Buckingham County Primary & Elementary Schools
Carter G. Woodson Education Complex, Dillwyn, VA
These are no ordinary schools.
From the grounds up, the primary and elementary schools at the Carter G. Woodson Education Complex are holistically designed to focus on what matters most; young learners and their needs.
"Our goal was to create an environment that promotes the health and mental well-being of our students and results in better engagement and learning outcomes," says Pennie Allen, Principal, Buckingham County Primary School.
The innovative campus takes advantage of every space and surface to create a Whole Child-centric environment that supports teaching and learning both inside and outside the unconventional classrooms.
"The learning environment is enriched by the atmospheric use of color as it reacts to abundant natural daylight, a variety of materials and textures to emphasize the tactile and sensory nature of learning, and the furniture, which brings a completeness to the strategic desire to provide resilient settings that afford educators and students with options to interact with their learning environments," explains Dina Sorensen, Project Designer, VMDO Architects. "In other words, every design decision was made meaningful and rich with pedagogical opportunity."
The centerpiece of the campus is the Dining Commons, a multifaceted learning environment that serves as a shared, connecting space between the primary and elementary schools, and with the community as a whole.
The Dining Commons include a teaching kitchen, food and nutritional displays, open serveries for cooking demonstrations, a food lab and small group learning lounge, a scratch bakery, a dehydrating food composter, lots of natural daylight, an outdoor dining terrace, and edible and academic gardens.
“The amazing observation I have had,” she says, “is that because the high degree of open space is balanced by smaller zones for small- and medium-sized groups, as well as a layering of inside and outside connections, the social interactions and peer-to-peer exchange is a positive, inspirational and joyful unfolding of daily events. And because the students are surrounded by nature and the constantly changing seasons, weather patterns and nature’s life cycles, the experience of dining is never routine or boring.”
“In essence, when a dining experience is created to be joyful by design and deeply considered for the educational programming inherent to the space type, it reinforces the power of individual and group behavioral health connections between food/nutrition, physical activity and healthy choices,” explains Ms. Sorensen. “The inspirational quality afforded by these experiences are designed to enhance creative exploration, pique on-going curiosity and speak to the joy of learning for all ages with a real ‘edible’ celebration of healthy food, biodiversity and sustainable practices.”
Flexible furniture arrangements are pivotal design elements integral to the function of the Dining Commons as an enriched learning environment.
“The VS LiteTables, Compass-VF chairs, and Series 2000 screens make it easy for educators, parents and community groups to transition from restaurant-style dining to project learning, presentation and performance sharing or special event settings. Providing lightweight, durable and flexible tables and chairs empowers kids. They love being able to sit in a variety of places with furniture that is sized appropriately and very comfortable. The teachers love how easy the furniture is to rearrange for different learning activities,” says Ms. Sorensen.
“The classrooms, small group learning labs, media lab, intimate nooks and open spaces are all designed to facilitate individual, group and collaborative learning. The design anticipates the evolution of educational delivery methods and combines both home classrooms as collaborative centers, including a variety of spaces and places outside the classroom. As practices expand to include the customization of programs for personalized, individualized learning, as well as peer-to-peer and blended learning environments, the campus is poised to adapt and provide,” explains Ms. Sorensen.
VS furniture is used extensively throughout the learning environments to give teachers and students a versatile and practical toolkit for hands-on and digital learning.
“The three key traits that make a flexible environment possible are mobility, agility and adaptability. Responsive settings are easy to alter as emergent learning opportunities arise,” says Ms. Sorensen. “The VS furniture fulfills all those basic needs while also providing critically important health co-benefits, and therefore better learning outcomes, by promoting less sedentary behavior through more active, movement-rich environments.
“It’s important,” she adds, “for teachers and students to have postural choice throughout the day and to have flexible furniture options to support unique, personalized learning styles and teaching platforms.”
Every grade level has PantoSwing-LuPo and PantoMove-LuPo chairs. They adjust up and down, swivel and rock, letting students change their sitting position thoughout the day, which research shows is critical to academic success.
“Growing bodies have a natural need to move,” explains Dr. Dieter Breithecker, Europe’s foremost expert on the relationship between ergonomic design in educational furniture and the physical development of school children. “Increased opportunities to move while seated improve blood flow and oxygen to the brain, thereby increasing attention and concentration levels.”
“We chose VS furniture because it came with research that went with what we believed as educators,” says Principal Allen. “Dr. Breithecker visited with our staff and did an amazing demonstration standing on one foot on a stool to help our teachers understand the value in movement and how it balances mind, body and soul. He even got a brave teacher to try it for herself.”
The design and research team behind the innovative campus is gathering data to quantify the influence and impact of the design on learning outcomes, physical activity levels and healthy eating behaviors. There are no formal results yet, but Principal Allen believes they’ve already succeeded on many levels.
“I am very pleased with the progress our students are making,” says Principal Allen. “The activity and healthy choices really go to supporting our academic goals and it’s exciting.”
Students are just as thrilled with the new school and the “cool furniture,” saying things like:
“They finally got the furniture right for kids.” And “I wish I could sleep here.”
“The fact that the kids don’t want to go home at the end of the school day is really rewarding,” says Ms. Sorensen.
Adds Principal Allen, “Our community loves the campus. But I think more than anything else they love it because the kids are going home saying that they love school. Other schools around the country should come look and replicate what we’re doing here.”