Early Learning Centres: Creating Vehicles of Transformation


Towards the middle of the last century, Early Learning Centers (ELC) emerged as places to maximize every child’s chances of healthy physical, social and emotional development. The ELC is an environment in which the child develops skills that can be transferred to other environments and eventually to the workplace. Given this, the ELC may be characterized as a vehicle for learning, a socio-cultural environment which supports, inspires and motivates children to develop identities for themselves as they are engaged in meaningful activities. These places are transactional. Understanding these spaces as transactional acknowledges that actions, goals and motivation of the learners are embedded within a time a place (Altman, 1992). Not only must research examine the learner but the physical environment must also be studied to understand its impact on them as well as the learning and the things to be learned. Given this, developmental, educational, and environmental psychological theories and research on early childhood education must become an integral component in the architectural design process. The purpose of this article is to illustrate the role of the physical environment and highlight its importance for early childhood education. As a basis for this discussion, Reggio Emilia and Montessori approaches will be presented to provide a framework for creating settings that provide opportunities for learners to develop themselves. Furthermore, this article will examine the following questions:

  • Why must ELCs be understood as vehicle for learning?
  • What are the conceptual features of the physical environment that mediates engagement?
  • What do these places look like?

ELCs as Vehicles for Learning

Generally, an Early Learning Center (ELC) is a place for children as early as six weeks to five years of age. In these places, children develop an identity of themselves as they create meanings of things through their engagements in the natural and human-made physical environments. Hence the ELC acts as a vehicle that supports exploration as a way of learning. As children explore, they learn how to initiate, collaborate, and negotiate themselves in space and in relationship to others. These environments where the learner is being transformed by the learning environment, and the learning environment is simultaneously transformed by the learner can be described as active (Lippman, 2012). Given this, ELCs cannot be understood as static, but must be viewed as dynamic and are in all ways evolving in relationship to the children, the learning and the things to be learned. However, understanding the practice of ELCs is not a novel or innovative concept, but rather finds its roots in Reggio Emilia and Montessori Learning Environments.

Reggio Emilia & Montessori Learning Environments

Reggio Emilia and Montessori are alternatives to traditional elementary and early childhood education programs. Both are precedents for progressive educational reform. Although these programs exist throughout the world, the schools and classrooms that have emerged do not necessarily look alike, but rather are contextually and culturally specific to the locations in which they have been built. They endure because each learning environment is grounded in pedagogical foundations that begin with the child and how children acquire knowledge. Reggio Emilia: The Reggio Emilia Approach to preschool education was started by the schools of the city of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy after World War II. Under the leadership of its founding director, Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), an infant/toddler/preprimary program evolved.

Reggio Emilia: The Reggio Emilia approach to childcare and education views teachers as learners and the physical environment as an integral component in the learning process. The children’s development occurs through the use of symbolic languages as they work through specific projects. Generally, there are 12 children in infant classes, 18 in toddler classes, and 24 in pre-primary classes. In addition, one “atelierista”, a teacher trained in the arts, works with classroom teachers in curriculum development and documentation. In these centers there is neither a principal nor a hierarchical relationship among the teachers and the wider community, including parents, is regarded an integral part of it. This staffing plan, along with the policy of keeping the same group of children and teachers together for a period of three years, facilitates the sense of community.

This sense of community is reinforced in how the physical environment is structured and how the spaces encourage individualization, personalization, and collaboration. The building elements are not viewed as separate from one another, but rather as an integrated system. Each system influences and shapes the other (Fig. 1). The classrooms, as all the spaces, support opportunities for large group, small group, and individual transactions. While classrooms are differentiated features, each influences the other and learning extends from individual classrooms to the entire facility. As this system is embedded within the larger community, it shapes and is shaped by the overall society. Thus, the Reggio Emilia learning environment may be considered as a series of nested / integrated systems (Fig. 2).


