The Garden School in Hackney, London offers education for 2-16 year olds, with highly specialised provisions for learners with autism. The school strives to nurture communication, learning and independence and it needs a building which is designed to help deliver this.

The school challenged Biophilic Designer Oliver Heath and flooring manufacturer Interface to transform an unused room in the school into a safe and recuperative space for pupils with autism, well away from the usual noise and bustle of the adjacent playground.

The Garden School

Oliver described the brief: "The children can experience a lot of stress when they're in the playground. There's lots of noise, confusion and activity - which can be overwhelming for the children. We were asked to create a space that would help them to rest and recuperate, as well as provide an area for them to enjoy looking out on the playground without feeling like they were going to be surrounded and overwhelmed by the noise and activity."

A global expert in biophilic design, Oliver used nature inspired colours, textures and patterns within the design to create a space which reconnected the students to the natural world.

The Garden School

There is a wealth of research which demonstrates that biophilic design has a positive impact on wellbeing and learning. For example, research demonstrates that attentional capacity (which is essential for cognitive functioning) is restored when children/students engage with nature; this means they are less easily distracted and are more able to manage daily tasks[1].

As direct forms of nature, such as plants (a common feature in biophilic design), may not withstand the day-to-day physical interaction with the children, Oliver opted to instead mimic natural elements through the textures, patterns and colours used with the design, as well as through the images of nature used on the wall coverings. Research has demonstrated that using nature inspired design in this way can positively impact perceptual and physiological stress responses[2].

The Garden School

The room features elements to promote both a sense of prospect; to create a sense of safety, interest and excitement, but also retreat to foster feelings of security and recuperation for the children. A window seat offers safe views of the playground, along with an abundance of rejuvenating natural light. Whilst playful hexagonal cubicles also offer a space for children to relax and restore their mental energy. And with their varying pile-heights, the textured carpets from Interface provide tactile references to nature - key to helping de-stress, energise and relax.

In addition, an interactive feature at the far end of the room offers the opportunity to connect with nature through tactile and acoustic stimuli. When hexagonal push plates (textured with natural patterns and forms) are depressed, colour changing lights and sounds of nature are amplified gently though the room; the gentle trickle of water, leaves rustling in tress, morning birdsong or footsteps on a pebble beach.

The Garden School

Haia Ironside, a teacher at The Garden School, described how the pupils have interacted with the space: "The pupils come into the space and identify on a sensory level with all the different features in the room. It is evident that they are enjoying interacting with the space."

Haia reports that the children's enjoyment of their nature-inspired surroundings is evident - but for one child in particular, it provides a truly comforting space: "The first time we came into the space the children went directly into the hexagonal, cocoon-like shapes. One particular child, every time she's come in, she goes into that space. This is a child who actually seeks small, confined dark spaces, so it was fantastic to see her find something that fulfilled her need."

The Garden School

Oliver summarised the result of the project: "It's been fantastic to visit the school and see the children interacting with the space. Although many people associate biophilic design solely with the addition of plants to interiors, the project is proof that there is a much wider range of tools at our disposal to establish a connection with nature. We've created a space rich in sensory stimuli with opportunities for both prospect and retreat by using design which mimics the beauty of nature."

Find out more about the project with our case study video: The Garden School in Hackney

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