EdSurge: Designing Classrooms Fit for Early Learners

With deliberate design, learning environments can promote independence, discovery and creativity for early learners.

By Ozzie Tapia
LPA Design Director

The following is excerpted from EdSurge magazine.

As districts across the country search for ways to support early childhood learning, designers, architects and planners can play an important role in creating developmentally-appropriate facilities that support play-based learning, exploration and socialization. The building where children learn, and all indoor and outdoor spaces it includes, can and should become active tools in the learning experience.

As an education design director working with a multidisciplinary design team that regularly partners with early childhood programs to upgrade their existing spaces or create new ones, I've seen the power of leveraging design elements for learning.

Young children learn about the world through their bodies and movement as they build impulse control, self-regulation and executive functioning skills, which are foundational for academic readiness. They’re learning through play and discovery. Most of the early childhood program leaders I’ve worked with say their driving goal is to spark a love of learning for the young children they serve—and that it requires a delicate balance of providing structure, while also allowing them ample choice to engage their interests and grow their ability to make good decisions.

Foward Thinking 10
The courtyard design for the Cardinal Child Care Center includes different learning zones.
Foward Thinking 11

Our team spends a lot of time considering the significant differences between the developmental needs of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. As children grow, they need more freedom to roam, develop social skills and discover their space.

We recently worked with the San Bernardino City Unified School District to develop a new early childhood center—Cardinal Child Care Center (CCC)—which was designed as part of the district’s effort to address California’s recent transitional kindergarten mandate. The center, which is in its final design phase, will open its doors in fall 2024 to serve 245 2- to 5-year-olds in the district. It combines the district’s preschool and transitional kindergarten programs and will be housed in flexible buildings designed around outdoor zones with a variety of play and gathering spaces. This is a major shift as the district’s existing preschool program is typically served from one portable classroom at several elementary school sites.

We collaborated with the district over the course of a year to outline their needs and vision for how they’d like to serve their community. This involved facility visits to understand how they use their current space, case study tours of inspirational facilities, and identifying key stakeholders. Our team met with teachers, staff, school leaders, child development experts, nutrition and transportation services, and the facilities and planning department to get feedback and understand their vision for a nature-based learning environment…

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