Designing an Inspiring, Net Zero Early Childhood Learning Center

Public schools are exploring strategies to develop pre-k and transitional kindergarten (TK) programs to spark the learning skills of young children. The design for a new center in San Bernardino provides a model for a facility that prepares children for learning and supports the community.

Around the country, school districts are searching for ways to offer effective, cost-efficient pre-kindergarten or transitional kindergarten (TK) programs to their communities. There is a growing understanding among educators, backed by research, that early childhood education is crucial to building the foundation for lifelong learning and creating equity in the education system.

To achieve their goals, each district is facing tough questions. Do they create regional centers? Do they simply treat TK as the addition of another grade? And where do they find the real estate and resources to create effective programs that prepare children under 6 to begin learning?

“Districts are trying to identify needs and develop strategies to set young students up for success,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “The challenge is trying to understand how to deploy these strategies.”

Every district is different. But, in many cases, it is understood they cannot simply add another grade to a school site. Young students have special needs that can’t be addressed in a traditional classroom.

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Building Program Diagram

Facilities and curriculum for early childhood learning should be “developmentally appropriate,” says Dr. Julie Zoellin Cramer, founder of Wayfind Education and an LPA consultant. It’s more than reaching performance standards on traditional topics like reading and math; it’s about exposing them to the idea of learning. “For the youngest students, they learn about the world through their bodies and movement as they build impulse control, self-regulation and executive functioning skills. These are foundational for academic readiness.”

Facilities should support play-based learning, exploration and socialization, Cramer says. “You create an age-appropriate structure, and within that structure give students ample choice to engage their interests and grow their ability to make good decisions.”

Facilities should also support parents and working families, Cramer says. Early childhood programs, including before- and after-school activities, are a key component in achieving larger community goals that focus on parental needs for childcare and workforce stability.

“Research shows the more effective TK programs are ones that really encourage parental visitation and engagement at the school site,” Cramer says. “Making sure that the site is welcoming to parents helps bring the family as a whole into the learning system.”

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Spaces in the center are designed to stimulate all the children’s senses.


In California, LPA is working with the San Bernardino City Unified School District, a diverse district with a large population of low-income families, to create a facility that may serve as a model for future early childhood centers. Designed as part of a larger effort to master plan the district’s overall transitional TK response, the Eliot Child Care Center will combine preschool and transitional TK programs in flexible, cost-effective buildings designed around outdoor zones with a variety of play and gathering spaces. The district wanted a facility that was both functional and aspirational, demonstrating the possibilities for early childhood learning to support the larger community.

As part of the conceptual design process, designers and the district leaders explored San Bernardino’s unique challenges. More than 10% of the 57,000 students in the district are considered homeless; 30% of the households live below the poverty line. More than 90% of the students receive lunch assistance.

“The early childhood center is about providing students a space where they feel comfortable to explore their future without fear of crime, or where they’re going to sleep, or where they’re going to get their next meal,” says Tom Pace, director of facilities for San Bernardino City USD. “How do we build something that provides the student dignity in a safe environment where they forget about the noise of the outside world?”

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The design creates a secure zone, while still providing a welcoming environment for parents and the community.

The design was developed through LPA’s focus on experience, wellness, performance and community. The district defined their learning goals around exploration. “It’s not about instructional practices of 5 plus 5 equals 10,” Pace says. “They’re exploring the tactile. They’re exploring color. They’re exploring everything that comes with life. You’ve got to allow them to explore those things.”

The new center will be built on an empty 50,000-square-foot site in the center of the city that was once used for San Bernardino High School’s agriculture program. The site’s buildings, designed with an easily replicable modular space system, include 15,000 square feet for classrooms, administration spaces, storage and restrooms. The buildings were pushed to the edge of the property, creating a secured perimeter and minimizing the need for fencing. A wide breezeway provides the only entrance to the landscaped courtyard. Spaces near the entrance were designed to support parents and community events.

“Working with the district, we both had this realization that this could be treated as an oasis in the city for the community and for the kids,” says LPA Design Director Ozzie Tapia.

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The grounds are designed to encourage exploration and hands-on activities.


The facility was designed around the existing mature trees. All the classrooms have direct connections to outdoor spaces, which are shaded by the tree canopies. “Putting all of that natural space at the core of those buildings really activated the whole space,” Pace says.

The volume of the spaces was lowered to fit the perspective of children. “It doesn’t necessarily feel institutional,” Tapia says. “It feels more like a nature center, where children can learn by playing and interacting with nature.”

Outdoor pavilions, play spaces, outdoor classrooms and seating areas are interlaced within the landscape. Areas were defined around learning, exploration, socialization and reflection. For example, an area dubbed the “Playhouse” is designed as a gathering spot. The “Grasslands” provides a small, shaded learning environment; the “Hills” offers mounds of different heights for social interaction and playful movement; the “Pond” is a sensory zone designed for contemplation. A tricycle path connects different areas.

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Every aspect of the project was designed around nature.

“We wanted to create different destinations on the site to help children learn from their environment,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Kari Kikuta. “It was more about the experiential component versus the need for slides and swings.”

For most of the children, it will be their first foray into learning. The zones are designed to stimulate children in different ways. “Some of it is just more about learning through play and engaging with other kids,” Kikuta says. “We want to give them opportunities to express themselves.”

