than that. Children love to run in circles so the building plays to this strength and children are fit because of it. They have better athletic abilities. Children aren’t coaxed into their chairs but encouraged to explore and unleash their natural enthusiasm.

This diagram shows the movement of a child over 20 minutes. In one morning, they covered 6,000 meters, or 3.7 miles!

Image: Tezuka Architects

A Risky Place To Learn

The building’s design deliberately exposes children to small doses of danger which goes against our over-zealous health and safety laws in the UK. At Fuji Kindergarten, children are frequently exposed to sharp corners and slightly dangerous falls because the school believes this allows them to begin learning what it means to navigate our chaotic and oftentimes dangerous world. Children become resilient, they learn to help each and work together to overcome difficulties.

Tezuka’s elliptical ‘Roof House’ design is playful, unorthodox and perhaps eccentric but empowering. His progressive philosophy is:

Don’t control them. Don’t protect them too much. They need to tumble sometimes. They need to get injured. That makes them learn how live in this world.

This matches the head teacher’s approach too, who argues that if children fall down, that’s how they learn to be strong.

Acoustic Barriers

There are no internal walls at the kindergarten so children are able to hear what is going on in neighbouring classes. It is one continuous classroom! I once taught in an open-plan school and it was a deeply uncomfortable place to be – I struggled to hear what was being said and so did most of the children. There was too much noise, too many distractions and too little learning so I’m not sure that the ‘no acoustic barrier’ approach works.

However, according to the directors of Fuji Kindergarten, spaces with a lot of noise are better for bringing up children who have the ability to concentrate. They argue that children don’t study in their rooms but in noisy kitchens or living spaces.

They believe that a peaceful, sympathetic space is perhaps an abnormal condition that doesn’t originally exist in society.

When children become fidgety or bored, they are allowed to roam. Autistic children particularly benefit from this environment because instead of finding a place to hide, they can move freely between classes. Children at the school learn to function well despite the distractions and they learn how to make their own decisions with the organic freedom they are given.

Does a better learning space result in a better education? The architecture of this Japanese kindergarten is striking: but what is the purpose of this odd architecture? Watch Takahru Tezuka’s TED talk below:

Learning Curve

Fuji Kindergarten is the most talked about and most envied kindergarten in the world. It is easy to see why.

It is without doubt a beautiful and child-friendly learning space and the polar opposite to the drab and dreary soulless cuboids where most children are educated.

Would you like to get out of your box and teach in Fuji Kindergarten? It’s an amazing learning space, a triumph in modern architectural design with an incredible vision that says learning doesn’t have to be institutional and dull. This runs rings around traditional spaces and makes you think twice about ‘classroom management’ and blurs the interior with the exterior.

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