Montessori: Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was Italy's first woman to obtain a medical degree, however she is best known for her work in education. She started her “Casa dei Bambini” (Children's House) in 1907 for children aged 4 to 7 in a housing project in the slums of Rome. Montessori believed in natural intelligence which she considered rational, empirical, and spiritual attributes of the child. For this reason, she developed a curriculum which is highly personalized with a specific scope and sequence for each child. Although the curriculum is personalized, the Montessori classroom groups comprise children of various ages, usually spanning three years, and thus permitting independent development and cooperative learning that encourages children to teach one another.

For Montessori, the development of the child occurs in stages. Birth to age 3 is the time of the "unconscious absorbent mind," whereas age 3 to 6 is the time of the "conscious absorbent mind" (Montessori & Chattin-McNichols, 1995). During the infant-toddler (birth to age 3) and primary (age 3 to 6) years, classrooms usually have more than one teacher (teacher and adult assistant in the classroom). At each stage, children may choose from appropriate activities that suit their particular stage of development. Generally, preschool children in full-day programs experience the Montessori curriculum in the morning and typical child-care, including fantasy play, in the afternoon. Children work at a task uninterrupted for as long as they choose. They seek sensory input from their transactions in what must be described as a carefully prepared physical environment (Greenwald, 1999). The prepared environment is typically the classroom and is equipped with a full array of hands-on Montessori materials, teacher made materials, and up-to-date learning equipment for each stage of development (Fig. 3).


Each child has the opportunity to experience the sound, feel and smell of different objects that are part of the classroom setting. These materials encourage them to gain an awareness of size, shape, and mass of each material and provide opportunities for the child to categorize them, understand the way in which things are ordered, and how they are represented by words and numbers. Montessori environments allow learners to advance at their own pace and in their own time. These rooms include tools, resources, and materials designed to support individual and group explorations (Fig. 4). Furthermore, these settings are also planned to aid large and small muscle development inside and outside the classrooms. The prepared environment encourages activities to flow between classrooms as well as from them to the outside. Outside areas provide opportunities for nature walks and study. From their explorations with the outside environment, students are encouraged to enjoy, respect and take responsibility for nature. 


Both the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approach emphasize the role of the physical environment as the third teacher (Perkins, 2001) that engages with and is transformed by the learner. Characteristics of a physical environment that encourages exchanges and the development of relationships include transparency, openness, and light (Ceppi & Zini, 1998; Gandini, 1993). For this reason, the physical environment is best designed with visual access from one space into another. From a classroom, the learner is able to observe activities occurring in other instructional areas as well as those outside the building. The architectural elements that allow learners the opportunity to connect inside and outside include passageways, wall sized windows, and doors. Such design templates connect each classroom to shared common areas (Fig. 5),


like the lunchroom and the playgrounds, which include dramatic play areas and work tables so children from different classrooms and of different age groupings can become engaged with others in everyday activities. The walls, ceilings and floors in the common areas, the hallways and the classrooms can serve as display areas which may feature the children’s work. Photographs and projects such as paintings, sculptures, and collages created by the children are used to integrate the spaces (Fig. 6) and to acknowledge and reify students’ social-emotional development (Fig. 7). Given this, the physical environment truly is a vehicle for learning; for it informs and engages the learner (Lippman, 1995). Furthermore, it mediates learning by encouraging exploration and knowledge acquisition.


Both the Reggio Emilia and Montessori approach recognize the learner is active and must have opportunities to engage with both the exterior and the interior of the ELC. Furthermore, both pedagogical approaches believe that learning is situated and embodied in practices which lead to change in behavior and innovation (Lee & Dunston, 2011), which occur as children work independently and/or in smaller social groupings. These practices advance motor skills and when closely blended with sensorial work enhance and expand reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Both Reggio Emilia and Montessori view the child is someone who is motivated inspired and prepared to learn from play and work activities. Furthermore, teaching and learning is transactive and forms part of an active learning environment. In this environment, each child has the opportunity to follow a unique path with the guidance and encouragement of teachers and other students. At all times and in a variety of ways children are encouraged to demonstrate new skills with one another. This distribution of knowledge encourages opportunities for developing friendships with other classmates (Lillard, 2005).