The play equipment will support different types of play while looking to provide an inclusive environment to engage all students. Designers focused on all the senses, considering texture, light and acoustics. They wanted children to be able to experience nature and have the tactile experience of touching the different materials.

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All the classrooms will open to the zones in the central courtyard, providing direct connections to nature.

“It’s important to engage all the senses in children,” Tapia says. “Our goal was to use the natural context as a way to inform and complement the educational curriculum for the preschool.”

The facility also provided a testing ground for developing a net zero facility. It is designed as all-electric, with efficient building envelopes that maximize daylighting and natural ventilation. Photovoltaic panels will generate on-site energy to offset 100% of the electricity use.

Earlier this year, San Bernardino City USD approved the design and is moving forward with building the facility. It will serve as a centerpiece for the district’s larger master plan and provide insights that will help guide the design of the district’s future early childhood strategies.

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Larger Goals

Tom Pace, San Bernardino City USD’s Director of Facilities, discusses strategies for early childhood development centers and their potential to lift communities.

What were the learning philosophies that guided the design of your early childhood learning center?

If you start with the idea that children learn everywhere, then your basic definition of education changes. What you build changes. If you think that a child can learn everywhere — from the hallways to the restrooms to the parking lot — then you’re going to design them much differently.

Early childhood care in my mind is about exploration. It’s not about instructional practices of 5 plus 5 equals 10. We’re not working on getting there. We’re allowing children to explore the world and they’re becoming tactile. They’re exploring the tactile. They’re exploring color. They’re exploring everything that comes with life. You’ve got to allow them to explore those things.

What do you like about how the plan for the Eliot Center addresses issues?

It’s the antithesis of everything that we’re currently providing. Typically, we provide portables with asphalt, very little natural light and let’s call it decent ventilation. No color. Sterile environments. We looked at doing the opposite of that. Dave [LPA Managing Director Dave Eaves] did a very good job of looking at the nature score of San Bernardino High School and the surrounding parks. In a two-mile radius around the campus you can’t find one open area for the community. It’s a sea of asphalt, a wall of fencing.

How will you measure success?

I think the measure of success is that we see our educators wanting more outdoor learning environments. Wanting more color. Wanting more freedom for their students rather than more restrictive environments. If our educators ask for spaces like this, that’s how we measure success.

How can you do more to engage the community and parents in these facilities?

I think simply by showing what you can do, people whether they like it or not will talk about it. There may be 50% of our community that does not like the architecture, does not like the color, does not like the feel. But by gaining 50% who don’t like it, we also gain 50% who do. And that encourages dialogue and discussion around what is appropriate for education. If you build to the lowest common denominator, it just produces apathy because no one has an opinion on it.

“It’s the community as a whole that we serve. If we ignore the family’s problems, we’re ignoring our children’s problems.”

Do you feel like you’re going to be able to make inroads in areas like supportive housing?

We are. We’re actually putting out an RFP for transitional housing on property that we own. We’re looking at ground leases. It’s the idea of supporting the whole family. If the student and family don't have to worry about where their next meal comes from or where they’re going to live, then you’ll see incremental gains in the education of their students. If a student has to worry about those things, then they’re clearly not going to be paying attention in class.

Why is that the district’s role?

If the education of our children is our core mission, then everything about the family becomes our core mission. I definitely think that the more we can do to support the family as a whole, the more that will lead to student success and economic development. I think that in the end the question is, how do you break the cycles of poverty? How do you break the cycles of homelessness? It’s providing the family opportunities to show that they can succeed. Stabilizing them for a period of time.

It’s the community as a whole that we serve. If we ignore the family’s problems, we’re ignoring our children’s problems.

What would you tell other districts that are considering investments in higher-performing facilities?

How many classes of students can come through our system going through portables, asphalt and fencing before we say enough is enough? Don’t lower your standards. Your kids deserve it.

A Pre-K and TK Facility Checklist

As educators and designers collaborate to implement pre-k or TK strategies, they might consider the ways in which new or retrofitted facilities will accommodate:

  • Lower adult-to-student ratio
  • Lower maximum class sizes
  • Developmental needs of 4-year-olds
  • Play-based, experiential and hands-on learning
  • Movement areas indoors
  • Outdoor play areas and outdoor learning
  • Ample breaktime areas for students
  • Collaborative opportunities between pre-k/TK
    and kindergarten staff
  • Location of facilities for those with public transportation needs
  • Before- and after-school activities areas
  • Parental visitation and engagement at the
    school site

Source: Jzqulie Zoellin Cramer, Wayfind Education

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An Urban, Net Zero Early Childhood Center

San Bernardino City USD’s Eliot Child Care Center is designed to promote exploration, curiosity and play-based learning among young children. On a 50,000-square-foot site, classrooms were pushed to the perimeter to preserve the existing trees and create a courtyard filled with zones for different types of play and activities. Every classroom offers direct access to the courtyard zones.

The buildings will be constructed using an easily replicable modular design, which will save costs and provide flexibility for future growth. The configuration creates a secure area where children will be able to freely pursue their interests in the different zones, while also providing support spaces for parents and the community.

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