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UChicago Child Development Center – Stony Island

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A natural place to begin lifelong learning.

Inspired by an adjacent historic landscape, the University of Chicago Childcare Development Center – Stony Island integrates the natural environment with its architecture and child-centered curriculum. The building, with a z-shaped footprint, responds to the narrow infill site, optimizing limited sun exposure and leveraging visual connections between the interior and exterior.

A gently folded roof, vegetated over its eastern half, directs light to the interior and rain water towards two outdoor playcourts. The wings overlap at the midpoint, where a glassy lobby serves as the building’s emotional center. It is a space for guests to enter, parents to converse, and families to drop off their children. Here, the university community bonds around the mission of having children learn nature’s first principles first hand.

Instead of creating a place dominated by synthetic play equipment and primary colors, a rich ensemble of minimally processed natural materials engages the public along the sidewalk. Vines climb a gabion fence, filled with three different Midwestern stones in waving layers. Huge boulders, extracted from glacial till, march toward the central entry. Tree bark siding slides below the visible green roof and into the lobby.

The outdoor play courts, which parallel the two classroom wings, provide for age-appropriate physical challenges and exploration in a natural environment. The eastern wing, clad in tree bark siding, provides spaces for infants and toddlers. The western wing, clad in an unpainted cement board siding, serves older children up to age five.

The design places the emphasis on the ground plane, as experienced from a child’s perspective. While the building protects the security and privacy of its students, it subverts the idea of a fortress. It blurs distinction between nature, play, and wonder, inviting the public to consider that nature, not just tall buildings, can be exuberant, too, in an urban setting.

If children learn what they live, they will not only learn from nature here, but they will learn to value it. This project insists that nature, play, and learning should be seamless during all four seasons.

Interiors: Wheeler Kearns Architects (Sharlene Young, founder of Symbiotic Living)
eneral Contractor: Leopardo Construction
Landscape Architecture: MIG Berkeley
Photography: Steve Hall / Hedrich Blessing