Sandra Duncan

"There are two gift we must give our children: One is roots and the other is wings."
- Unknown

The Potential Framework

Take a look around you. Regardless of where you are, there is most likely a built environment either very close to you or not far away.  So, what exactly are built environments?  In their book, “Spaces for Children: The Built Environment & Child Development”, Weinstein and David defined built environments like this: 

"Built environments are man-made structures,
features, and facilities viewed collectively as an environment
in which people live, work, and play."

Examples of built environments include: houses, apartments, tents, office buildings, movie theaters, shopping malls, tree houses, igloos, restaurants, factories, and even boats, trucks, airplanes, and cars. Built environments also extend to systems such as the railroad or highway systems.  Even if you are walking in a park, there are many built environments all around—in the sidewalks, pathways, and trails that you hike. Once you begin thinking about it, built environments are everywhere and occupy a lot of our lives. 

Indeed, it has been estimated that 86.9% of people’s time is spent in a built environment with one in four Americans spending the entire day without going outside. When it comes to children, the National Council for Educational Statistics in 2016 estimated that young children (under the age of 5) spend an average of 30.6 hours a week in non-parental care in built environments called child care centers. Knowing all this, it is easy to understand why designing early childhood environments where children spend such large chunks of time is an important responsibility for early childhood educators. It is critical for educators of young children to understand the enormous impact space has on children’s growth and development.

Space Speaks

Space speaks. Space influences. Space empowers.  Early childhood environments are powerful and have the ability to influence young children’s lives. Designing these places requires educators to understand the important connection between children’s inner needs (or emotions) and the environmental design and how this connection can have either a positive or negative impact on their growth and development. Researchers have found that emotions play an important part in children’s development, especially in cognition and long-term memory. If emotion is at the cornerstone of cognition, then it follows that designing and creating emotion-based places for children to learn is equally important. This notion goes beyond the traditional, old-fashioned ways of designing classrooms.

The typical way early childhood educators design their classrooms is based on functionality. That is, put the art center near a source of water and on tile flooring for easy clean-up. Position the block corner in an out-of-the-way spot to avoid tripping over the children’s constructions. Or, find the perfect space in the classroom most likely to be secluded and somewhat quiet place for the book nook. In addition to the classroom’s functionality, we are also obsessed about physical or actual components in the environment, which can be seen and counted such as the number and types of blocks or books. Too often we only think about the quantitative stuff when designing classrooms.  How many chairs . . . what kinds of tables . . . what types of shelves . . . which classroom materials?  And, where do I put all these objects in the space that I have?  This is quantitative stuff.  You can see it, physically touch it, count it.

 Learning and emotions are intertwined. The stronger the emotions, the deeper the learning.

Although we pay enormous attention to the quantitative aspects of our classroom, we sometimes overlook the importance of children’s inner and personal spaces or emotional connections.  This oversight may happen because inner space (or children’s emotion) is hard to quantify—it’s hard to measure and difficult to count.  Additionally, this oversight could be a result of mandated environmental rating scales, which rate, for the most part, the environment’s level of quality by the observation of visible objects (i.e., number of blocks, amount and type of books, specific furniture). Attending to these quantitative objects and their functionality is necessary. However, just designing from a functionality or quantitative viewpoint results in overlooking a critical component of emotion-based classroom design, which is qualitative in nature and called the Design Conditions of Emotion. 

The intersection between the child and the built environment is called 
The Potential Place
The Potential Place is founded and based on three ideas or theories: 

(1) Donald Winnicott’s theory of transitional space, which is the intersection between child and environment.
(2) Faith Swickard’s ideas about Spatial Conditions of Emotion, which include the emotions of power, thrill, intimacy, awe, and kinship.
(3) James Gibson’s theory of affordances, which are visible or physical messages or opportunities that encourage children to take action.
Emotion is the foundation of learning and, therefore, must be the cornerstone of design for early childhood environments. 
Sandra Duncan, EdD
It is vitally important for teachers to intentionally design spaces which provide and offer children’s opportunities to experience emotions. In addition to thinking about traditional classroom design (i.e., room layout, kinds and types of furniture, architectural features) from a functionality viewpoint, it is essential to create environments from an emotional viewpoint. What this means is to purposefully prepare the environment by infusing opportunities for young children to emotionally experience the environment. The Potential Place is the meeting ground or intersection between the child and the built environment. As early childhood practitioners, it is our responsibility to focus our attention on this intersection when designing environments for young children. It is in this intersection where the seeds of emotion are planted, take root, grow a sturdy trunk, and leaf-out into the entire classroom. It is here--in this intersection—where children’s positive growth and development begins and ripples outward--just like the leaves on the tree.  It is here—in this special space—where the needs and emotions of young children intersect with the classroom space.  It is here—where children are given opportunities in the built environment to experience powerful emotions. It is called The Potential Place. 

