Sandra Duncan

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

  • Collaboration
  • Connection
  • Teamwork
  • Sense of Community
  • Belonging

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

  • Prospect
  • Novelty
  • Surprise
  • Monumental
  • Bright

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

  • Wonder
  • Joyful
  • Stimulating
  • Uplifting
  • Inspiring

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

  • Autonomy
  • Choice
  • Change
  • Active
  • Self-Actualisation

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).