The first time Michelle Barnes met with the architects and engineers designing the new Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center, she opened the session with an unusual request.
“I want all of you to sit on the floor, at the same eye level as a child,” Michelle, the Center’s executive director, told the team.
“This is where the design starts,” she said. “This is how we are going to build the building – from the perspective of someone who is 2 to 4 feet tall. This is where the children interact, engage and see the world. And this is where we want to have impact.”
Michelle’s children-first message set the tone for design and construction of the 45,000-square-foot space, which will open to 240 students in Bentonville, Arkansas in May 2019. The Center received funding for its design costs through the Walton Family Foundation’s Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program.
From early concept to final construction, the goal was to elevate the standards of early childhood education by taking a holistic approach to the health and learning needs of children in an environment that connects them to nature.
“There was immediate buy-in from everybody,” Michelle says.
The architects, engineers and builders focused on creating natural environments and a home away from home setting to inspire learning and put young children at ease.
“The intent is to have a space that is very connected to the outdoors, connected to the Northwest Arkansas environment,” says David Lewis, a partner with New York-based LTL Architects, the lead architect on the project. “We wanted to rethink the idea of a typical school, where the focus is usually on interior corridors, and instead really focus on the exterior.”
The new facility meets those objectives in a number of creative ways.
The inside of the building is anchored by a central gathering space for students, with four asymmetrical wings leading to individual classrooms. Signage has been installed at heights accessible to children, with photos identifying a room’s purpose for pre-K kids still learning to read.
Instead of hallways, each arm of the building is a ‘neighborhood.’ Every classroom is built in the shape of a house with doors framed in wood sourced from trees native to Northwest Arkansas.
All of the 21 indoor classrooms connect directly to an outdoor space. The outdoor classrooms open further to ‘playscapes’ that include garden spaces and walking trails for children to explore.
The facility covers 45,000 square feet inside and another 38,000 square feet outside, including 6,000 square feet of exterior classroom space.
“We are blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor learning,” says Michelle.
“If we are reading a book about trees, we are able to go outside and sit under a tree and finish reading the book. We want to find opportunities to connect children with nature.”
The new facility is designed as a healthy campus. The Center sought to use building materials, furnishings and toys free from six classes of toxins that harm the growth and development of children. It also partnered with Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab to source safe construction products.
“Kids don’t always have a choice in the world we create for them,” says David. “We’ve tried with this building to choose the best materials we can from the standpoint of the child’s health.”
The level of commitment to the children’s needs was evident during construction when one of the subcontractors approached Michelle with the idea of making children’s blocks from excess wood used on the exterior of each classroom.
“He thought it was a great way for the children to see all the different kinds of wood in their classes,” Michelle says.
The care and attention put into the new facility reflect the vision Helen Walton had for the Center when it was founded in 1982.
Helen wanted to establish a high-quality pre-school for the region’s families that focused on children’s learning through interaction with teachers and healthy activity. She partnered with the Bentonville school district to build the original facility in close proximity to a local elementary and junior high school, for easy access for families.
Currently, 40% of the enrolled students receive a scholarship to attend the Center, which is committed to supporting working parents as well as children living in shelters or experiencing homelessness.
In designing the Center’s outdoor spaces, planners wanted to mirror the natural features of Northwest Arkansas’ landscape. The site includes woodlands, flatlands and a pond.
“It’s a smaller version of Northwest Arkansas on 8 acres,” Michelle says.
The Center’s trails also connect to the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 37-mile-long multi-use paved path, giving parents and families another transportation option to and from the facility.
To take advantage of natural light and wind, classroom walls are constructed from glass panels that open to allow fresh air to flow into the building. The expected energy costs at the new facility will be about the same as at the existing Center, despite being significantly larger in size.
Other features include a children’s garden and kitchen.
The Center’s children will receive lessons in growing vegetables, composting and caring for nature. They’ll also work with chefs in the kitchen to prepare healthy recipes using food grown in their garden.
Michelle hopes the new Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center can be a model for high-quality early childhood care and education throughout Northwest Arkansas and across the country.
“The whole facility was designed to be a learning tool in and of itself,” says Michelle. “We didn’t just want it to be a building where children attended school.”