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The Breakthrough and Montessori Magnet Schools, Hartford, CT

Stimulating Education by Design

By Kevin Burrows, LASN Regional Editor




At Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, CT, traditional play structures provide a variety of physical activities for their students as young as pre-kindergarten. Increasingly educators are recognizing that children do not receive adequate upper body stimulus, so therefore components that focus on the development of these areas were emphasized. The steel platforms and structures pictured were provided by Miracle Steel Structure, Inc.
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The question of what type of play environment is most effective in improving the imagination and social interaction of children is asked often. There is much debate whether traditional playgrounds or simple, more self-directed environments will have any effect on the learning and problem solving ability of the children that use them. Which school of thought will have the most positive impact? Only time will tell, but the fact that question is being asked will only benefit children, not only at recess but more importantly in the classroom and beyond. To that end, the firm TO Design LLC recently completed two play areas in Hartford, CT, each providing a complex set of obstacles in their planning, design, and construction.

Both the Montessori Magnet School and Breakthrough Magnet School view the playground question from distinctively different perspectives. Defining either of them as traditional would be a mistake, but at the same time, one is decidedly more unique in the way it went about designing its park. From initial design to construction, each had its own inspiration and challenges for the firm to tackle. Collaboration with school and community leaders was needed to make sure everyone's visions were taken into account. While the two parks styles are contrasting, each supports their school's overall mission of creating unique play environments in the hopes of promoting educational opportunities.






The Learning Courtyard at Montessori Magnet School in Hartford, CT was designed to be an educational resource, which reflects the tenants of the school's program. This unique landscape, flexible in function and character provides learning opportunities through contact with the elements of the natural world: earth, plants, stone, sun and water.


The Learning Corridor

At Montessori Magnet School's "Learning Corridor," To Design LLC was faced with the challenge of designing a play area without play equipment, while at the same time working with a committee of teachers and parents to generate the overall concept. Their goal was to find "something innovative and stimulating for the kids, both physically and intellectually," said Landscape Architect W. Phillips Barlow, A.S.L.A. Their aim was to create a space for "self directed play." The design utilized natural elements from nature, such as dirt, earth, and sand, and the hardscape was created with colored concrete, gravel, and stonedus, a granite mix. They did not want to create a standard, by-the-book playground. Instead, they wanted to create something that would add richness to the playground experience, an extension of the educational experience beyond the classroom.






This early sketch of terraces outside of the classrooms built upon the Breakthrough Magnets School's mission of developing a child's character through innovative programs.


The Montessori Magnet School (Pre K - 6) is a part of "The Learning Corridor," a 111 million dollar urban rehabilitation project that also includes a middle school, high school and commons building. "The Montessori School stresses the integration of physical and mental growth with the acquisition of knowledge," said Barlow. "This is done in a highly structured and supervised environment, while allowing for spontaneity of expression and movement."

In working with a group of teachers and parents to design the courtyard, Barlow and his team were given the direction that all elements of the landscape should carry an educational opportunity. In close collaboration with the building architect, concepts were developed and refined until a solution was arrived that satisfied all stakeholders. The final design is unconventional, but so are the learning and teaching principles that the courtyard supports.






This early concept sketch delineates the functional areas of the play environment at Breakthrough Magnet School. The labyrinth was not included in the final plans, however.


Educational Resource

The Learning Courtyard was designed to be an educational resource, which reflects the tenants of the Montessori Program. This unique landscape, flexible in function and character provides learning opportunities through contact with the elements of the natural world: earth, plants, stone, sun, and water. Colors of the courtyard are reflective of those in the building facade. A dry streambed serves to stimulate a child's imagination, without safety being a concern.

An accessible bridge made of white cedar decking crosses the stream, furthering the illusion. The Large granite boulders were collected by a contractor in New York State, and the hand pump can be activated to bring water into the "stream."






Granite risers provide an amphitheatre area adjacent to an outdoor performance area at Montessori. Colored concrete provides a playful element to the paving, while columnar red maple, Ironwood and Birch tree embellish the space.


The design incorporates the following parameters:

  • Active and passive spaces
  • Risk taking and security
  • Hard and soft surfaces
  • Simple and complex spaces
  • Natural and constructed features

By planning for a variety of experiences, teachers are able to adapt these spaces to specific learning exercises.






