Seneca Nation of Indians, Early Childhood Learning Center


– Sing

Early Childhood Learning Center, Seneca Nations Cattaraugus Territory, near Irving, New York

Design Partner: JCJ Architects

Budget for Sitework: $750,000

The heart of Seneca Life and its reverence for the Earth and our environment creates the core for this interactive courtyard. Using the beauty and power of the Earth as the foundation for the courtyard; learning from and caring for the Earth as it cares for us, the courtyard can convey powerful stories and provide hands on opportunities for learning that have the highest value for the Seneca children and the community.

Children and visitors arrive to a space reminiscent of the long ago landscapes of Upstate NY, the landscapes that the Seneca People called home for generations. Creeks and pond, meadow and forest, even the foothills of the Allegany Mountains find their way into this courtyard. Nature forms the primary play experiences; whether it be climbing on rocks, stacking tree limbs, rolling logs, splashing in the pond, damming up the creek or meandering through the meadow, play and learning are rooted in the beauty of nature.

The space takes on additional importance as part of the Early Childhood Learning Center, as it becomes a space that breaks past its everyday needs as a support space for this unique school, but also as it becomes a bridge between generations, inviting young and old to this space of community and contribution.

The eight clans of the Seneca people come to life in this real environment through hidden tracks and nests all tucked into the various environments one would expect to find the living creature.

Community spaces such as the vegetable garden, the Elder Circle and the Longhouse become touchstones between contemporary life and traditional Seneca Life with opportunities for sharing stories, creating dance and growing and preparing food together. The Longhouse offers a very unique opportunity to bridge the Seneca Ceremonial life with the every-day life and community of their ancestors.

Much study has shown that strictly separating children based arbitrarily by age range has not served young people well and that children benefit greatly from multi-generational play where older children help to care for the younger children, and in turn the younger children look up to the older ones. This departure from contemporary education models is closely aligned to traditional Seneca life, the courtyard has the ability to foster multi-generational play, learning and caring for others as a part of the curriculum.

Heritage activities such as weaving of grasses, grinding of corn, gathering wood, tending the garden, are some of the play activities in the courtyard that were developed and supported by the faculty and Tribal Elders.