Little Star Montessori Infant & Toddler

Architecture firm: Prentiss + Balance + Wickline Architects

Owner: Little Star Montessori School

Location: Winthrop, Wash.

Category: Excellence

Project site: Not previously developed

Building program type(s): Education - general

This 6,000-square-foot addition to Little Star Montessori School expands the school’s campus to better serve the youngest children in Washington’s Methow Valley. The new building is reflective of Little Star’s guiding principles, which champion the needs of young children first, in the scale of its classrooms, careful siting and landscape design, and enduring connections to the broader concept of sustainability. A joyful invitation to explore, the building is a physical representation of Montessori ideals.

“It is well-integrated into the site and fits the surrounding architectural context while being respectful of the environment. This is a simple building done very well.” - Jury comment

The design team was inspired by the late Rayma Hayes, the school’s founder and longtime guiding force, whose approach to nearly any problem was first to consider the best way to serve the children in her care. For the design of the school’s new infant and toddler building, which doubled its size and capacity, the team sought to shape an environment that evokes Hayes’ legacy by putting the needs of the valley’s youngest children first.

The resulting architecture is rooted in the Reggio Emilia philosophy of architecture as the “third teacher.” The new building adds three classrooms, administrative offices, and an activity room called the Active Space, where students are encouraged to be loud, messy, creative, and free. The interior spaces are filled with natural light and appropriately scaled for young children. Low windows and wood-lined nooks reassure small children and allow them to observe the landscape, an important component of Montessori education.

On days with nice weather, the Active Space’s doors can be flung open to erase the divide between interior and exterior. The children can ride their tricycles from the Tour de Little Star loop into the Active Space, or they are free to engage in impromptu gymnastics on the grassy oval lawn. The exterior space accommodates the Montessori concept of circle time but on a much broader community level.

The original school was built more than 35 years ago, a time when it stood seemingly alone at the edge of the small town of Winthrop. Today, it is at the heart of a burgeoning town and nimbly responds to the valley’s shifting community. In addition, Little Star is an important leader in sustainable development in a community that previously had few examples of such. Many of the addition’s sustainable measures—low-VOC finishes, native plantings, and low-flow plumbing fixtures—were easily achieved, while others required alterations to local codes. A lengthy campaign ultimately ended with a code revision that will allow the school to install a photovoltaic array on the roof, enabling it to achieve net zero energy consumption.

“This project responds to the community and their culture and needs in a really beautiful way.” - Jury comment

The design and construction of Little Star’s infant and toddler building were uniquely positive and inspiring for all involved. The architects, consultants, contractors, and the school community all embraced the process and channeled their passions to shape a building that will nurture, teach, and delight the valley’s children for many years.

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of substantial project completion: 2018

Gross conditioned floor area: 6,000 sq ft

Project team

Engineer - Civil: LPD Engineering

Engineer - Structural: Evergreen Design

General Contractor: AJ Brown & Co

Landscape: Swift Company


Diego Barrera, AIA (Chair), Stantec, Plano, Texas

Richey Madison, AIA, SmithGroup, Los Angeles

Xuemei Zhu, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Pam Loeffelman, FAIA, DLR Group, Estes Park, Colo.

Oswaldo Rivera-Ortiz, Assoc. AIA, Dallas Independent School District, Dallas

Image credits

children playing outside the school

Benjamin Drummond

building lawn and exterior

Benjamin Drummond

classroom interior

Benjamin Drummond

The Active Space with view to outside

Benjamin Drummond

exterior at dusk

Benjamin Drummond