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Three Timeless Lessons for Designing Child-Oriented Places of Learning


By Eric Epstein, AIA, LEED AP


“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” When Winston Churchill spoke these words in 1943, he was referring to rebuilding the House of Commons and how the mere shape of the chamber determined the nature of discourse in the parliamentary democracy. But as we know, this aptly applies to all buildings and spaces we inhabit, not the least of which are schools—a building typology that plays an outsized role in shaping us during our most formative years. By the time the average student graduates from college he or she will have spent about 24,000 hours, or a fifth of all waking hours, in school buildings.

This is in no way meant to minimize the far greater influence parents and educators have on children’s development, as they rightly should, but architects do have a role to play. While we will leave the difficult questions of pedagogy to educators and child psychologists, we know that the full potential of any teaching method can only be realized when the physical teaching spaces are aligned with the school’s mission. As important as that is, there are several universal and timeless lessons that should inform the design of every school. Let’s look at three of them.


Students in a traditional classroom setting.

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Visual and spatial connections throughout the building create a sense of community for young learners at the Coney Island Childhood Center.


The new Student Commons is the heart of student life at Braverman High School, designed to promote unscripted interactions, fellowship, and informal learning.

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The importance of outdoor play and connections to nature drove the design of the Coney Island Childhood Center, where landscaped play roofs are direct extensions of classrooms.

Design the Spaces Between


Humans are social beings, with an evolutionary need for in-person interaction. Establishing and maintaining social connections reinforces our common perceptions of the world around us and enables us to learn and grow through exchanges of ideas. For younger children, socialization is simply essential for healthy emotional development and acquiring skills needed for relating to others. That’s how children become functional adults and why, despite some instructional content inevitably migrating to remote learning, physical schools are here to stay.


Yet classrooms are designed for academics, not socializing. It’s ironic that today the word school conjures up neat rows of children at desks assiduously working away, while the word’s derivation is quite the opposite. The old Greek word skhole (or schola in Latin) meant leisure, or the idle time between work. It was a time of rest when one could engage in free discussion with others, and most likely took place outdoors under the open sky. In today’s schools, this kind of socializing—and arguably the most important learning—occurs outside the classroom, in between work. If designed thoughtfully, these in between spaces enable informal gathering, allow students to decompress, and encourage unscripted interactions that foster fellowship and healthy social skills. These all too often overlooked spaces, which are just as important as the classrooms, are the glue that binds a school together, promoting school spirit and building community.

One Size Fits Few


In days of old, teachers of one-room schoolhouses taught grades one through eight, with up to thirty students spanning ages five through seventeen, all learning different subjects at the same time, and all in one classroom. Although their methods were crude by today’s measures, those teachers used a form of differentiated instruction to reach each student at his or her level. This practice began to wane during the nineteenth century when Horace Mann and Henry Barnard advocated for, and succeeded in, establishing compulsory schooling. Thousands of what were called Common Schools (and later Public Schools) were built for arguably the utilitarian goal of preparing masses of children to be productive employees in an industrialized economy. It has since become clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to education does not work well for reaching individual children. After all, each child has unique aptitudes, responds differently to various learning styles, and absorbs material at his or her own pace.


In recent decades educators have returned to using differentiated and individualized teaching methods, which have evolved to include a range of tools such as multiple instruction settings (lecture-based, seminar, group work, or individual learning), targeting different learning modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or mixed), tailoring learning content, and adjusting the pace of work for different groups or even individual students. This varied approach requires maximum classroom flexibility, not only in sizes and shapes of rooms, but also in the types of furniture and even technology. The ability to easily and quickly shift between individual and group work, sitting and active lessons, and to employ selected technology seamlessly is key for teachers to effectively reach every student.

Reconnect with Nature


In his seminal book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv warned of what he called Nature Deficit Disorder in children deprived of outdoor play. This issue is especially prevalent in urbanized areas. Neurologically, humans evolved around a rural, nature-oriented existence thousands of years ago and our brains haven’t caught up with the relatively recent indoor-oriented, hyper-stimulating environment. Dr. Ming Kuo, a researcher in human health at the University of Illinois, points out hundreds of studies as well as anecdotal accounts that show children who spend regular time in fresh air, sunlight, and in contact with nature exhibit improved attention and engagement in class, higher cognitive performance and creativity, lower stress levels, improved adaptation to stress, and improved behavioral regulation. Indicators of ADHD and other behavioral, mental, and emotional conditions appear to be improved also.



Much like other components of sustainable school design, incorporating meaningful outdoor spaces for play, providing access to trees, grass, and dirt, and even designing spaces for conducting classes outside are key elements of healthy school design. Restoring children’s connection with nature and bringing learning beyond the classroom walls shouldn’t be just a goal, it should be the norm.


As an architect, my process of designing schools has been keenly focused on these three critical areas and I have been fortunate to have clients who value this approach and the tangible results it yields. As design professionals work together with educators, administrators, and parents in shaping new schools, they should feel confident embracing these simple, timeless, and enduring lessons to positively shape future generations of learners.




Eric Epstein, AIA, LEED AP, is an architect and principal at Epstein Architecture in New York City. He is a proud parent of two school-aged children.



Surrounded by urban density and high-rise towers, students at the Riverside School reconnect with sunshine and the outdoors on a fourth-floor play roof.

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