Design for Developing Brains

Image by Esi Grünhagen from Pixabay

The importance of space in early childhood

The places and spaces we build and inhabit have a powerful effect on the human brain, i.e., how we think and feel and act. Certain spaces makes us feel good and others, not so much. Some seem to elevate, while others depress. Some calm, some energize. Some are boring and others engage.

This intersection of brain science and architecture is called neuroarchitecture, a term coined by Salk Institute scientist Fred Gage, who co-founded the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, a nonprofit dedicated to discovering links between the brain and the built environment.

Science confirms the spaces we occupy do indeed affect mood and behavior, so it stands to reason that designing spaces occupied by young, developing brains deserves some special consideration. In “Spaces for Children: What NeuroArchitecture Can Teach Us,” Andréa de Paiva writes: “Architects who design spaces for children (homes, schools or hospitals, for instance) need to keep in mind that children have different needs than adults. It is important to have knowledge about development and empathy to know how to see the world through the eyes of children. Perception, emotions, and cognition in developing individuals are different from adults. Children of different ages have different needs and will also perceive the same environment in a different way. This is not only because her stature is shorter than that of an adult, which changes her visual perception of the environment, but also because she is developing her skills, her senses and creating her bank of memories and her sense of identity. Finally, the buildings and environments that we create are not only used to safely and comfortably house children, they also serve to support the development of skills and memories that will accompany individuals throughout their lives.”

A place to belong

The very human desire for “belonging” drives a lot of our behavior. It motivates us to join clubs or sports teams, for example. We all know what it’s like to feel “out of place,” which is (by definition) to feel uncomfortable, awkward, ill at ease. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to apply this to our feelings about physical space, as well as social or emotional space. We probably don’t need a study to tell us some spaces feel more comforting and safe than others, although such studies almost certainly exist.

When my son was a toddler, I took him for his first professional haircut at a local salon. It was busy and loud—a strange place filled with hard surfaces, shiny objects and chatty, cackling strangers. He was terrified, and the whole experience was a disaster, lollipop and stickers notwithstanding.

Lesson learned. The next time I took him to Hamilton’s, a small outfit in an old house run by a sole proprietor, Miss Helena. It was quiet at Miss Helena’s, and it felt like you were just over for a cup of tea. No bells and whistles, no glitz or glam, not a lot of moving pieces. Just Miss Helena and her pet cockatoo, Louie, and gentle conversation. It was lovely. She and my son have now been friends for more than 20 years.

Environment affects us all, but certainly when it comes to children, space matters.

It matters a lot.

A prepared environment

According to the Montessori educational philosophy, “watching over” a child’s environment is paramount for healthy physical, intellectual and spiritual development:

“The prepared environment is an important part of Montessori. It is the link for a child to learn from adults. Rooms are child sized with activities set up for success and allow freedom of movement and choice. The environment has to be safe for the child to explore freely. The environment has to be ready and beautiful for the children, so it invites them to work.” (Excerpted from Maria Montessori Theory – Key Principles of the Montessori Method at Daily Montessori)


Child-sized. Safe. Ready. Beautiful.

I had these things top of mind recently, when I began to think about designing a play space at home for our first grandbaby. I had saved what I thought were the best-of-the-best of my own kids’ toys for such a time as this—the Brio train set, wooden dollhouse, all the Legos (so many Legos), our favorite books, the building blocks. A few items from my own childhood also made the cut: a little kitchen hutch my dad made for me in 1968, my old musical rocking chair and an early-60s Fisher Price “Merry Mousewife” wooden pull-toy that swishes a broom as it moves along.

I wanted to create a safe, happy place for this baby and all who might follow. But where and how to incorporate all these things into a cohesive, pleasing design that would be good for little bodies and brains?

Where to begin?

I settled on our attic for several reasons. It was available, has plenty of natural light, and with 4-foot walls, it has great scale for young children. Also, there is something about an attic that has an almost magical attraction for children. I decided to devote half the attic to play and the other half to a remote workspace.

We had finished the attic during an earlier remodel and built an access stair in the space created by removing an old chimney. However, we had used it primarily for storage, and over the years it filled up with our now-adult children’s belongings, old furniture and Christmas decorations. It would require a massive cleanout, new paint and some drywall patching, but I knew it was a project that—except for the drywall—I could complete solo. (I am no longer allowed to do drywall. Long story.)

Attic before the redesign

Order out of chaos 

First, the painful SORT, TOSS, DONATE, RECYCLE process. Arduous, but necessary. Next, I tackled the walls, which were showing nearly 20 years of wear and tear. I originally painted walls and ceiling sort of a dark yellow-gold, which I thought would make it feel cozy. However, I wanted it lighter and brighter for its new purpose, so I repainted with Sherwin William’s White Flour, a warm white with cream undertones.

I also knew I needed a central organizing element, so I looked at hundreds of images and evaluated both the space and what I wanted to put in it. I had scaled plans (doesn’t everyone?) so it was easy to see what would fit in the relatively small space and what would not. I chose IKEA’s trusty Trofast units for their sturdiness, affordability and versatility. I love the simplicity of the construction and the natural wood material. They keep toys at the ready, but it’s so easy to tidy up when everything has a place to go. I also purchased multicolor baskets, Bekvam shelves and cloud lights (irresistible!) from IKEA. 

As I thought through the process, I also wanted to be careful not to overdesign. I originally planned to purchase several more storage units, but I’m glad I let a few of them hit the cutting room floor. This allowed the space to breathe a bit.

I spray painted an old rattan chair and storage ottoman with Rustoleum’s satin Heirloom White and created a reading corner. Then I added some low banana fiber seating, thrift store quilts, and a melamine desktop salvaged from an old school desk.

The result is a cheery mix of old and new. It is child-sized, safe, ready and—in my mind—beautiful. It is a space that says to pint-sized brains and bodies, “You belong here.”

Lesson happily learned, again.

Andrea Lee is Marketing & Business Development Manager and Blogger-in-Chief at JLA, an architecture firm located in Northern Michigan. Before joining JLA, she was Associate Editor at a publishing house, where she wrote copy for dozens of custom publications and contributed regularly to Great Lakes/Seaway Review and Great Laker magazines