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Gothic Garden Outdoor Learning Environment
St. Chrysostom's Day School, Chicago

By ArchitectureIsFun





Part outdoor "interior" room, part "landscape" inhabited by colorful formal elements, the Gothic Garden, tucked within an access fire stair, transforms formerly unused Chicago back-alley space into a rich and imaginative world of discovery and outdoor play area for children. This two to five years old play space is articulated by decorative, soaring arches. Concrete is painted in a "tumbling blocks" pattern. The Big Box (right, painted blue) doubles as planting box and container for all sorts of natural materials, from leaves to river rocks and twigs to soil.
Photography (C)Doug Snower

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St. Chrysostom's Day School's Outdoor Learning Environment is a gothic garden that takes its inspiration from geometry, nature and the architecture of the church. Fun and form transform an underutilized, dreary space into something of value, a whimsical, embracing "cathedral of trees" designed specifically for children at play in the out-of-doors.




An "outdoor-indoor" chain screen, featuring the school logo, encloses the theatre zone.
Photography (C)Doug Snower

Designed by Peter Exley, FAIA and Sharon Exley, MAAE of ArchitectureIsFun of Chicago, this modestly scaled, 500 square foot space becomes a beehive of activity, fostering each child's potential to interact with the out-of-doors and to reconnect with nature. Expressing the family-focused and child-friendly approach of the designers, it is a safe, secure, and accessible place where children are free to make choices, to have physical and cognitive experiences out in the "open air."

Established in 1974 by St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church, the day school offers programs for children ages two to five years old. In the day school's classrooms, rich, tactile, and engaging materials surround children. The design of the outdoor learning environment carries those qualities to the outside. The Big Box, for example, doubles as planting box and container for all sorts of natural materials, from leaves to river rocks and from twigs to soil. Wind chimes, speaker tubes, see-through easels, a crawl-through tunnel, gears, and gizmos encourage scientific interest, physical challenge and artistic stimulation.





Numbered circles allow children to find their own spot to read or to watch performances. Artwork, mobiles, bells, and seasonal decor hang from the vaults, creating canopies of color, shapes and sounds. A throne and chandelier and other unexpected elements set the stage for celebrations and storytelling.
Photography (C)Doug Snower

Back-Alley Space Transformed

Part outdoor "interior" room, part "landscape" inhabited by colorful formal elements, the Gothic Garden transforms formerly unused, back-alley space into a rich and imaginative world of discovery and outdoor play area for children. It is creatively tucked a very tight setting within an access fire stair, maintaining points of egress.





Wind chimes, speaker tubes, see-through easels, a crawl-through tunnel, gears, and gizmos encourage scientific interest, physical challenge and artistic stimulation.
Photography (C)Doug Snower



This petite play space is carefully articulated by its decorative, soaring arches. Evoking the uplifting spirituality of its gothic predecessors, their verticality reinforces an awareness of the expansive outdoors while creating niches of exploration and performance. Artwork, mobiles, bells, and seasonal decor hang from the vaults, creating canopies of color, shapes and sounds. Concrete is painted in a "tumbling blocks" pattern, which invigorates the existing with its graphic convention. An "outdoor-indoor" chain screen, featuring the school logo, encloses the theatre zone. Numbered circles, painted on the stair, allow children to find their own spot to read or to watch performances. A throne and chandelier, unexpected outdoor elements, set the stage for celebrations and storytelling. These glorious and intuitively sophisticated details add scale and delight to a tiny place of comfort and inspiration for children of all ages. The charm of the environment beckons staff outside as well, providing a pleasant zone for lunches.


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February 16, 2019, 2:27 am PST

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