Seedlings in San Clemente, California

Balancing Classroom Design for Introverted and Extroverted Children

Issues on Education Talk

Last Year I was on the Issues on podcast. Listen below for information on how the way we design early childhood classrooms can play a big role in how children develop.

Classroom makeover initiative at the YMCA in San Antonio

3 Ideas for Creating Nurturing Spaces for Seclusion in the Early Childhood Classroom

Sandra duncan author spotlight blog header

Sometimes early childhood classrooms can be noisy and overstimulating to young children, leading to challenging behaviors, and decreased engagement and learning. Sandra Duncan—coauthor of Through a Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder—compares the early childhood classroom to Times Square and explains why young children need comforting, secluded spaces where they can refresh and regroup just like adults do! Here are her 3 ideas for creating nurturing spaces of seclusion in the early childhood classroom, away from the hubbub and the noise.

Have you ever been to Time Square? It's quite a busy place, isn't it? Especially on New Year’s Eve! Even when it's not New Year's Eve, Time Square can be a real assault on your senses. It's filled with bright colors, loud noises, tires screeching, and horns blaring. It's got lots of interesting smells, blinking and neon lights all over the place, and of course, crowded sidewalks. 

Hi there. I'm Dr. Sandra Duncan and I'm co-author of a Gryphon House book called Through a Child's Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder. I'm all about designing inspiring environments for young children. 

Think about your typical early childhood classroom. It's a lot like Times Square, isn’t it? It's noisy. It's overcrowded. There's fluorescent lights glaring from above. There's bright colors. There's lots of conditions and the elements of an early childhood classroom that are very similar to Times Square. 

There's one difference, however, between Times Square and a classroom. The difference is, as an adult, you can get away from Times Square. You can get away from the chaos, the noise, the smells, and everything that's happening on that crowded sidewalk. You can get away from it! All you have to do is step into a restaurant. Maybe if you're a tourist, you can go back to your hotel for a nap. You can step inside a department store. You can go to the city park. There's lots and lots of options that you can do as an adult to get away from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. 

But a child on the other hand is unable to escape a classroom. A child is unable to escape the busyness and the noise—the overwhelming chaotic environment day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out, and so on. You get the point. They are forced to stay within that chaotic environment. They have no other choice. Their responses to this chaotic environment are often increased challenging and negative behaviors, and decreased engagement, focus, and of course, learning. 

Indeed, classroom environments are important because they send messages of emotional stability, emotional security, and safety. These messages have become especially important after COVID-19. One of the most basic emotional development needs of the human spirit is opportunity for seclusion—the chance to go back to your hotel room for a nap, getting out of the chaos of Time Square. Children need to have the opportunity just like adults to be alone for even a few precious seconds, to be able to take time away from the hubbub of the classroom. 

Whether they know it or not, children at some point need a chance to rewind, refresh, and regroup, just like an adult. Yet the opportunity for seclusion in early childhood classrooms is pretty rare. It's one of the vastly overlooked elements of classroom design. 

We have lots and lots of excuses for not providing seclusion in our classrooms. We might say, “Oh my gosh, we don't have enough room. We have limited space! I don't hardly have enough room to get all the required learning centers in and yet alone, a place for seclusion.”  We might not believe that there's enough space in our room to dedicate to a type of space like seclusion. Or we might feel, “Gee! I want to be able to see every child every second of the day! So therefore, I don't think this seclusion idea is a good idea.” It also might be because of our lack of equipment. If you look in early childhood classroom catalogs with furniture, there's really not much out there in terms of furniture design for seclusion. But regardless of the reasons why we don't include seclusion areas in our classroom, it needs to be a very, very important element of our classroom design. So I've got three ideas for helping you create places of seclusion. 

1. Rethink Your Space

The first idea is to rethink your space. Just critically look around at the size of each and every learning center that you have. Now think about the children's usage of that center. Based on the amount of furniture in the particular space and the number of children using that furniture, is there too much square footage that has been dedicated to that space? How about the idea of stealing a few square feet from a larger center and allocating that stolen space to a smaller destination of refuge? 

