Four learning spaces in China nourish the future of young students – and of an American company

Shenzhen and Suzhou, China – In 1976, Gymboree Play & Music was established by Joan Barnes, a mother in San Francisco who wanted to expand the play and learning opportunities for her young children. The company – then and now – offers music, art, sport and learning activities to kids under six and their parents.

Ten years after Gymboree’s beginnings, they introduced a chain of clothing stores for children which became quickly successful – at one point, there were over 600 retail locations in shopping malls all over the United States.

Now, those stores are now all in the process of being closed due to the fiscal downfall of Gymboree Corporation. Preceding the company’s first filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, however, Gymboree Play & Music was sold in 2016 to a privately held company with a focus on the educational and entertainment sectors, based in Singapore. As a result, the company was, in a way, re-established – now completely free from the demise of its parent company – and given a second chance to do what Barnes set out to do all along.   

Franchised Gymboree Play & Music centres – all 700 of them – can be found in 40 countries. Shenzhen and Suzhou – both fast-growing cities in China – now boast four new Gymboree Play & Music schools, all designed by Vudafieri-Saverino Partners. In each, the practice aimed to express Gymboree’s educational philosophy aesthetically: they challenged themselves to design spaces that would be capable of arousing a child’s curiosity while simultaneously encouraging them to learn.

Shenzhen Upper Hills Gymboree Play & Music school and offices. Photography by Alan Grillo.

The theme of the four schools then developed: Vudafieri-Saverino set out to recreate six different environments – the ocean, forest, desert, Arctic, canyon and space. Through clean-cut geometries in the construction, bold colours and material use, Gymboree Play & Music students are given an imaginative setting evoking the sense of travelling through different ‘worlds’. The 2000-sq-m Shenzhen Upper Hills school also accommodates Gymboree’s employee offices, designed with the same attention to experience and immersion as in the classrooms.

‘We tried to interpret the environments through the eyes of children, creating a context that provided them with sensations rather than images…’ said architects Tiziano Vudafieri and Claudio Saverino.

Suzhou Gymboree Play & Music location. Cover image and above photography by Dirk Weiblen.

We tried to interpret the environments through the eyes of children

The high level of attention to design and tyke-sized user interaction in the interiors separates Gymboree Play & Music’s image from their more corporate-looking, literal learning-and-activity spaces of the past. The company has been doing their trend homework – the direction of Vudafieri-Saverino Partners’ work keeps the brand in line with the inpouring of humane, whimsical educational spaces for children as of late.

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