Purpose-designed ECD Centre at AT ST John’s Preparatory School

ZIMBABWE has recently passed legislation which requires all junior schools to offer (at least) two years of Early Childhood Development (ECD) classes for children from 3 to 5 years of age before they first attend primary school. Ostensibly this is to prepare children culturally, emotionally, intellectually and physically for their onward educational journey through Grade 1 to Grade 7 and then on to senior school. The policy is also intended to help teachers and caregivers identify early on any problems which children may encounter – dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, anti-social tendencies and so forth. In line with the official government policy ECD schools have been springing up across most of the suburbs of Harare and other city centres.

Often these ECDs are simply set up in partially converted residential properties which were not originally designed to accommodate a large number of small children. They are also frequently more like crèches where working parents can drop off their children during the day – day care centres that focus only on the children’s physical needs and neglect their educational skills or their social or emotional development. St John’s ECD Centre has a specifically designed building as well as a tailor-made curriculum to prepare the boys for the St John’s Prep School and later for the St John’s College which are leading educational facilities in the country.

There are currently 3 – soon to be 4 – classes for children from ages of around three and a half years old up to around five and a half years old. While the emphasis is on having fun and nurturing creativity and independence in the boys, there’s also some more serious learning taking place at the same time. Each week’s programme is carefully based around a specific theme – for example one week was dedicated to ‘mini beasts’ and in particular to bees. Children learn the features of bees; that they are flying insects that live in hives and help to pollinate our food crops. They learn counting skills by counting the bees’ six legs; they learn about patterns and colours by looking at the black and yellow stripes on the insects; they learn new vocabulary – the bees’ wings are ‘transparent’; they learn what is referred to ‘knowledge and understanding of the world’, or in other words ‘science’, when they examine the bees’ honeycombs, and the theme can be endlessly developed into interactive games and other imaginative activities. Painting is encouraged to nurture creativity as well as spatial and colour awareness and to help develop fine motor skills.

But even the fun painting process is educational – the boys learn to clean up their paints and paper and put their brushes and paints away when they’ve finished, fostering their independence as well as a sense of responsibility. The ECD building is carefully designed to enhance and accommodate this kind of teaching and learning. Each classroom has a dedicated painting area with large worktops at a convenient height for the little ones to use. There’s also a sink and a tap for washing up both themselves and their brushes and tools and there’s built in shelving underneath for storing the related paraphernalia. Each classroom also has a wall of desk/work space with separate sections relating to things like literacy or numeracy and storage above.

There are two rows of windows across this wall – one at an unusual low height so that the children can see outside when they’re working, and another row of higher windows above the shelving for air circulation. Tables and chairs are set up in the central part of the room so children can work in small shared groups. They also have a wall of aluminium sliding doors opening up to the ex – terior of the building as well as sliding doors opening onto the central courtyard, so there’s a good indoor/outdoor flow. They also each have whiteboards for drawing and writing, projectors for multimedia presentations and shelving for storing books and comics and related materials. Every classroom has an attached bathroom for the boys with the tiniest toilets, urinals and wash hand basins on a Lilliputian scale. (Boys are encouraged to use the bathrooms unaided – although supervised – to promote their sense of independence.) And each classroom has locker space for the children’s backpacks and personal items

The central courtyard is decked out in astro-turf so it’s low maintenance (and less dirt) and can be used all year round. It’s surrounded by extra wide verandahs so the children can use the outdoor space whether it’s too sunny or too wet for comfort. And in addition each classroom has its own small outdoor terrace facing away from the central courtyard.Outside there are scented plants like lavender and pelargonium to inspire the children’s interest in plants, a small vege garden where children can learn about growing food and where our food comes from, by planting and nurturing and harvesting. There’s even a small enclosure for rabbits and tortoises so the children can learn about caring for animals. The classrooms also have small ongoing learning projects that include growing silkworms, keeping fish and caring for hamsters. And in addition there’s an outside sandpit for the children to play in and jungle gyms or playground equipment purposely designed to promote the children’s physical strength and develop their gross motor skills.

The ECD Centre was originally an older house which was a component of staff housing for the group of schools but seemed ideally situated to be re-configured and repurposed. It was a solidly built three bedroomed house of brick under tiles but set within a rather overgrown garden with a swimming pool. The pool was filled in, mostly for the safety of the children, and the garden needed to be cleared and cleaned up. Just clearing the garden and preparing the site took around six weeks. The project was designed by Stone Beattie Studio – a well renowned local listed architectural studio run and managed by husband and wife team Penny Stone and Richard Beattie.

Together with Mike Mackenzie, Headmaster of the Preparatory School and Janine Davies, the Head of the ECD Centre they conducted extensive research before the design process began. They visited a number of other established ECD Centres to garner inspiration as well as to see what would work for the new project, and what pitfalls to avoid. Basically the existing structure became the reception area, the kitchen, a clinic/medical aid room, offices and staff rooms. (One section of the old house will become the fourth classroom in the near future.) The three classrooms forming the internal courtyard were constructed as new builds.

Clearing the site began in April 2016 and the entire build took from June to December of the same year, with the new ECD Centre open to pupils in January this year. The fourth classroom will open at the beginning of 2018 to accommodate the increased demand for places within the ECD Centre. The school will then have two Grade 00 classes and two Grade 0 classes. Each class has a dedicated teacher as well as a teaching assistant and a nurse is available from the junior school for all the children at any time to deal with those minor day to day bumps and scrapes. In addition the ECD Centre has a teacher with paediatric first aid certification and a room that is a dedicated sick bay with all the necessary amenities. The classes are made up of 15 to 18 children in each Grade 00 class and 21 in each Grade 0 class so the children are assured of individual attention.

The new ECD Centre is an excellent example of a school designed to enhance and encourage learning – a building that functions well for the particular purpose it was intended to fulfil, and that’s aesthetically pleasing at the same time.

Text by Michael Nott

Drawings and plans and some photos by Stone Beattie Studio

Additional photos by Kate Cameron Photography

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