This preliminary bubble diagram outlines the various program elements of the Montessori courtyard from active and passive play areas, to an outdoor teaching corridor.


Nurturing Plants

Furthermore, space for the growing and nurturing of plants is an important aspect of the courtyard. Raised, accessible planters are provided for each classroom, with ample area also provided for communal gardening. Woody plant groups reflect the various ecosystems of Connecticut while announcing the changing of seasons, and ornamental trees and shrubs reflect the diversity of nature.

"Our goal was to find something innovative and stimulating for the kids, both physically and intellectually."

In addition, ample variety in topography has been created across the courtyard. Landforms are constructed that provide opportunities for climbing, jumping and risk taking.






Provided by Landscape Structures Inc., a train--the iconic symbol of Breakthrough--was included as a play element. The playhouse at the rear was made by Kompan Unique Playgrounds.


Additional Elements

Other components of the plan include sand areas, a variety of stone types, a stage area, a dry "stream-bed", tables for work and study, benches for reading/contemplation and a terrace adjacent to each classroom. A hand pump provides running water so that students can maintain their plantings, and a barrel collects rainwater.






A symbolic wood fiber stream separates the play areas between younger and older children at Breakthrough.


The judicious use of stone in many different forms was determined to be a powerful tool in teaching students about the natural world. The initial concept was to incorporate stone in all of its different incarnations, from raw boulders collected in the field to polished granite. Barlow felt that by using stone in many forms, children would learn how stone is fabricated into useful items, and that the finished refined pieces that they may take for granted have been worked and crafted by people.

Stone elements of the courtyard include:

  • Granite bleachers (thermal finish)
  • Igneous Boulders
  • Polished granite fountain
  • River Rock Cobbles to form a dry stream bed
  • Granite sets for edging materials
  • Salvaged granite curbing from the site formed to make a wall
  • Stone bird bath and sundial






Large diameter concrete pipes, like the one shown here, are some of the shared elements between the play areas at the Montessori and Breakthrough schools. They provide a stimulating tunnel exploration experience while being a remarkably simple concept.


It goes without saying that a courtyard of this type will require more maintenance resources than is normally provided for a public school. This type of opportunity is possible only because the Learning Corridor, through public and private partnerships, will have a higher level of maintenance and security that is typical at most public educational facilities.






Asphalt pavers and simple metal bollards embellish an entry plaza at Breakthrough Magnet School. Designed by the landscape architect, W. Phillips Barlow, they lead to the main entrance of the school.


The learning courtyard is intended to be an educational tool for teachers at the Montessori School. By providing a variety of choices, the school ideals can be reinforced in an outdoor environment.

The granite risers provide an amphitheatre area adjacent to an outdoor performance area. Colored concrete provides a playful element to the paving, while columnar red maple, Ironwood and Birch tree embellish the space.






Throughout the play environment at Breakthrough, child safe trees, shrubs and perennials with a variety of textures, smells shapes and colors enliven the play experience. A seating area built into the hillside is a resource for outdoor classroom instruction and impromptu performances.


Breakthrough Magnet School

In contrast to the Learning Corridor at Montessori, the play area at the Breakthrough Magnet School, located about three miles away, is much more traditional in terms of design and construction. While it does have a number of shared elements, it is aimed at a more diverse population of students both in age and demographics, and needs to be able to keep their attention while also posing its own set of unique challenges. An inter-district magnet school, Breakthrough serves 330 Pre-K through 8th graders, has students from 18 countries making up its population and has a curriculum that emphasizes international diversity.






This schematic plan for the Breakthrough site, including parking, bus and passenger car circulation, fields and play areas was completed by the landscape architects at TO Design LLC for the design build team.


Design

Completed in 2006, the park was created in accordance with Breakthrough's mission to support the development of a student's character through innovative programs. These ideals factored largely into the design-build team's plan for the 60,000 square foot facility.

With an overall concept to provide a variety of different spaces for self directed and flexible use in addition to more traditional play structures, school leaders stipulated that the play areas be in close proximity to the building. For obvious safety reasons, they also required the site have separation from parking and vehicular traffic. Additionally, to give their students a blank canvas if you will, they asked for paved areas that would allow for ball play. Separate play areas were then required for Pre-K through 2nd grade students, as well as 3rd through 6th graders.

