Entrances matter. They provide the first indications of what a school or setting is like inside – or beyond the gate. They convey not just a physical message but also a hidden message about what the establishment values.
At Highway Farm and Little Explorers Outdoor Pre-School, the entrances fascinated me. Because the place is highly partitioned, there are lots of entrances. Collectively they tell the visitor that creativity and choice are highly valued. They are all bespoke designs. This reinforces the social context of Highway Farm where the individuality of each child is valued. The entrances are fun and interactive! Each one has an element of surprise or challenge. This tells children that figuring out how to solve a problem or to work out what to do is an enjoyable part of the learning process.
So, here… making an entrance are the gates, stiles, doors and much much more at Highway Farm (ripple of applause, please)!
At the entrance to the official building where the children gather in the morning, is a covered area where children can remove or put on their clothing and wellies. The area is carefully labelled using blackboard and chalk paint.
Outdoor pre-school entrances need to be well-organised as usually the children and adults have lots of layers of clothing. You can see this is the case – plenty of room for the wellies. The rubber matting is deliberate. Water can seep into the gaps and quickly drain away, meaning less water is around on the surface to wet the children’s socks! This can be reassuring to first time visitors – this centre knows its stuff.
Below is the entrance to the Little Explorers Pre-School. Look carefully at the attention to detail. If an adult wishes to enter, there is a traditional bell hung up high to the right of the door. For children, look below the green information poster. You should just be able to make out an iron knocker in the design of a spade. Also at child height are the stumps with more blackboard paint – one is a welcome sign, the other says “Outdoor Learning.” If you look beside the stumps, the stock fence enables children to look through beyond the big door to see what is there. In terms of providing a caring, nurturing environment, children often like to see what’s going on before they take the plunge of joining in for themselves.
When you go through the door, you enter a long, winding, willow tunnel. It feels mysterious and exciting. It appeals to the innate human need to follow paths and explore what is around the corner!
At one point it splits in two, and a decision is needed as to which way to turn… do you go up to the construction area or into a path leading to other areas…
Beside the relaxation shelter, a double gate has been created by Martin (featured below). This allows one area to be open or closed as needed and different pathways to be formed. The children quickly learn which gates they may open, and which should stay shut. For example, when the campfire entrance is closed, the notice and signs indicate so.
The main shelter, also has a really interesting entrance. It’s a stable door, with a perspex window which enables children to peek through it. Also look at the clock – it can be useful to have an outdoor clock.
The ramp leading up to one storage room has been modified to match the children’s love of using skateboards and other wheeled toys. Rather than stop the children using the ramp, the posts have had padding added. If a child bumps into one, neither they nor the post will be damaged. The white bar enables children to pull themselves up or gives them something to hold onto when going down the slope. Measure like these support challenging physical activity to happen.
The entrances to the kitchen garden gave a clue as to what may grow here. The peek-a-boo holes have been cut at different heights for different ages of children and roughly in the shape of different vegetables. You may have fun trying to match up veg to the outlines! I can imagine some children would enjoy the opportunity to post different items through these holes…
The other entrance was a very beautiful brick archway. Check out the spade which is a door handle. The children designed the gateways as arches which everyone loved as an idea. The staff thought that using local stone would be in keeping with the rustic and farm theme.
The new pre-school building definitely has an entrance – and it leads straight into the outdoor kitchen. Originally it didn’t have windows but after living with it for several months and coming to terms with the reality of British weather, they were added. It provides a bit more shelter from the south-westerly winds. Over the years, Highway Farm has developed a fantastic partnership with Andy Byles who has been the builder behind this new building and many other structures which will be the focus of another blog post 🙂
The older children’s area has another collection of entrances. When the field was more barren, the children wanted a space where they couldn’t be seen, hence the planting of the conifers. Together with staff they designed and build different entrances to get into this space. So there are plenty of choices when it comes to entering this part of the Farm. In the photo below, you can even choose whether you crawl through the tunnel or bound over the top!
Why not go via the tyre instead? ?
There were three stiles that I saw. One was a standard plank of wood through the fence. However to get into the nature area, look at the physical challenge involved in stepping from post to post…
The other stile is equally unique. The children who come to the after school club from the nearby primary school walk across a field to reach Highway Farm. They climb up steps to get over the wall. Then they have to use the slide to enter the grounds! The photo below doesn’t do this system justice! The gate is not a killjoy – just a safeguarding precaution in case a younger child decides to climb up the slide and out of the centre.
The participation of children in the design and creation of this space is crucial to the social context of Highway Farm. As Wendy Titman points out in the Special Places, Special People report, “From our research, participation was clearly synonymous with the development of a sense of ownership and belonging. Where children had been involved in a meaningful way with the grounds of their school, they believed that the grounds were ‘theirs‘”(p61)
Thus the entrances are more than symbolic. They are a personal and collective welcome from the children – a gateway into a just and equitable approach to managing the outdoor space, where children’s voices are heard and they learn through practical design and construction the value of community consensus and decision-making.