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image Project: Henson Valley Montessori School

Henson Valley Montessori School


Educator Narrative

As a Montessori school, our mission is to nurture the child’s innate creativity, curiosity, and imagination, and to awaken the human spirit through the educational method developed by Dr. Maria Montessori. The foundation of this method is an educational process that seeks the development of independence, order, concentration, and coordination, with a view toward self-actualization.

We believe that for education to be truly effective, however, it must not only include a supportive community of parents, faculty, and students, but must also include a prepared environment that speaks to the unique developmental needs of each child.

In December of 2006, we, with the help of our architect, embarked on a remarkable journey to create a unique educational institution. Our aim was to build a learning environment that would not only reflect the school’s commitment to global citizenship and environmental stewardship, but embrace the school’s mission to nurture each child’s innate creativity, curiosity, and imagination.

We acquired property that had originally been designed to be a residential facility for boys in the juvenile justice system. The aged buildings reflected this primary use with small offices and long, dark hallways. The challenge was to renovate this facility to become an oasis for student learning.

Light, openness, and a connection with the outside pastoral setting has been a running theme with the design. The flood of natural light that pours into each classroom has acted as a focal point for outdoor study and observance. Children are drawn to the outdoors because they can observe it on a daily basis. Even our youngest students have the opportunity to observe nature at a level that is appropriate to them.

The large classrooms feature a homelike environment for students, while allowing for as much independence as possible. Each classroom has been designed to have a bathroom and a small kitchen area that is child-sized. This feature has facilitated a sense of autonomy for our youngest students and responsibility for our older children. In fact, the entire classroom communicates the idea that students are capable and competent.

Each building has been designed to reflect a different continent of the world. The colors and layout of the buildings set the tone that has been carried throughout the classroom. Teachers have chosen artifacts and artwork that reflect the building’s focus in the classroom. This has generated a great deal of research by the students who want to know “what is the continent of Asia really like?”

The entire campus has a natural sense of flow that allows the children to feel free while protected. It is this freedom that has facilitated the strong sense of community that is our school.

We are forever indebted to the architects, engineers, and interior designers for their ability to make our vision a reality.

What exemplary ideas do the designs contain that enhance learning?

The project began with three key components: the Montessori philosophy, a former military compound, and an enthusiastic client. In a characteristic fit of enthusiasm the school asked the architectural team to take seven “bunker buildings” and transform them into tools of the Montessori philosophy, all on a budget of thousands, not millions, and all within six months.

Renovation and Renewal

The Montessori philosophy embraces nature, exploration, and imagination. Yet the school’s new home was a former Strategic Command Compound that most recently served as a state boarding facility for adolescent boys. Working within a limited budget the design team set out to “liberate” the seven buildings on campus and create an environment that would:

awaken a passion for exploration;

nurture the child’s innate curiosity, creativity, and imagination; and

inspire the human spirit.

What innovations in the planning, programming and design process supported the realization of those exemplary ideas?

4,600 Miles to Timbuktu

With students and faculty from 35 countries, the school is truly an international institution. A unique global design theme builds upon this diversity. At the main entrance, the design includes 35 flags representing the nationalities of the students and teachers. A sculptural rose compass serves as an organizing element on campus, while an old-fashioned sign post shows the distances to other cities around the world. This element is meant to break down the traditional paradigm of provincial educational thinking and establish students as members of a global community.

The global theme is continued in each of the buildings on campus. The Primary and Pre-kindergarten building draws inspiration from the rains forests of South America to create a palette of rich, Amazonian colors. The Grades 1-3 building is inspired by the plains and deserts of Africa, while the free standing cottages that house the Upper School represent the “islands of the world.” Flooring patterns and glass block coloring in each building suggest flags and ethnic patterns from other countries.

The Light of Knowledge

Natural light plays a large role in the Montessori philosophy. Renovations cut holes in existing block walls, creating classrooms with numerous large windows, including floor-to-ceiling glass block walls in the Lower Elementary building. The glass block installations distribute natural light throughout the buildings and allow students to view their surroundings in a different way. The designers directed the contractor to paint the edges of the glass blocks and specified the pattern in which they were to be erected. These painted edges color the daylight passing through the wall and create ethnic patterns within the block, further developing the continent theme.

Creating Connections

The entire campus is arranged to create connections with the outside world. In the Early Childhood building, classrooms have doors opening to classroom decks on the outside of the building. Students care for flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees adjacent to these decks. The Upper School is a collection of four 3,000-square-foot buildings clustered together in a village-like atmosphere. Wireless technology extends the classroom to the outdoors, allowing students to conduct research or engage in self-directed learning activities on the campus grounds.

Recognized Value Award 2008

Upper Marlboro


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