2. Scrounge Your Space

Idea number two is to scrounge your space. Stand in the middle of your classroom and just look around. Are there any unoccupied spaces, like an empty wall? What could you do with this empty wall to make it a place of solitude? You might think, “Wow, I don't have the slightest idea what to do!” But could you find a sturdy laundry basket, add a small pillow in the basket, and add a flimsy piece of cloth so the child can get in the basket and throw the cloth over his head? This will just make him feel that he's in a place of solitude. 

Or how about taking off the door of a closet and in the lower part of the closet, perhaps there's a space that you can create for a child to be alone. Add cozy elements for snuggling up. Even if it's in the bottom of a closet, it makes a perfect place. You can even add a battery powered light that the child can flip on as he goes into that small snugly space. 

3. Reimagine Your Space

Idea number three is to reimagine your space. Try considering this idea of what I call “topsy-turvy furniture” as a way of reimagining your space. For example, could you turn a small table upside down and drape a flimsy piece of cloth over the four legs? This is instant refuge and instant seclusion! 

Got an extra crib hanging out in the storage closet that you're never going to use in the infant room? What about sawing the four legs off from the crib, turning the crib on its side, adding some lounge-chair cushions, adding a few pillows, and of course, adding some books to make it a terrific place for solitude for one child? You could also drape some flimsy material over the top and on the sides of the crib for an extra sanctuary effect.

Reducing the chaotic effect of Times Square in your classroom can have a dramatic impact on children, especially the emotional impact of safety and of security and of emotional stability.  Start now by creating at least one place where children can find solace. Thank you.


Early Years TV - Early Childhood Design Principles

In this interview we discuss the four design beliefs or pillars that Dr Duncan starts with when designing a space for children - nature aligned, heart centric, sensory based and authentically inspired. Dr Duncan explains the main benefits of designing spaces using this framework and how this can be applied to any setting or childcare centre, whatever size or wherever you are in the world.We also touch on her soon to be published book: The Honeycomb Hypothesis: How infants, toddlers and two-year-olds learn through Nature Play. This is a fascinating new way of thinking about play and how we can supporting children’s learning through the way that they play naturally.

View Video HERE

Presentation at Fullerton College


Class in session: how architectural agency can influence positive learning experiences

Original Posting:


The Old School New School conference returns after a two year hiatus with a virtual program that seeks to understand how architectural agency can influence positive learning experiences.

Held over three online sessions, the conference will examine the design of learning environments in early childhood settings, schools and universities.

Architects, educators and research specialists hailing from Australia, Europe, Asia and North America will present their work and interrogate architecture’s role in the future of education.

Western Academy of Beijing by Rosan Bosch Architects.

Western Academy of Beijing by Rosan Bosch Architects.

Image: Courtesy of the architect

Session one, Designing for Primary and Secondary Education, will present research and evidence-based studies that explore how design can influence learning experience for diverse individuals across a range of backgrounds, cultures and learning abilities. Speakers Rosan Bosch of Rosan Bosch Studio from Denmark and Rachel Neeson of Neeson Murcutt and Neille from Sydney will present a range of projects, while Meagan Killer from the Queensland Department of Education, along with Bentley Park College principals Bruce Houghton and Adam Catalano, will present a program of inclusive space that seeks to support students who are at risk of disengaging from school.

KNO Nursery by Youji no Shiro.

Image: Studio Bauhaus

In session two, Designing for Early Learning, speakers will present case studies of educational projects from a variety of pedagogical approaches and examine how the built environment influences developmental outcomes in children. Presenter Sandra Duncan from the USA will examine research on how emotions influence learning in children, and her co-presenter Faith Swickard will examine how this research applies through a spatial analysis of architectural elements. Sydney landscape architect Fiona Robbé will present a range of play spaces in early childhood settings and Japanese architect Taku Hibino of Youji no Shiro will present case studies of early learning centres.

University of Tasmania's Teaching and Learning Building at Inveresk by John Wardle Architects.

University of Tasmania’s Teaching and Learning Building at Inveresk by John Wardle Architects.

Image: John Wardle Architects.