Conceptual Features of the Early Learning Environment

Although research on the design of early learning centers is limited, there is research on the correlation between the physical environment and the performance, well-being and health of its users. For example, research indicates that a stimulating physical environment has a positive effect in ameliorating Alzheimer’s disease, which suggests the importance of understanding both genetic and environmental factors in nervous system disorders (Flight, 2013). Based on this we can assume that:  The physical environment influences behavior.  The physical environment should be planned with a variety of motivating areas, i.e. mysterious and legible, for prospect and refuge, private, along with distinct zones for independent and small group learning areas (Lippman, 2010). Given this, the physical environment must be designed that are both differentiated and integrated in order to mediate the learning with things to be learned. The spaces of the physical environment that support personalized and collaborative work in ELCs include classrooms and breakout / overflow areas (2013) as described below.


The classroom is a defined space where learners come together and work through intellectual endeavors which involves the development of formal / scientific and informal / everyday learning. It must be planned as a place that assists learning and the things to be learned. In these spaces, learners work independently, in small collaborative groups, and with the entire class. Given this, classroom must be able to support:

  • Individual / independent learning
  • One-to-one learning
  • Small Group learning
  • Large group meeting for the entire class to come together (Lippman 1995).

In order to encourage independent and collaborative learning activities in classrooms, the setting must provide a range of activity settings and technologies to encourage varied learning activities to occur simultaneously (Lippman, 2013; Barrett et al., 2012; Lippman, 2010). These may include purpose-designed furniture, furnishings, and equipment (Lippman 2013; PEHKA, 2012; Barrett et al., 2012) that the teacher and learners can routinely re-arrange to create different spatial configurations (Lippman, 2013; Barrett et al., 2012). If the entire class is working in small groups of 4 and 5 learners, then the space has to be arranged to support 5-7 differentiated activity settings and learning zones, which can expand and contract as needed to support the learners as they work on projects (Fig. 8).


Breakout/Overflow Areas Spaces

Along with classroom spaces, breakout/overflow spaces must be incorporated to avoid an open plan scenario that offers a sterile and static environment rather than a stimulating and motivating one. These breakout/overflow spaces are differentiated while at the same time integrate with the adjacent spaces. When designed responsively, the boundaries between these spaces are indistinguishable (Fig. 9).


Furthermore, breakout spaces must be designed with intent and from knowledge about how people learn as well as planned to support the developmental, social, and emotional needs of the learners (PEKHA, 2012). The differentiation in the design and size of breakout spaces must be considered as a means to mediate student and teacher, student and student, as well as teacher and teacher transactions. These areas may support some and not all size social groupings. There are a variety of breakout spaces that should be considered to support the diverse ways that people acquire knowledge. These include:

  • Breakout Niches: These are less private and more open areas, such as resets in walls, in hallways, or at intersections (Fig. 10), which might include waiting areas with soft seating,small tables and chairs and may serve as display areas as well as extended learning areas.


  • Breakout Hollows: These are more private and semi-enclosed settings that might be “holes” in walls of the corridors, within the instructional spaces, in more public areas like a library or waiting areas. These settings which should beunderstood as extensions of the instructional spaces support 1-3 people and might have moveable chairs or stools around fixed tables (Fig.11).


  • Breakout Rooms: These are private and enclosed settings for 1-6 people including staff, parents, and/or students, which might be used for meetings and serve as quiet rooms with moveable chairs around a moveable table (or tables), soft seating, and / or fixed counter tops might be part of these spaces. (Fig. 12).
  • Breakout Nodes: These are feature usually found in large buildings, such as a sunken floor under a stair and a grand stair. These spaces support many opportunities for interchanges and promote opportunities for independent, small group and large group interactions. Hence they must be considered as instructional spaces and should be outfitted accordingly with the appropriate technology and furniture (Fig. 13).

