Earl Shapiro Hall opens doors to a new world for Laboratory Schools’ youngest learners

On one of the first days at the Laboratory Schools’ Earl Shapiro Hall, Nursery and Kindergarten Principal Carla Young was walking by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that looked out on a courtyard. Outside, some children played in a sprawling sand pit, while others learned how to swing on a rope hanging from a play fort.

One three-year-old ran up to the glass wall and held out his hands, inviting the principal to an impromptu game of patty-cake. For Young, it was another reminder of the possibilities afforded by Lab’s newest facility, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a building around a cutting-edge educational program and a careful observation of how children interact with each other and their environment.

“That would have never happened where we were before,” Young said, noting that many schools for the youngest learners are located in facilities built for very different purposes, and adapted on the fly.

Earl Shapiro Hall is a soaring, light-filled structure at 5800 S. Stony Island Ave., designed by Valerio Dewalt Train and FGM Architects as the architect-of-record. The complex already has attracted notice for its graceful architecture. But to truly appreciate what the facility can do, one needs to see the children discovering it and making their own use of its myriad custom-designed features.

Young said the children particularly enjoy the many views of their surroundings and one another, waving to siblings they see down in a gathering space, or just watching the shadows of their peers at play in one of the many indoor and outdoor spaces designed for the most flexible use.

Some features smooth the logistics of a day in the classroom—from the sinks at multiple heights, to custom bathrooms and quiet study spaces built into each classroom. Some literally open new doors, such as the direct outdoor access from each nursery classroom.

Laboratory Schools Director David Magill said that from the ground up, the space embodies Lab’s educational ideals, first advanced by philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who founded the Laboratory Schools in 1896. Dewey’s tenets later were adapted in the Reggio Emilia approach central to the school’s early childhood program in emphasizing children’s ability to teach themselves through flexible interactions with their classmates, teachers, and environment.

“Very few schools have the opportunity to do what we did, particularly for 650 little people,” Magill said of Earl Shapiro Hall. “I think we’ve utilized every square inch in the best possible way we could.”

The new building also plays a key role in the Lab expansion that will unfold over the next decade or so to roughly 2,000 students, which will accommodate growing demand from the University community while maintaining the school’s historic diversity, serving students from across the city of Chicago.

The state-of-the-art facility brings together the school’s nursery, kindergarten and primary grades. It capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity with thought-provoking spaces suited for a range of simultaneous activities. And then there are those glass walls, an early favorite of the children.

“They love being able to see what’s going on in different parts of the building,” Lab kindergarten teacher Delores Rita said. When her students go upstairs for gym or music, she said, they are captivated by the bird's-eye view of the inner courtyard where other children are playing. “Getting that different perspective of looking at things is fascinating to them. The other day we actually just stood there and watched the kids for a while, talking about how they looked smaller and different from up above.”

Along with the inner courtyard, there is an expansive rooftop playground where play equipment will be installed; a smaller rooftop playground on the second floor that will include a climbing wall; and landscaped playgrounds on the north and west sides of the building that include age-appropriate play equipment. The school also installed a crosswalk to Jackson Park across the street, and students and teachers are making good use of this open parkland.

Access to the outdoors supports the school’s early childhood program, Young said, by enhancing children’s inherent interest in weather, plants and animals. It makes them aware of the changing amount of light and the movement of the clouds and trees, for example, and what they can learn from nature.

A nursery class taught by Maureen Movrich and assistant teachers Wendy Minor and Paige James, for example, spent part of their day studying what they’d discovered falling from some trees in Jackson Park. After touching and sniffing the mysterious objects, some of the students decided to paint pictures of them. A four-year-old girl mixed blue and yellow paint trying to recreate the natural greenish hue, but realized she also needed to also add brown to match it. The students may not have figured out exactly what it was they’d found, the teachers said, but they’d learned a good deal about perception by way of smell, texture, and color.

Earl Shapiro Hall’s open spaces, along with bringing the younger grades all together, are also helping foster a sense of community among students and faculty, said Primary School Principal Susan Devetski.

“Even though the building is larger and we have much more space, it feels like we are closer together now,” Devetski said, adding that gathering in one building will promote more collaboration and exchange of ideas.

The Lab community celebrated the opening of Earl Shapiro Hall with a rooftop festival for Lab families and alumni on Saturday, Sept. 28. Speakers included U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a Lab alumnus.

The building is named for Earl Shapiro, who graduated from Lab in 1956. In 2008, members of the Shapiro family—Earl, his wife, Brenda, and their three children, Alexandra, Benjamin and Matthew, all of whom attended Lab—made a $10 million gift to the Laboratory Schools, citing its talented and diverse students, outstanding teachers, and a focus on critical learning.