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Early education case study: Using design to nurture diverse learners

May 05, 2021

By Steve Jelinek

How a new building design continues to support the learning goals of a 40-year-old program

Children learn from their experiences. Today, we recognize that giving children the opportunity to shape their world, to take risks, to fail and succeed is a critical aspect of education. How have our recent designs for early childhood education been shaped by this idea? What has worked best? And what aspects of our design process have set up places that favor experiential learning to succeed in their mission of educating the young?

Community learning

The Phyllis Fratzke Early Childhood Learning Laboratory (ECLL) at Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan has a 40-year history of providing exemplary early childhood education and nurturing diverse learners. It had outgrown the square footage and organization of its previous location.

The design for the new facility is based upon the belief that children, like adults, learn best from their experiences in a community of learners. The new ECLL building expands the program’s scale and impact by providing early childhood education services to the community and laboratory spaces that support hands-on education for college students. The location of the single-story, 22,300-square-foot facility centralizes the program to its users, creating a destination between the surrounding community and the college campus. 

The Phyllis Fratzke Early Childhood Learning Laboratory at Grand Rapids Community College creates a destination between the surrounding community and the college campus. 

I recently met with the program’s director, JaneAnn Benson, to reflect on how the building has supported the program’s lofty goal during the past five years. There are several universal lessons that can be adapted for the design and operation of modern early childhood learning spaces.

A clear vision

A successful early childhood education facility must respond directly to the community that it serves. From the families to the neighborhood to the staff and teachers to the children, community engagement in the design process is critical. 

Before kicking off that design process with the Stantec team, JaneAnn, Becky Brinks, and the Grand Rapids Community College ECLL team worked diligently to develop a vision for program’s future. They brought ideas about the type and quality of spaces to clearly convey their values and success factors. While that vision gave the design team a head start, the concept evolved as the team engaged more with the community, both immediate and extended, to develop the path forward.

The ECLL leadership team made inroads on their own community definition—first by simply stating it, reflecting on it, and then refining it. Surveys were given to the community members—staff, teachers, families, children, and college students—who would be the building end users. Having their feedback was key while developing the spaces to meet their needs and in prioritizing choices during design. 

A protected courtyard that is directly accessible to the younger children’s classrooms serves as their secure outdoor learning space.

Some examples of survey questions and input gathering used by the ECLL team:

  • Past and current teachers were asked to identify three things the center needs to have to make it a center of quality.
  • A gallery walk—with themes of safety, family, gathering, parent welcoming, outdoor access, technology, and more—was used to engage with families and have them reflect on their thoughts for an ideal facility.
  • Children were given crafting supplies and images to create depictions of how they wanted the building to look and function.
  • The college community held brainstorming sessions where small groups imagined how the building could be used in ways that were previously unimagined.
  • Campus neighbors were invited with the simple query, “How can the new building be a good neighbor?”

Survey results pointed to an overwhelming demand for natural materials, natural light, and access to the outdoors—both visual and physical. These became the top priorities during the facility’s design development. While these specific elements may not be right for all facilities, we believe it’s critically important to solicit input from the full diversity of building users to define a community and then to strengthen it.

Continuous community engagement

Community engagement at the ECLL entered a new chapter once the building opened. JaneAnn has continued to actively engage with the community to bring disparate groups together, seeking ways to include groups previously unconnected to the program. She utilizes the building’s large, multipurpose room to host community events that enhance her efforts. 

The building also plays a part in creating connections to illustrate the importance of the program and its role in peoples’ lives.

Including a space that can host events that are not directly connected to the ECLL’s program has also given the children and staff an opportunity to learn new things both directly and indirectly. This type of engagement has created new advocates for the program and opened volunteer openings. There is an added benefit of including neighbors as increased security by providing low-cost natural surveillance.

Creating connections

The building also plays a part in creating connections to illustrate the importance of the program and its role in peoples’ lives. 

In addition to expanding its reach with the community, every high-quality ECLL actively creates and strengthens relationships within the confines of its walls. The program director looks to create outside connections. The facility staff must create the classroom—and between classrooms—connections. 