The final session, Designing for Tertiary Education, will explore the rise of the city campus and how universities are influencing the transformation of the urban fabric. Canadian architect Shirley Blumberg of KPMB will present her practice’s university projects in Canada and the USA; Hazel Porter of Woods Bagot will speak about one of Australia’s first “innovation precincts,” Melbourne Connect; and the University of Tasmania’s vice-chancellor Rufus Black will speak about the university’s campus development projects.

Each session will be followed by a live panel discussion with all the presenters moderated by industry experts.


Old School New School is a Design Speaks event, organized by Architecture Media (publisher of and supported by principal partner Duluxand major partner Planned Cover. Tickets for the conference are on sale now until 24 September. The sessions can be viewed live on 24 and 31 August, and 7 September or on demand until 1 October.



Link to Original Article:

Loss of Habitat

Young children are losing their childhoods in today’s traditional classrooms. Children’s childhoods are being threatened by classrooms that are filled with plastic, gadgets with buttons, television and computer screens, and closed ended learning materials (educational materials which have only one solution, one correct way to use them). The magic of childhood is being threatened by traditional classroom design, which is governed by numbers: the correct number of blocks, the right number and type of books, the required number of learning or activity centers and the necessary manipulatives.

In today's world of governed standards in early childhood, our classrooms are being mandated and governed by “stuff”. This “stuff” is supposedly equated to quality. Achieving the right score on the ECERS, FACERS, SACERS, ICERS—or whatever observation assessment tool one uses to measure quality is absolutely not the answer. Although these observational scales may be useful for understanding the basics of classroom environments, critical essentials are being overlooked and actually thwarted, resulting in institutional and cookie cutter children’s habitats and, therefore, a loss of childhood. Bottom line: The loss of habitats eventually and most assuredly results in the loss of childhood.

It’s time to stop the erosion of childhood. It’s time to create new habitats for young children where the spatial conditions of emotion such as kinship, awe, thrill, power, and intimacy are transparent, where children's habitats are places and not merely spaces, where children can do what they do best, which is simply to be children. Let’s make a commitment to bring back every child’s right: the right of childhood.

Potential Place

Using the Spatial Conditions of Emotions to Design Inspiring Early Childhood Environments

Where are you . . . right now, this very moment?

Chances are, you are either in or very near to a built environment.  That’s because built environments are everywhere. They have been described as “surroundings created for humans, by humans, and to be used for human activity”.1

Built environments are the structures in which you live, work and play (i.e., homes, offices, movie theaters, factories, shopping malls). Less considered and thought about built environments are vehicles and transportation systems such as highways and railways. Even if you are skiing down the groomed slopes of Colorado, bicycling in New York’s Central Park, or taking a walk on San Antonio’s River Walk, the sidewalks, pathways, or walkways are considered built environments.  Unless you are living “off the grid”, there are – indeed – plenty of built environments surrounding you. Because built environments are everywhere, they have a powerful influence on our lives. One of the most important and influential built environments is the early childhood classroom.

Even the wood dock at your favorite fishing spot is a built environment

Importance of Early Childhood Built Environments

Young children spend an enormous amount of time in the early childhood classroom. The 2019 Digest of Educational Statistics reported that children under the age of five who are in child care centers spend an average of 30 hours a week in these built environments.2  With this statistic in mind, it is easy to understand why the indoor built environment of early childhood classrooms are important and how they have the time and power to either positively or negatively shape the lives of young children.

Early childhood educators spend a great deal of thought, time, and energy designing and equipping their classrooms. Teachers are intentional about the furniture and the perfect place to put it. When making intentional decisions about the layout of their environments, for example, teachers make sure that the right kind of centers or learning areas are included in the classroom. They make decisions about where to position these centers based on functionality. Positioning the art center near a source of water and locating it on a tiled surface makes for easier clean-up. Or, placing the block center in an out-of-the-way corner helps to avoid high foot traffic and reduces the possibility of children’s constructions being knocked over. In addition to the classroom’s layout, early childhood educators also carefully select appropriate learning materials to include in each learning space.

