When the Walls Do Talk: How spaces can tell stories that comfort and inspire

John Noble

Sometimes, the best story is the most familiar one. Fairy tales, and other frequently read stories, become welcomed destinations and recognizable models of the world for people of all ages. But they’re particularly meaningful and helpful to little ones who are just beginning to make sense of the incredible diversity of experiences that surround them.

These stories often feature iconic characters, of course, each with recognizable – and beloved – features and personalities. The curious mind of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, or the kind heart of Cinderella. In addition to character traits, these stories have iconic settings, too, such as haunted forests or, say, the three homes in the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” (More on those in a moment.)

These stories don’t have to stay squarely in the realm of make-believe, and can, in fact, be transposed onto real-life constructed spaces with immediate and valuable results. This is particularly relevant to early childhood schools since they are often the first places that children go where they are not constantly accompanied by their parents. Familiar story traits can instill feelings of comfort and confidence.

In fact, the story characters and places reflected in a space’s design can be shared in advance of a child’s first day so that they can become acquainted, or reacquainted, with it and be on the lookout for them. A familiar sense of place can make it easier to say goodbye to parents at drop-off – and to make new friends throughout the day.

Usually the story-inspired spaces are not so much direct lifts of characters and settings as they are broad archetypes, those foundational elements of our communal human experience: such as the campfire circle or the treehouse.

They can be inside or outside spaces or even in-between spaces that straddle the line and provide the child that delightfully sneaky feeling of getting away with something slightly nervy and maybe not quite allowed (“I am outside/on top of/behind/underneath everyone!” How cool!). Or sometimes these spaces are more passive, for instance, a comfortable place to sit with nice light while, say, coloring or building with LEGOs.

This is an old design trick, and it takes many forms from the almost literal, such as the famed Cat Kindergarten in Germany (pictured), to the subtle, such as the nod to the Cheshire Cat on the facade of the Beavercreek Early Childhood Center (also pictured here). We have also designed an early childhood center that has a space inspired by the “The Three Little Pigs” with three “houses”: a glass one that’s bright and lively for active inquiry, a brick one for more structured learning and a wood one for small group activities. It’s as if the children are learning and playing within a storybook.

But regardless of the overtness of the gesture, the motivation is the same: to create forms and spaces that resonate at a deep and primal level in the children, offering them comfort and a sense of security so that they can direct their attention to all of the exciting adventures that they will experience rather than fearing the unknown.

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