New Children's Library To Encourage Experiential Learning

The Central Arkansas Library System’s $12 million Children’s Library & Learning Center will open next month on the south side of Interstate 630, and its developers hope it will transform the surrounding neighborhoods of midtown Little Rock.

To design its 13th branch, CALS contracted in 2009 with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock. Architect Reese Rowland, who designed many Little Rock landmarks such as the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Acxiom Corp.’s headquarters and the Arkansas Studies Institute, was given the job of dreaming up a new landmark across the interstate from the former site of Ray Winder Field.

Rowland said the idea from the beginning was to create experiential learning through architecture. For inspiration, the design team visited places like ImaginOn, a children’s library and theater in Charlotte, N.C.; the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.; and the Houston Public Library’s teen center.

Ideas that included Disneyesque elements like castles and dinosaurs were thrown out early.

“When you take that approach for something in the same place visited over and over, you have a shelf life of two, three, four years at most,” he said.

Rowland said he drew on childhood memories of dusty sunlight filtering through the slats of his grandparents’ barn, winding forest creeks and fortresses made of crates and ladders. These themes of exploration and inspiration informed the building’s design. Two meeting rooms, for example, are cantilevered out over an open space to simulate the feeling of tree houses.

“We let the building be a teacher and create fun and interactive environments,” he said. “It’s a place where they can read and unwind and just hang out, a place that the library can sponsor programs and enhance and connect with the neighborhood as well.”

The main interior is one large room.

“We took the idea of creating a big, open box with as few columns as possible,” Rowland said. “We let the building shift to more of a trapezoid shape.”

Rowland called the building’s style “open and honest,” with exposed supports and ventilation systems, large pools of natural light and suspended ceilings.

“What you see is what you get,” he said, noting that the design could help kids understand how the building works. “It’s almost as when I was a kid and I was building with Lincoln Logs, it taught you how to put things together.”

It will also be LEED certified.

“The things we’ve learned with green buildings is when you give people more natural light, more of a view and clean, fresh air, productivity goes up, absenteeism falls and people want to be there,” Rowland said. “It’s the same in a school environment as a work environment.”

Notably, the side that faces the parking lot is single story and unassuming, and the full height and style of the building is only visible from the rear, where children will be roaming the grounds.

“The idea was that kids use the other side of the building more than this side,” he said. “That’s why there’s more emphasis to the north. It’s away from cars, away from adults.”

Rowland said he wanted to encourage walking around outside the building.

“We’ve really looked at creating children’s pedestrian zones, learning zones, vehicle zones,” Rowland said. “We really want to separate the car from the person and the child walking.”

The grounds themselves are made up of features intended to represent various topographical areas in Arkansas. A drainage creek that meanders under the Interstate has been repurposed to create “wetlands” on the library’s north side.

“The 6-acre site has walking paths and bridges so that families can really come out here and enjoy themselves,” said Sarah McClure, who will manage the library. “Kids can run around and play, and the features of our landscaping are educational opportunities for children and families.”

It will take several years for some of the landscaping elements to grow, Rowland said.

The end result satisfied CALS’ hopes for its newest facility.

“This building doesn’t look like anything else we have,” said Susan Gele, assistant director for public relations at CALS. “The colors inside are so vibrant and child-friendly that when you come in as an adult, it’s hard to be sad here. It’s hard to be distressed. It’s a hopeful, happy place.”

Underserved Neighborhoods

Rowland said the library’s location between I-630 and 12th Street was chosen for its proximity to underserved, low-income neighborhoods and because the site was mostly undeveloped. Some homes on the parcel — all either rentals or abandoned — had to be torn down, but otherwise very little infrastructure was disturbed.

“This tract of land with the library on it really sat empty for all these years,” Rowland said, noting that some of it was intended for War Memorial Park, but that development never crossed I-630.

Once the library is open, it will be within walking distance of hundreds of homes.

“That’s something that the neighborhood sorely needed on that side of the Interstate,” he said.

“I view it as a community resource, an opportunity for an underserved area,” McClure said. “Now they’ll have a really valuable resource at their back door. I think it’s also placed in an area that needs us, in terms of programming for children and in terms of things that take place in other parts of the city that have fees attached to them.”

McClure said it will also be beneficial for the Children’s Library to be close to the Little Rock Zoo and War Memorial Park.

“We hope to be a good neighbor to them,” she said. “And the newly revamped War Memorial Park is wonderful, so a school could easily do a library field trip to the zoo and head to the park for lunch and play time.”

CALS hopes for the library to become a neighborhood pillar and haven.

“We want the community to come and have events on the lawn and for the kids to run around in a safe environment,” Rowland said. “In a way, this becomes the heart of the neighborhood.”

Mental Connections

Early on, the design team polled groups of children on what they wanted to see in their library, and many of those ideas were extrapolated into the current design.

“The No. 1 thing was learning how to feed themselves,” Rowland said. “The majority of these kids get off from school and either get home and their parents are still working, or the parents are not home yet. Some of the kids may not see their parents until late in the evening.”

That led to the development of a teaching kitchen. McClure said the kitchen will offer cooking classes that will help children understand nutrition and how to efficiently buy groceries.

Taking that idea further, a greenhouse and garden was built on the edge of the library’s property, which will be used to help children understand how food travels from the farm to the kitchen.

“What we’re doing is forming connections in the minds of kids,” McClure said. “So they’ll say, ‘Oh, wow, this is no big deal to put a garden in our back yard, because at the library it’s all we did.’ We’re trying to connect the things kids learn in school with the more hands-on, inspiring things at the library.”

Other features include a 100-150 seat performance theater on the building’s east side, a 14-unit computer lab and several spaces for projects, meetings and story time. The lower level has a 2,500-SF shell space that can be expanded in the future.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Gele said. “There are already children’s theater programs going on, and cooking lessons, but many of those have costs attached. Here we’ll be able to offer some opportunities for children who may not be able to pay for the same kinds of amenities.”

Expansion

The library has room for growth, McClure said.

“There’s talk of more hands-on learning spaces at a higher level,” she said. “Maybe a 3-D printer, or some kind of workshop where kids can come in and we build a birdhouse — different things that get kids using their hands and brains.”

Outside of the library, Rowland would like to create safe pedestrian passage over I-630 to War Memorial and the zoo. The existing right-of-way, Jonesboro Drive, is five lanes of heavy traffic, and that’s not ideal for kids.

Rowland’s vision is to turn half the bridge into a walking and biking lane, then lead Jonesboro Drive to a traffic circle and other slowing elements near the library. The walking lane would be decorated with lights, trees and silhouettes of animals from the nearby zoo.

There’s no money for it yet, Rowland said, but his firm is pushing for this to be the next phase of the library’s development.

“It’s something we’re pretty passionate about,” he said.