Visibility is the key player. Views into classrooms from the corridors put teaching and learning on display—demystifying the activities inside. Not only is this important in creating a baseline of excellence between the teachers but the children also benefit by seeing what other classrooms are doing. 

The ECLL expanded upon these ideas of learning on display and modeling learning. One design element—a protected courtyard—is directly accessible to the younger children’s classrooms as their secure outdoor learning space. Visual connections surround from the adjacent corridor and multipurpose room. Extensive use of glass allows views across spaces. This enables an understanding of one another and showcases all the activities taking place. 

Flexibility of space

The year 2020 taught us all lessons. Chief among them is this: while the future is unknown and unpredictable, a community’s resiliency and vigor can remain constant, or even strengthen in the face of adversity.

During the design process, it is important for the team to understand and incorporate spaces for both expected and unexpected uses. Multipurpose rooms, both big and small, can be used for group functions at different scales. Wider hallways can have dual purpose with the addition of small areas for breakout—a space that can be intentionally designed. 

Visibility is a key part of the design at the Phyllis Fratzke ECLL. Views into classrooms from the corridors put teaching and learning on display.

Similarly, outdoor spaces should be conceived with flexibility and the spontaneity which evolve over time. Incorporating programming that stretches the limits of community at the ECLL have included a temporary exhibition from the local children’s museum, a performance by the local symphony, and a series of adult nights for the neighbors, among others.

Planning for the inevitable evolution in the way spaces are used allows for pedagogy to also evolve over time. Primarily, the outdoors has really been used by the ECLL staff and the students in the Child Development program. The courtyard is specifically used often to showcase how the outdoors can be an extension of the classroom. Professors bring children outside and have them engage in nature-based learning experiences.

Current COVID-19 circumstances require more space for activities to continue to function, and the opportunities for extending a building’s use beyond what’s inside should be considered in development.

Space for discovery 

Designing for discovery and the perception of taking risks (even if they are not) builds knowledge and confidence. Whether an ECLL’s teaching philosophy is the Project Method, Reggio Emelia, or something different, giving children the opportunity to shape their world is critical.

At the ECLL, windowsills were simply designed with a depth that incorporates space for children to climb, sit, perform, or play. These areas in the classrooms and the corridors also allow learning to extend out of the classroom and engage with passersby.

When designing early education spaces, it is important to consider the use of multipurpose rooms, both big and small; lighting; and views.

Small gardens are incorporated into the corridors and planter boxes give students and families another opportunity to interact with the building and each other. These mini gardens have containers that have been used by the children to grow plants. The containers are also removable, opening-up a limitless array of options for interaction and have been used as construction toy bins, scavenger hunt hiding spots, discovery baskets, and collaborative project areas. Places that allow for the building users to customize and showcase their creations help to create a culture and promote a sense of ownership. 

Over the past several years, biophilia—our innate pull to connect with nature and its benefits—has been defined and evaluated by researchers and organizations. As we spend most of our hours indoors, how do we borrow from this research to enhance our built environment? Biophilic design is used within the ECLL facility to increase its users’ connection to the natural world through direct and simulated relationships. The research supports that when we work and play in natural spaces, we increase our overall health and reduce stress. 

Building on the biophilic principles, local ecology has found its way into the interior design. Inspired by four different Michigan-specific types of ecology: beach, riverbed, forest, and grassy fields. Colors, textures, and patterns are interpreted to provide another learning opportunity for the children and a connection to their natural world. The early survey work done by the leadership team found that natural materials were a priority, and the building design uses them to celebrate its local context.

The third teacher

Alongside the instructor and the other students, the Reggio Emilia education framework describes the learning environment as the “third teacher.” When that environment is highly intentional, it creates spaces that reflect children’s learning and development.

A building is so much more than four walls. When we get it “right,” it has a heartbeat and pulse. A space that supports educators, children, families, and the community has a lasting impact on growing future leaders. It is our call to action to champion spaces for young children with this challenge in mind. 

  • Steve Jelinek

    As a senior designer, Steve is part of our safety and security research and benchmarking task force. He studies resilient institutional design and develops best practices for blending awareness and security into design.

    Contact Steve
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