Architecture can get children moving

The interior design of schools has a major impact on children’s activity levels. This has been shown by the Danish project Skole+, which has explored how the renewal of existing architecture promotes children’s movement.

One of the six schools in the project is Søndervangskolen in Aarhus. Here, presentation stairs and a movement path were integrated into the new design.

Schoolchildren in Denmark generally do not get enough physical activity. This has been shown by a report from the Danish Health Authority. The report concludes that three out of four 11- to 15-year-olds are moving too little.

The Danish Health Authority recommends that children be physically active for 60 minutes a day. And with the Danish primary school reform, it was decided in 2014 that pupils in all grades in primary school should be active for an average of 45 minutes each school day.

School interior design and architecture can have a positive impact on how much children move. That is the conclusion of the Skole+ project, which is supported by the philanthropic foundation Realdania, the Danish Foundation for Culture and Sports Activities and the Sports Confederation of Denmark.

The school can provide a framework for activity

In Skole+, six projects have illustrated how to promote movement by renewing the existing architecture rather than building new constructions – to inspire the nation’s other schools.

“In Skole+, movement is conceived of in completely different ways and in completely new places than what we have been used to. For example, the corridors with fire ladders, mirrors and running tracks. This encourages new forms of movement, and thereby different pupils and more types of pupils use them,” says Gertrud Øllgaard.

She is an anthropologist and head of expertise at NIRAS, which was responsible for evaluating Skole+.

Assessment of the project shows that students are using the new facilities intensively and even more innovatively than was planned. They use them in ways other than anticipated, and the high level of activity requires adaptation to prevent wear and tear and noise.

“Children generate a lot of noise and activity when they’re having fun. And that means materials and interior design must be able to withstand vigorous use. At the same time, the environment often needs to be optimised so that it can accommodate the higher level of activity,” says Gertrud Øllgaard.

A textbook example of an active school

One of the six schools in the project is Søndervangskolen in south Aarhus. In ten years, the school has advanced from a poor rating in both grade averages and well-being to being a textbook example of a multicultural Danish primary school. This is mainly due to a change in pedagogical and didactic practices, but also a major renovation of the school’s physical environment. Among many other elements, the renovation has focused on giving children improved opportunities to be active during the school day.

One of the specific measures at Søndervangskolen is presentation stairs, where all pupils get close to the teacher. At the same time, the stair-like podiums also benefit students who need to move while they work on assignments. In the pre-school section, the stairs are covered with specially designed carpets that illustrate a street so that the stairs inspire children to play and move. In the primary school section, the stairs have grown into a 112-square-metre installation with niches and notches where children can gather for a presentation, crawl around and find space for quiet concentration. Referring to its colour, the furniture installation is known as “the Green Mountain”.

Active from A to B

The corridors are also a textbook example of how exercise and play have become an integral part of the students’ school day. Instead of using the total of 1.2 kilometres of corridors as a circulation area, the architects have created a ‘movement path’. Along the path there are various activity stations that are adapted to children in the age group the activities are intended for. The path makes moving from A to B both fun and challenging for children’s motor skills.

“When we organised the activities on the movement path, we relied on three motivation factors for movement: Competition, curiosity and sociality. Mentioned in reverse order, there are hammocks where you can swing together or lie there and chat with your friends. Curiosity is stimulated by stations where the children themselves have to figure out how the props can be used. The competition element arises naturally when you let children loose on a versatile play and obstacle course,” says Martin Roald Schrøder Poulsen, architect and partner at NERD Architects, who has been in charge of the renovation.

Tranquillity to learn

At a school with a high level of activity and a lot of movement, it has proven necessary to bring attention to creating good sound environments. On the ceiling surface above the movement path, bright Troldtekt acoustic ceilings were installed so that students can laugh, climb and balance without disturbing others. For the same reason, the old doors opening into the classrooms have been replaced by new, soundproofed doors.

“When creating a good sound environment in a school, it’s about looking at each room and the noise that can be transmitted between rooms. We’ve done a lot of work with differentiated acoustics. This means that we looked at how each room was intended to be used and adapted the acoustic solution accordingly. In a room intended for educational purposes, there needs to be high speech perception, while in a room for group work there needs to be low speech perception so that people are not disturbed by what is said by the neighbouring group,” says Martin Roald Schrøder Poulsen.

In addition to Troldtekt ceilings in natural wood, which are also seen in the school’s classrooms, coloured acoustic panels have also been installed in black, green, red and yellow in special boxes for climbing ropes and play gear on the movement path.

>> Read more about the modernisation of Søndervangsskolen

Martin Roald Schrøder Poulsen, architect and partner at NERD Architects.