One of the keys of Montessori schooling is the prepared environment: a space designed for children to be independent and able to access the tools and activities that interest them at any given moment – which explains the child-scale shelves and units often seen in such institutions.

They might have recently completed a village-themed daycare centre in Shenzhen, but before that, local studio VMDPE Design had tackled the next stage in children’s development: a kindergarten. Located inside the Jingshan Villa, a residential area for overseas Chinese and expats in Shekou, the IBOBI school caters to the offspring of people with different cultural backgrounds – and often different preferences. That’s why, to take their ability for independence from adult facilitators to an extreme, VMDPE decided to make the entire building child scaled, from the stairs and handrails to the doors and windows. ‘Everything has been scaled to fulfill the children’s needs, to make them feel safe and free of restraints,’ said Vinci Chan, the project’s main designer.

The kindergarten exists in a liminal educational space: not yet a school, not necessarily a playground. That aspect led the studio to think as freely as the target audience would. ‘It’s a place where children live, a great environment that keeps them deeply interested and full of vitality, a space where they don’t resist and don’t feel afraid, allowing the liberation of their own nature and cultivation of self-awareness and interests, to prepare them for the rest of their lives,’ concluded Sim Chow and Echo Jia, part of the VMDPE design team.

Within the kindergarten, the team devised an art room, a music theatre room, an interactive projection room and a library. But to achieve a proper prepared environment for these purposes, they opened the building’s old structure to allow different views from the inside via large angled walls and glass elements – thus eliminating the feeling of being enclosed and providing the children with more distant landscapes at eye level. They even studied every window, in order to allow sunlight into specific corners of the building so that the children could watch the weather differences brought about by the changing seasons. These decisions were the result of an extensive research process devoted to scale planning, in order to create a safe atmosphere for the space’s short users.

‘In the end, we wanted to provide a corner of the world where children could stay for a long time without constant stimulation, but rather under a natural environment with dynamic and calm moments, so they can be social or feel independent at will,’ concluded Chan.