Outdoor Learning Areas

While the interior spaces are generally accepted as places that offer children a variety of ways to appropriate knowledge for themselves, the suitability of outside spaces as learning areas are often overlooked. These spaces must be considered when applying a holistic design approach and be designed as to allow for participation and to encourage learners to develop skills around the negotiation of natural environment. In Northern Europe, one approach from which one may draw inspiration is what shall be translated into English as “Forest Kindergarten”. Founded by Danish mother Ella Flautau in 1954, this concept is grounded in the belief that learning involves all senses and that the natural environment with all its stimuli such as sounds, smells, and materials offers an ideal play-ground where hands-on learning can take place. As the name suggests, children generally spend their day outside in the forest, regardless of the current season and associated weather conditions. They experience seasons of nature including the life cycles of animals and the bloom of flowers and trees. Children are appropriately dressed, according to the common European proverb “There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing.” According to G. Buhl-Berghaeuser, head of forest kindergarten “Wiesenpieper” in Siegen/Germany, the children tend to be rarely sick which she attributes to their exposure to fresh air, the amount of physical activity, and the lack of artificial toys often contaminated with bacteria (2103). Children generally play with what is available, i.e. they might build a small house from branches they find on the ground, or they may observe an ant hill with the teaching staff acting as facilitators of free play and action-based learning (Fig. 14). In many ways, the learning environment assumed by a Forrest Kindergarten, supports all activities that this article has previously highlighted in the context of classrooms:

  • Individual / independent learning
  • One-to-one learning
  • Small Group learning
  • Large group meeting for the entire class to come together (Lippman 1995).


Nature offers the individual child countless ways of engagement and participation; for, it is routinely changing according to the seasons. Given this, the curriculum needs to adjust to support the available and immediate learning opportunities. The Forest Kindergarten relies on this transactional relationship to function as a learning environment. Lastly, this transactional relationship provides children with opportunities to develop themselves socially and emotionally as they learn to navigate within the changing environment.

The number of Forest Kindergartens has grown, i.e. in Germany, where the concept was fully accredited as a childcare program in 1993, more than 350 such kindergartens existed across the country by 2005 (Landesverband der Natur- und Waldkindergaerten e.V.) . During these years, research had been conducted by psychologists and educators to ascertain what developmental and educational deficits or benefits may be associated with attending a Forest Kindergarten in comparison to a conventional early childhood educational facility. An empirical study by Professor R. Gorges found that children, especially boys who attended a Forest Kindergarten generally performed better at literacy and numeracy than those who attended a conventional kindergarten, and that their skills, especially in problem-solving, creativity and social behavior were above average (1999, p.177).

While it is unrealistic to assume that early childhood education will eventually occur exclusively outdoors, the exterior spaces must be considered an integral part of a learning environment. There may not be access to a forest but often a small courtyard or open space is available where vegetable patches and garden beds can be set-up for gardening activities or trees can be planted for climbing. A thoughtful landscape/outdoor design can provide designated areas for a variety of learning activities to occur as the below examples illustrate using Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983).

  • Reading under a shady tree => Individual / independent learning (logical mathematical intrapersonal skills)
  • Helping someone climb a tree or showing someone an animal in the garden=> One-to-One learning (interpersonal, linguistic, and kinesthetic skills )
  • Harvesting vegetables => Small Group (visual spatial and interpersonal; skills)
  • Painting objects occurring in the garden => Small Group learning (visual spatial skills)
  • Sitting on a stone feature wall and talking => One-to-One learning as well as in small groupings (interpersonal, logical, kinesthetic. & mathematical skills )
  • Play => Large / Small Group learning (interpersonal. linguistic & kinaesthetic skills).
  • Caring for pet animals such as chickens => Large / Small Group learning (interpersonal, linguistic, naturalistic & kinesthetic skills).

Considering this, the designer has the opportunity to extend the boundaries of the interiors beyond the building envelope, providing a more diverse, responsive learning environment which is expected to result in better learning outcomes (Fig. 15).


Building on the Research – An Example

The Early Learning Center for Holy Cross College in Perth, Australia builds on and extends the research for the design of the physical learning environment. It has been planned to support a variety of transactions within and between classrooms and into the adjacent breakout areas / multipurpose spaces (See Animation). The following features can be found within the ELC (see animation):

  • Classrooms are generally organized with a variety of activity settings to support formal, informal and creative activity settings. These settings might include block corners, reading corners, and painting corners, as well as tables with chairs, rugs, soft seating and a private reflective area.
  • Doors connect classrooms directly to one another and to the learning areas beyond these rooms. The classrooms are connected by doors, not operable walls (folding partitions) based on the following assumptions.

o Symbolically, doors reify notions about integration and differentiation. These elements allow movement between settings. Furthermore, when open or closed, corners areas are maintained as work spaces.
o The research on the inclusion of full length and height folding walls between classrooms strongly indicates that these features do not provide flexibility nor promote opportunities for spontaneous re-configurations of space. Generally, because of the size and weight of these elements, maintenance / facilities is requested to open and close the walls (PEHKA, 2012).