Conditions of Emotion

Thrill The Potential Place is a design strategy that connects children’s inner (or emotional) needs with the physical built environment. This design strategy concentrates on the intersection between child and space and is accomplished by intentionally preparing the environment so children can have opportunities to experience the powerful conditions of emotions. The Potential Place has identified 5 design conditions of emotions, which are (1) power; (2) thrill; (3) awe; (4) intimacy; and, (5) kinship.

According to psychologist Donald Winnicott’s Theory of Transitional Space and architect Faith Swickard’s spatial conditions of emotions, the potential space is the intermediate area of human experience in which inner reality and external (or shared) life combine, which contributes to the whole health as well as positive development of an individual. Although Swickard identified six, The Potential Place has selected 5 design conditions of emotions as most important to include in early childhood environments. The 5 conditions of emotions are: (1) Kinship; (2) Awe; (3) Thrill; (4) Intimacy; and, (5) Power. Each are defined in a different way; however, it is important to understand how these conditions are intertwined and rarely seen or exhibited in isolation in the early childhood classroom.

Attributes for Conditions of Emotions

When considering how to infuse the 5 design conditions of emotion into the classroom, the teacher should consider the characteristics or attributes of each emotion. That is, what attributes could be attached to an emotion? For example, attributes that might be connected to the emotion of AWE could be wonder, beauty, and/or inspiring. Although The Potential Place has connected certain attributes that you might consider when thinking about the 5 conditions, these attributes are not definitive nor written in stone and, therefore, open to interpretation based on your personal ideas, beliefs, and approaches.

Affordances in the Environment

When educators use design strategies that promote the attributes of emotion into children’s environments, they are offering affordances. An affordance, according to psychologist James Gibson, is an action possibility that exists between people and the environment. An affordance is a visual or physical message from the environment that informs the child how to act or what to do. Examples of affordances include furniture, equipment, furnishings (i.e., rugs), and learning materials and objects in the classroom. A tunnel, for example, sends a visual message to physically crawl through it. Or, a comfy chair visually invites children to climb up and get cozy. Affordances, in essence, are opportunities for action.  These actions and interactions with affordances results in children encountering or experiencing emotions such as awe, thrill, intimacy, kinship, and power. In other words, the affordances in the classroom grants or empowers children to experience important and powerful emotions, which—in turn—promote the spatial condition of kinship and helps in guiding children’s positive growth and development.                                       

An example of an affordance is when a loft-like structure is placed within the classroom’s four walls. This loft-like structure in the classroom is an affordance, which can offer many opportunities for young children to experience the design conditions of emotion: 

POWER can be experienced when children climb to the top and reign over others. 

INTIMACY can be experienced when a small area in the loft is covered by a flimsy see-through fabric and one child is given the opportunity to “seclude away” from others. 

AWE can be experienced when the loft is transformed into an illumination station where children can play with the mysteries of light and shadow.

THRILL can be experienced when children are allowed to jump from a low landing in the loft. 

KINSHIP can be experienced when a space for two children is intentionally designed in the loft (i.e., two cozy pillows and a small basket of books or puppets).  

The Potential Place recognizes that emotions are the foundation for learning so it offers children opportunities (or affordances) to experience important emotions (i.e., power, kinship, thrill, awe, and intimacy) that have been intentionally infused into the early childhood environment.

Designing an early childhood classroom is much like the growth of a tree. In order for a tree to not only survive but thrive, it must have basic attributes: (1) Roots; (2) Trunk; and, (3) Leaves.

Roots (Essentials). A basic attribute that is essential for tree growth and survival is a good root system. Without roots, a tree will topple over in a slight breeze. Roots give the tree strength and are essential to its well-being so it can weather any storm. Likewise, effective classroom environments must have strong roots, which are elements such as cleanliness, organization, and clutter-free.

Trunk (Foundation). The trunk provides its shape and supports the tree’s limbs, stems, and leaves. It connects the roots to the leaves and supports healthy growth by carrying minerals and sugars. Similarly, well-designed environments connect children’s minds and bodies to the spaces and places we create for them.

Leaves (Affordances). The most important job of leaves is to absorb sunlight, which is an affordance, from the environment and to produce food for the tree. When a tree produces food, it generates energy and beauty. Much like leaves absorb sunlight from the environment, children also soak in their surroundings in their quest for developing understandings about the world around them in beautiful learning environments. The leaves are the affordances for the 5 design conditions of emotion: (1) Kinship; (2) Intimacy; (3) Power; (4) Thrill; and, (5) Awe.