Dr. Sandra Duncan: How to Design Inspiring Early Learning Spaces - Early Learning Nation

Dr. Sandra Duncan: How to Design Inspiring Early Learning Spaces

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

When most people talk about designing an early childhood education program, they mean the curriculum, the funding, or the program. Not Dr. Sandra Duncan. When the Design Consultant for Early Childhood Classrooms and Adjunct Professor at Nova Southeastern University talks about designing, she means it literally.


Chris Riback:                 Sandra, welcome to the studio.

Sandra Duncan:            Thank you.

Chris Riback:                 When most people talk about designing an early childhood education program, they mean the curriculum, the funding, the program. It seems that when you talk about designing, you literally mean designing, not just the building plan and equipment, but the physical structure, the layout, and more. What are the principles of design as you mean it in early in an early childhood program?

Sandra Duncan:            In 2010, several coauthors published a book. It was called Inspiring Spaces for Young Children. In that book, we put forth seven principles of design. They are nature inspires beauty, color generates interest, furnishings define space, texture adds depth, displays enhance environment, and elements heighten ambiance. In that book, what we urge teachers to do was to take a strong look, not only of the functionality like you just talked about, but to look at the aesthetic value of the classroom. When I first started talking about making ascetically pleasing classrooms-

Chris Riback:                 People must have looked at you like you were crazy.

Sandra Duncan:            They looked at me like I was crazy, because they’re very used to designing a classroom based on functionality. And so, we urged them to start thinking about environments from a space of beauty. This was very unusual and people really did not get it for a while. But after we started talking about it and we started talking about the research, how beauty increases children’s wonder. We have that research from Dr. Ruth Wilson who is an advocate of beauty, that children need beauty. If you have something beautiful like a pine cone, the child picks up that pine cone and wonders about it, and wonder is the essence of learning. There is really no learning that takes place unless there’s wonder attached to it.

Chris Riback:                 Which seems to be table stakes. Of course it needs to be functional. Of course one needs furniture where a child can sit comfortably, a desk where, you know, if you’re having a desk. But the ways in which the science of learning and development and the what the research has shown there has affected and changed the way we think about how children learn and how we should teach. We should be thinking about the environment in which children learn much differently as well. Is that right?

Sandra Duncan:            The environment absolutely impacts how children move about the environment, how children navigate the environment, how they interact with the environment, what they do in that environment, and the emotional social connection to the environment. At the cornerstone of those seven principles of designed is nature inspires beauty. We’re really big on the idea of not only including live plants, fish, live things, but also including natural elements such as a wicker basket or a wooden bowl. Things that are natural. Children need authentic things to play with, real things. Not the plastic teapot, not the plastic shovel, but real honest to goodness tools and honest to goodness objects that come from real life.

Sandra Duncan:            And it’s so important. We have the research that says when children play with authentic items that their language is richer, that their sentences are longer, that the number of syllables that they use in the sentence and the words are longer and more intense. We have research that says if you increase authenticity, if you increase children’s exposure to nature, all of that. For example, when you look at that pine cone again, a child wonders about it so he observes it longer. Observers make good readers because they observe that pine cone, they focus on it, and then they can tell the difference between a lowercase B and a lowercase D.

Chris Riback:                 You’re actually taking these principles, and your knowledge, and your experience and translating it into a furniture design. How does that work?

Sandra Duncan:            Yes. Well, it was a long process, but what we tried to do-

Chris Riback:                 Sense of place furniture, yes?

Sandra Duncan:            Sense of place furniture. What we tried to do is we tried to take those concepts, those seven principles to design, and see how could we infiltrate those into furniture. Because we know that furniture design and furniture lines, and we have some research that says humans are more akin to round curves. Our brain is actually more akin to round curves rather than rectangular, angular types of environments. And so, we tried to infuse those natural elements.

Sandra Duncan:            We have four pillars of design. They are: Nature Align, which you know why. Heart-Centered. That means that we are looking at classroom design from an empathic viewpoint, which means we’re looking at that furniture from the end user. What’s the child going to do with that furniture? How is the child going to interact with that furniture? Then we have Sensory Base, which you can understand why, and Authentically Inspired.

Chris Riback:                 It’s very interesting to hear about and see principles translated into reality and into usable action. Thank you for your ideas, and thank you for stopping by the studio.

Sandra Duncan:            Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to.


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