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Healthy roots: How to create educational spaces for early developmental success

May 09, 2023

By Parul Vyas

Outdoor learning and play environments are important for children. How do the spaces complement early education centers?

A version of this blog originally appears as “Healthy Roots” in our 2023 Research + Benchmarking publication.

Research shows there are important positive links between human well-being and time spent outdoors. Outdoor learning and play environments with diverse natural elements advance and enrich the development, health, and well-being of young children. Being outside stimulates brain development. Direct, ongoing experience of nature in familiar settings remains a vital source for children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. Furthermore, proximity to views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities.

In November 2020, Willis Independent School District (ISD) selected Stantec to develop an ambitious early education design program for a new preschool center. Through a series of visioning sessions with the district’s stakeholders, we discussed what makes their current school successful and how this new facility could build upon that while creating new opportunities for innovation.

The outdoor learning center at the Roark Early Childhood Education Center is complemented by activities that encourage curiosity and discovery.

In terms of human development, the importance of early childhood education cannot be emphasized enough. A child’s early years are the foundation for development, providing a base for future learning and abilities, including cognitive and social development. So how could our design create a new learning environment where young children could thrive? How could we create a forward-thinking early educational design for the district?

We were inspired by these big questions. Our design team aimed to explore and discover ideas that aligned with the district’s vision. We wanted to find diverse learning strategies that can be supported by designs that amplify student opportunities and support a high-quality educational experience.

Outdoor learning and spatial interior/exterior connection

For the new Roark Early Education Center (EEC), it was essential to provide access and views to outdoor spaces. This access to the outdoors for early learners can take various forms. Some districts plan for standalone outdoor learning centers while others aim to integrate the concept within their K-12 school designs.

The Roark EEC campus integrates the outdoors into the design. The new school boasts of two large, secured courtyards surrounded by the learning communities. Providing a safe space for early learners to discover and explore, the courtyards feature plantings, mounds, logs, a cistern, and a sun tower, drawing attention to environmental features. These interactive features engage children while fostering respect for the environment. It also provides them with occasions to practice independence. Large windows in every classroom and transparency in the main circulation design open the space toward the courtyards and provide a strong indoor-outdoor connection. The Roark EEC dining hall is the heart of the school and connects to the outdoors with flowing patterns on the floor, wood ceilings, and courtyards in the backdrop.

The stepping logs and rocks from the outside take the form of stepping blocks down the hallways of the school. Educators in the school integrate the outdoor elements as learning tools. Students count logs, watch sun angles, observe water collection and irrigation, compare natural and artificial elements, and watch the seasons change. Access to the natural world builds the early learner’s awareness of their surroundings and life cycles.

An aerial view into the outdoor learning courtyard at the new Roark Early Childhood Education Center in Houston, Texas.

Sensory learning in early childhood

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that children move through various stages of mental development. The young child experiences learning as sensory absorption. According to his research, during the initial stages of cognitive development perception conducts thought.

Learning environments designed to provide a wide variety of colorful elements, textures, smells, temperatures, and sounds will stimulate the early learner’s senses. The Roark EEC puts these ideas into practice by using tactile finishes with different temperatures to the touch. The school’s floor patterns work as a wayfinding tool for early learners who can make the connection between the different colored flooring lines and their own classroom pod’s color.

Texture provides variety, adds interest, and creates contrast in the interior design. Tapping into contrasting texture in the landscape, the design combines fine and coarse surfaces for plants or materials. Everything has a texture: plant foliage, rocks, paving, flowers, bark, and the overall branching pattern.

The physical environment influences the way children develop their ability to learn and interact with others.

Play-based learning environments

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, ability, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength—all important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children learn to forge connections with others, to share, to negotiate and resolve conflicts, as well as learn how to advocate for themselves. Play is also a natural tool that children can use to build their resilience and coping skills as they learn to navigate relationships and deal with social challenges as well as conquer their fears.

As a society, we are now rethinking ways to help young children tap their vast learning potential. Play is one of the most important ways young children gain knowledge and skills, and for this reason, environments that promote play, exploration, and hands-on learning are at the core of effective early childhood programs.

The United Nations says that “play is an essential strategy for learning.” In the Roark EEC, the entire school is a playing/learning tool. We designed the interior space around the concept of a “big city,” with the classrooms acting as “homes,” the learning communities simulating “neighborhoods,” and the corridors serving as “roadways.” We designed the larger, dynamic, and colorful space for dining to be analogous to a “city” and surrounded it with graphics that highlight the Houston skyline. 

Opportunities for physical learning abound both inside and outside at the Roark Early Childhood Education Center.

A central principle of learning through play is the importance of bringing together the different spheres of a child’s life—their homes, their community, and the wider world. It provides continuity and connectivity in their learning processes.

Research shows that movement and physical activity can help students learn. To support that, the Roark EEC also features a large outdoor play area with age-appropriate equipment, plants and vegetation, and a range of multisensory play opportunities and safe surfaces.

The colorful steps in the main corridors are a fun way to move from one area to the other. And each learning pod or “neighborhood” has its own flexible space with a platform for performances and larger community gatherings.

Helping young minds

Early childhood is an important and very specific stage of development for students. And early childhood education plays a fundamental role in fostering student development before the age of 5.

Research shows its benefits are lasting. The physical environment influences the way children develop their ability to learn and interact with others. As designers, the opportunity to create spaces that provide a foundation for students to fulfill their potential is a responsibility we don’t take lightly. This inspires our ongoing research into early learning environments.

  • Parul Vyas

    Parul works with educators, facility planners, and community leaders to create learning environments fit for the twenty-first century.

    Contact Parul
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