  • Corners are the primary salient features within instructional spaces and offer learners a sense of prospect and refuge. These are built-in/fixed features (Lippman, 2013; 2010; 2004) serving as defined work areas. Within the classroom settings, these spaces allow separation for groups of learners, while affording learners visual, auditory and physical connections to one another. They can expand as needed depending on the number of users and the tasks involved.
  • Breakout / Overflow areas were designed with clearly defined zones supporting variety of social groupings (PEHKA, 2012). Multipurpose Area 2 includes breakout nodes, niches, hollows, and holes in the cabinetry. This plan was not based on intuition, but rather from insight from the research as such:

o These overflow areas must be programmed around the learning and the things to be learned. The space must be planned around the culture of the ELC and be responsive how the learners in this specific context will use it.

o Rather than program and plan for one large open central area, this space (Fig. 16) should be layered to encourage activities that are intended to occur regularly. In this
instance consider the learning zones for independent, one-to-one, small group and larger group activities. After considering these zones, the permeating areas between the zones connect and separate activities.
o By clearly defining zones with furniture, equipment, props, tools and resources, learners are provided cues in how to use the spaces which reinforces and encourages intended engagements between learners and teachers to occur. These zones support the intended activities and goals for the things to be learned.
o Areas proximately adjacent to the classrooms must be understood as a permeable filling between two defined spaces / layers that separates and connects activities. However, if the spaces are not directly associated to specific classroom, there is ambiguity about it to the users. Users don’t own it and as such are not empowered to shape it. For this reason, these spaces must be viewed and understood as attached to the instructional spaces.
o Generally, these learning zones support independent and small group activities. However, when the space is used for large group meetings, this multi-purpose space can be reorganized / reconfigured. The smaller overflow spaces can be re-arranged to support general school meetings and performances. For this reason, multi-purpose space should not be viewed as large flex space which support a variety of uses, but rather as having clearly defined areas / zones that serve a variety of social groupings. The space primarily supports a variety of activities occurring simultaneously, but can be re-configured to create a larger meeting area.


Early Learning Centers are vehicles for learning; these places are learning environments where learners actively explore their settings and are transformed by the transactions with their social and physical environments. In the case of Holy Cross College, research about space was used to create a center with a variety of breakout spaces. Furthermore, it is understood that this place with all its spaces are in all ways evolving in relationship to the learners, the learning and the things to be learned. As the spaces are being influenced, the learners, from their transactions, are being transformed so that they transfer and apply their knowledge to other places. Given that these vehicles for learning are in all ways changing, research can be used to examine its evolution and the spaces within to understand if the spaces supports the educational program, and most importantly highlight what aspects of the physical environment might not have been successful, and where the users recognized the constraints of the settings and found opportunities to transform the spaces to support the acquisition of knowledge. The goal is to create design templates that can be incorporated thoughtfully to enhance the teaching and learning experiences. Building on this notion, future research studies must also examine role of technology and the creation of outdoor spaces designed as responsively as the indoor settings to understand their impact on learning and the things to be learned. The studies might explore:

  • What are the qualities for this for understanding it with transactional view of settings (Stokols & Shumaker, 1981)?
  • How do these transactional view settings engage and assist the learning process?
  • How can we conceptualize learning environments to include natural and human-made transactional (behavior) settings

Furthermore, these studies might examine the notion of place attachment (Hauge, 2007) including place identity and place dependence as means to understand where children choose to develop and how these appropriate these spaces for optimal learning experiences. With these findings, Early Learning Centers as well as all other learning environments not only will have a framework around which to build on for the decades to come, but also this approach highlights the physical environment as a primary initiator in co-constructing optimal learning experiences for children.

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