From the moment you approach the Thompson Elementary School in Arlington, Mass., you can tell that it’s different, with its yellow and orange exterior detailing giving it a sense of whimsy. Each element is carefully tailored to its young K-5th grade student and community member audience both inside and out.
Set at an angle on the school grounds, students and visitors won’t approach the “back” of the building no matter which direction they’re coming from, thanks in part to a unique masonry pattern and thoughtful placement of windows. Multiple sidewalks lead to the building from all angles and then converge at one of two main entrances—one of which has a giant steel, yellow pineapple above it—and into the school’s main lobby.
As a design element, the pineapple (a universal symbol of welcome and hospitality) is carried throughout the space, just as the bright colors and whimsical nature of the building’s exterior design are carried in from the exterior and are applied throughout the interior.
The commitment to being a welcoming and hospitable space is evident as soon as you step inside the main entrances and into the lobby, where the office and reception areas are open instead of being closed off by walls.
“At Thompson, it was very clear that they wanted to have this open to everyone, not have all of the back of the house stuff closed off, because they wanted people to feel very welcome,” explained Susan Elmore, marketing manager for HMFH.
The central lobby area also serves as a security feature, allowing visitors to check in, and staff to monitor who is coming and going. The lobby area has clear sightlines to many of the common areas in the school, including the gathering space outside the library on the second floor where students congregate, the cafeteria, and classrooms on the ground floor. This openness and scale is more comfortable for both students and visitors alike, as wayfinding is made easy without signage because key shared-use spaces can be oriented from one central location.
Wayfinding and self-orientation is further aided through the bold color palette used throughout the school. Each floor has a designated color integrated into the tile pattern on the wall, and as students walk up the stairs the color tone on the walls starts to change. If a third grader needs to be on the second floor but keeps walking up the stairs to the third floor, for example, the colored tiles serve as a visual cue to the student who should quickly realize, ‘Oh no, I’m supposed to be on the blue floor,’ and turn around.
“That kind of thing helps to indicate and remind them that they’re in the right place, or ‘I need to go to the art classroom, and I know that’s on the third floor, and that’s the floor that’s mostly green in it’—whatever tools and tricks that they use to remind themselves of where they’ve been,” explained Lori Cowles, principal at HMFH and project manager for the Thompson Elementary project.
Colors also carry from the common spaces into the classrooms. Each classroom features an accent wall, and the paint, floor, and tile colors belong to related color families. The angled orientation of the building on the ground lets plenty of natural light into the large windows in each classroom, combining with the bright color palette to create a stimulating and engaging environment.
Each classroom was also extended to include an area for students to keep their backpacks and other items, instead of storing those items in lockers or cubbies in the hallways. This eliminates the temptation for children to go to the bathroom and then linger in the hallway, according to Sheri Donovan, principal of Thompson Elementary.
“Our corridors are perfectly wide now—they just extended the size of the classrooms, pushed them out a little bit so all the cubbies are inside the classroom. It’s just really made such a difference. There’s no one in the hallways anymore.”
Breakout spaces, nooks, or multipurpose areas are common throughout the building. As children learn at different rates, and teachers move educational opportunities outside of the traditional classroom setting, these spaces outside of the classroom are valuable and heavily used.
For example, kindergarten and first grade students can easily access the large bench area that is centrally located between the groups of classrooms on the ground floor.
“The most unique thing about the school is all of the spaces outside of the classroom for students, teachers, and parents to go to—the benches outside the library, the steps covered in carpet in the center at the end of the hallway,” said Liza Halley, librarian, teaching assistant, and parent at the school.
In addition, the school’s gymnasium is nontraditional, and is used as a multipurpose space. The floor is made out of recycled rubber, which minimizes the impact on students’ feet and joints as they participate in athletics and other activities. The uniqueness of the floor extends to its design details, which contains the alphabet, a range of numbers, and a variety of shapes—including another pineapple.
The kindergarten and first grade classrooms on the ground floor include another unique and multipurpose space. Each room opens out to a patio, allowing the classrooms to extend their space to the outdoors on beautiful, New England days.
“We created outdoor space for them with some plantings and a very distinct kind of wood bench,” Cowles explained. “The bench acts as a place to sit, but also as a screen or framework for that outdoor space.”
Whether in the classroom, a common space, or walking from one room to another, the careful use of bright colors, ample windows, and lighting—both natural and artificial—creates a whimsical and stimulating, yet comfortable environment that engages students and nurtures their creativity.
“The school is bright and happy, and I do think it contributes to the overall mood in the building,” said Halley. “It is a very happy place; I believe the colors and the flexible design features really help make it a school students are eager to come to and are proud of.”