While all this talk about designing a classroom based on functionality and filling the space with developmentally appropriate learning materials may sound familiar and seem right, there is actually a critical piece missing from our thinking. We are approaching classroom design from a myopic rather than holistic perspective and end up designing environments based on function rather than on young children’s emotional development.  In their book, Child Development at the Intersection of Emotion and Cognition, researchers Calkins and Bell asserts there is a significant link between intellect and emotions.3

“Emotion is the foundation of learning and must be the cornerstone of design for Early Childhood environments.” Dr. Sandra Duncan

If emotions are at the cornerstone of cognition, then it becomes important for early childhood educators to consider children’s emotional response to place (or our classrooms). This goes beyond the traditional and old-fashioned conception of designing classrooms. In addition to attending to functionality (i.e., where centers are located, what furniture we have, how the classroom furniture is positioned), we must begin thinking about what Architect Faith Swickard calls spatial conditions of emotion4.  Swickard identified several emotional conditions that can be infused into the built environment. Some of these spatial conditions of emotion include (1) kinship; (2) power; (3) thrill; (4) awe; and, (5) intimacy.

1.  Attributes of the Spatial Condition of KINSHIP

Kinship is a spatial condition of emotion.

The Spatial Condition of kinship in an early childhood classroom is propagated by offering spaces that are conducive for children to connect with each other and with their environment. This means that the environment provides affordances and architectural design or spaces built just for two children in order to encourage sharing, co-operating, and collaborating.  Humans are social beings — and children are no exception. Given the space and place to play or work together, children naturally gravitate towards each other.

Some strategies for spaces designed exclusively for two include - bench seats; large ottoman; and a table for two.

2.  Attributes of the Spatial Condition of THRILL

Thrill is a physiological condition of emotion.

The Spatial Condition of thrill is easy to come by when working with young children. Simply create a long tunnel made out of cardboard boxes. It’s as if the end destination is going to change because children will crawl again….and again….and again. Just for the thrill of it.

3.  Attributes of the Spatial Condition of AWE

Awe is a physiological condition of emotion.

The Spatial Condition of awe is promoted when children are given opportunities to interact with wondrous objects such as a large unbreakable floor mirror coupled with LED lights and glittery metal balls.

Awe is an emotion that has a powerful effect on our minds and bodies. Everyone — especially children — need to feel the exhilaration and magic of the Spatial Condition of awe. Illumination, mirrors, prisms, and light and shadow experiences make a good beginning.

4. Attributes of the Spatial Condition of POWER

Power is a behavioral condition of emotion.

The Spatial Condition of power happens when teachers hand over the reins of environmental control. Give children the power to create their own environments and their own spaces in the classroom.

Children’s memories are fueled by emotions. The stronger the emotional connection, the stronger the memory. When a child has grown into adulthood, she will not remember the table or chair—what it was made from, what color it was, how it looked. What she will remember is the table she built from the classroom’s table and chair. Activating the Spatial Conditions of Power taps into the emotions area of the brain and is important for children’s long- and short-term memories. Powered-centered classrooms invite children to act upon and power to change the classroom’s architecture.

Although we pay enormous attention to the quantitative aspects of our classroom, we sometimes overlook the importance of the child’s inner space or the emotional connection.  This oversight may be because inner space is hard to quantify — it’s hard to measure and difficult to count.  This oversight could be a result of mandated environmental rating scales, which primarily rate through observation of visible objects (i.e., number of blocks) rather than emotions. Perhaps considering the spatial conditions of emotions in a classroom never occurred to you until now.

Consider how to infuse the Spatial Conditions of Emotions into the classroom. When you do this, you are actually designing at the intersection of child (inner) and classroom (outer).  The Spatial Conditions of Emotions helps you discover what might be helpful in designing for emotions — for the qualitative side of the equation — for the spatial conditions of emotion.


Original Article:


1. University of Windsor.“built-environment”-mean

2. deBrey, C. & Snyder, T. (February, 2021). Digest of Educational Statistics 2019. Institute of Education Statistics.

3. Calkins & Bell (2010). Child Development at the Intersection of Emotions and Cognition.

4. Faith Swikard (2018).