Location Challenges

TO Design, LLC provided site planning and landscape architecture services for the play areas. Unlike the Montessori School, the site constraints were numerous and challenging. In addition to being sandwiched between a steep hillside and a floodplain the location contained approximately 30,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. In order to avoid the high cost of hauling the soil offsite, the property was graded so that the soils could be used as fill under the parking lots and capped with pavement. Through this work, the cut/fill was balanced and the property was brought back to residential standards, posing no threat to students or staff.






Colors of the courtyard at Montessori are reflective of those in the building facade. A dry streambed serves to stimulate a child's imagination, without causing water safety concerns. An accessible bridge made of white cedar decking crosses the stream, furthering the illusion. The large granite boulders were collected by a contractor in New York State, and the hand pump can be activated to bring water into the "stream."


Play Elements

The larger 3rd through 6th grade play area was set within a large circular form that slopes from north to south allowing the top of the radius to function as a stepped sitting area. A small amphitheater, outdoor classroom and simulated streambed, complete with a bridge crossing, separate the two play areas. Adjacent to the pre-k through 2nd grade play area is a micro nature trail with100 feet of meandering path. This area "allows children to perhaps get a glimpse of the natural environment," said Barlow.

A major difference between Breakthrough and Montessori is the inclusion of the traditional play structures. "They provide a variety of physical activities," said Barlow. "Increasingly educators are recognizing that children do not receive adequate upper body stimulus, so therefore components that focus on the development of these areas were emphasized."

Moreover, throughout the play environment, child safe trees, shrubs and perennials with a variety of textures, smells shapes and colors were added to enliven the play experience. A seating area built into the hillside was also created to be a resource for outdoor classroom instruction and impromptu performances.






The judicious use of stone in many different forms was thought to be a powerful tool in teaching students at Montessori about the natural world. The initial concept was to incorporate stone in all of its different incarnations, from raw boulders collected in the field to polished granite.


Contrasting Environments

The Learning Corridor at Montessori Magnet School and the play area at Breakthrough Magnet School have contrasting styles yet share some core similarities. In sharing design elements such as sand play areas, an amphitheatre, plant material and gardening areas, as well as concrete pipe play tunnels, the two sites are forward thinking in how children can actively play and learn. While both schools approached the question differently to what type of play area is most effective to the development of the students, they both achieved their unique goals and in the end created some outstanding play environments.

Both were built with the overall theme of creating play areas that promote education and independence. They show how combining traditional play structures, unique flexible play environments, and "out of the box" thinking can come together to create truly unique atmosphere. In doing so they were able to surpass the expectations of the parents and administrators while adding to the overall learning and playing experience of their children.






FIRM PROFILE
Play and Learning Environments:

TO Design LLC's Landscape Architects believe that play is an important part of a child's creative and developmental life. Beginning with the award winning Montessori Magnet School at the Learning Corridor in Hartford, we have built a reputation for delivering inspired play environments. We incorporate natural elements, as well as multifaceted spaces, so that these spaces are integrated seamlessly into the site. The cognitive, behavioral and social needs of the child are addressed.

Founded in 1987, TO Design LLC is a collaborative partnership led by W. Phillips Barlow, ASLA and Mark G. Smith, P.E. that offers Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering Services.

Our firm has a staff of ten, including four Landscape Architects & four Engineers.

We utilize the advantages of a multi-disciplined firm by providing our clients with a high quality, well-coordinated package. Our clients enjoy the benefit of a reduced number of consultants, avoiding the usual delays and coordination difficulties associated with multiple firms. Our wide range of experience allows us to work together to complete many different types of projects and to meet the needs of a diverse client base.











W. Phillips Barlow, A.S.L.A.

Interested in architecture as a child, W. Phillips Barlow grew up in West Virginia unaware the profession of Landscape Architect existed. He started in the engineering program at West Virginia University but after finding himself unhappy with the courses he was taking, he read the description of a class on landscape and urban planning and eventually fell in love with it. In 1981 he graduated WVU with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture. He spent some time working for firms in Texas before heading to Connecticut over 20 years ago. Then in 1987 he became a Founding partner for TO Design LLC, a multi-disciplined office specializing in site and urban design. Today, with over 25 years experience he has won numerous awards in Connecticut, and often can be found giving lectures.


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October 20, 2019, 8:18 pm PDT

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