Blog: Give learners the gift of movement – Calum Duncan, Calum Duncan Architects

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The Education Buildings Scotland Conference seeks to bring together different sectors across the learning estate to celebrate what works in re-thinking spaces for learning. It allows them to share insights on what’s possible to support improvement. A&DS has invited a number of design professionals to share their ideas. The focus of the blogs is on the voice of young people. In this blog Calum Duncan, Director, Calum Duncan Architects, blogs about the importance of giving learners the gift of movement. 

From my earliest pre-school memories through to High School, educational spaces have been a fascination. From the light, dust, intimidating classrooms and corridors, to the the static insular nature of the rigid classrooms with windows placed high enough to minimise distraction.

I have engaged with the design of educational spaces, including dance schools, early years and University projects with a range of fluid and flexible learning environments. @Archischools, a project for which I am a co-ordinator, reflects on how we engage and empower our young citizens in relation to the built environment in schools. I also sit on the board of directors at Play Scotland, promoting the benefits of play, and it stands up for children’s ‘right to play’. I am influenced by my children’s experience of early years and primary education: challenged, by the fabulous Cowgate Under 5s Centre in Edinburgh, where Dr Lynn McNair introduces the principals of child led learning, risky play and the importance of outdoor play.

What about the design of educational spaces?

While there are fundamentals for well-designed learning spaces: daylight, temperature, calmness, ventilation etc., I wish to see a more adaptive design of schools being adopted as a progressive, long-term activity. So, schools and pupils themselves should evaluate their spatial needs. Not a consultation exercise involving a lucky handful of pupils during the short design stage of a new building. Rather, an ongoing engagement and investment, thinking about how our immediate environment affects how successfully we learn and how ambitious, innovative or comfortable it is.

Designers and clients are reticent to consult with any building users. We are not being sophisticated about how we use existing schools as test beds for how patterns of learning can improve and change, by investigating how spaces could be more effective. Learners are more inclined to engage when they are consumed. When an exercise is less paper and more emphatically absorbing, away from the school desk, maybe outdoors, or just grabbing a spot with a distant view connecting to nature or cityscape. Let’s allow children to be creative and impassioned, rather than constrained by preconceptions of what a teaching environment should be.

Learning and Movement

We learn through investigation and play outdoors. Image (detail) by Lucy Sacker

Movement as a gift

One common thread I can see is that of movement. What a wonderful gift that would be to children we expect to ‘sit still’. In a recent DETAIL magazine (9.2018), two examples were interesting to consider. Frederiksberg School, Aarhus includes classrooms without desks and chairs.

‘Movement permeates the Danish school system. Classical classrooms with blackboards where teachers instruct their pupils and the latter listen in silence from their desks are not to be found here’.

Simple devices to change the learning mindset.

In Finland, a project called SaaS (School as a Services) has removed the High School, with the exception of a Hub, where the pupils meet for registration before heading out to classes which take place in universities and community buildings. Wonderful! It shifts from being ‘teaching driven’, to ‘learning orientated’. Shared resources, treating children as responsible citizens and the opportunity of interdisciplinary and interorganisational learning.

In early years, Forest Schools are successfully showing that outdoor play is more engaging then indoor learning. Play is learning, it encourages a more compulsive or intuitive research method and should be part of all levels of our education. When our lives are dominated by screen time, we should seek to protect and improve health and wellbeing by better connection to greenspace. If our nurseries can successfully function outside, our secondary schools must learn the benefits.

Image: Frederiksbjerg, Henning Larsen Architects (C) Hufton+Crow

Mindful of practicalities and sustainability

We need to be mindful of both practicalities and sustainability. We shouldn’t prioritise new build schools but conduct assessment of the teaching environment in every ‘existing’ school building, as professionals and users. Councils are currently assessing their existing building stock in terms of future carbon reductions targets, but we should look at our building stock holistically, improving the functional teaching environments, and understand where alterations will save and improve an existing school’s future life while meeting energy targets and fire safety concerns. And let’s not stop when such an alteration is complete, but engage the school and most importantly pupils, to continue thinking about their environment as learning resource. It is their learning journey and we should be listening too – seriously.


Calum Duncan, Director, Calum Duncan Architects

Main Image: Calum Duncan Architects investigation for improving dining experience in a primary school making connections to green space and outdoor dining.

Find out more about the Education Building Scotland conference here. 

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