The council ring provides a space for outdoor class time.
Rock garden, using bamboo and stepping stones.

Elements Pre-K

Shilpa Sethi knew exactly what she wanted to create: a learning environment where young kids could make a real connection to nature.  Making this happen effectively and safely would be tricky in any circumstances, but Ms. Sethi chose to locate her school in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one of the most urbanized neighborhoods in the country.  We accepted her challenge to design the grounds for this school, which had to include enough structure to accommodate classes of young kids in a variety of activities, while remaining flexible enough to evolve over time.

The existing site was… well, let us say it had untapped potential.  Project designer Adrian Hayes started by devising broad organizing principles, which have gradually coalesced into a specific design.  This design allows for maximum flexibility of the New York-sized (ie very small) space.  Kids can stay together in groups for a wide variety of class activities, or engage the site individually with options for both active and passive play.

Our outdoor classroom will also flow with the seasons.  A child might start a school year by harvesting vegetables from the garden, and learning how to use these in healthy cooking.  Winter snow won’t stop the outdoor experiences, whether it is engaging with other kids on the custom play structure or sitting alone for a quiet moment with bamboo in the rock garden.  Spring will allow  for new exploration and experiments, planting seeds, observing the effects of stormwater, and yes, even playing in the mud.  The kids who stay through the summer will have benefit of shady spots for class activities and stories, learning about the play structure’s green roof, and helping the garden plants grow for the upcoming harvest.


Here’s a typical part of the existing site. Fairly depressing.


CLA’s overall plan for the main space.


Entry area, where kids and parents will gather for arrival and dismissal.


Rock garden, using bamboo and stepping stones.


Custom picnic tables provide structure for table-top activities (and snacks!), and the little stage is also visible here.


The sunniest part of the site will host the garden, with a variety of vegetables underway.


The council ring provides a space for outdoor class time.


Under the existing trees, we have created a space for walking or holding class activities.



  • Location: Lower East Side, NY
  • Status: Completed
  • Budget: <$100k