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Heart-Centered Environmental Design: A Fresh Perspective

By Sandra Duncan and Gary Bilezikian

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For anyone who has ever designed an early childhood classroom from scratch or ever tried their hand at a general makeover, you know the decision-making can be staggeringly complex. The choices we make multiply beyond comprehension. The act of classroom design is indeed imperfect and does not come with a one-size-fits-all manual. There is so much to think about; every classroom is different not only because of its physical attributes (i.e., shape, size, amenities) but because of those unique individuals who play and abide within its four walls. Some classrooms may have features (i.e., built-in storage or shelves, support columns, angled walls, or high ceilings) that can possibly interfere with a design. There are a plethora of rules and regulations—which are sometimes conflicting—from licensing, accreditation, quality rating assessments, and safety and health authorities. For example, after considerable gymnastics with moving about the furniture in a rather small space, you finally find a way to include all the required learning centers when the fire marshal shows up and declares there are no clear pathways to the exits. 

We could simplify these challenges by saying we need a new approach to designing environments, but that would be misleading. We are forced into new approaches on a consistent basis by factors and forces beyond our control. For example, in one state a new licensing regulation is requiring 12 inches of low shelving for every infant. In order to comply with this new requirement, shelves need to be added to the already cramped room and the space for tummy time becomes nonexistent. Indeed, designing a classroom is complex. It seems like sometimes these forces fray the edges of best practices until our spaces become diluted environments that work for neither children or teachers, but rather quitely against. Furniture is for storage and meeting licensing requirements. Carpets are for sitting and counting, naming objects, and learning the letters of the alphabet. Walls are for displaying commercially purchased posters, required paperwork and daily schedules. All the while, children’s lives and childhood have been forever changed. These examples may be oversimplifications but, if not addressed with a high degree of stewardship, they can lead to the dilution of intended design outcomes—classrooms that are created for laughing, playing, singing, and embracing the importance of being little. 

A New Perspective

Think about your classroom for a moment and visualize all the furniture in your space. Your thoughts may have immediately zeroed in on the shelves, chairs, tables and even carpets. Ask this question: What is their purpose? More than likely, your mind focused on the notion of the furniture’s functionality, such as holding, storing or sitting. This article is designed to help you think about furniture and ultimately classroom design from a new perspective called Heart-Centered Design. From this unique perspective, you will begin considering that furniture is not simply for storing stuff, places for sitting, or surfaces for working. Rather, you will begin to recognize that the primary job of furniture is sparking children’s interest and engagement with it and, more importantly, supporting children’s emotional well-being. 

Heart-Centered Design

The warm glow of the sun flickers on the floor as you cross the classroom’s threshold and enter this most glorious space, designed and thoughtfully created for young children. You experience a feeling of warmth and coziness, and instantly feel welcome. Comforts of home surround you. There are cozy places for cuddling up with a good book or sharing a moment with friends. Several beautiful plants are soaking up the fresh air coming from the open window whose delicate curtains are dancing in the wind. Perched on shelf tops are beautifully framed children’s artwork, family photos, and colorful plants growing in charming pots. A vase of purple wildflowers and fresh basil is on the table in the home living area. Evidence of children’s work and play are curated and placed with honor on shelves around the room. As you wander through the classroom, you notice intentionally placed elements of nature: seagrass baskets of pinecones, driftwood and river rocks. A child-made mobile filled with natural found objects is hanging from the ceiling on a tree branch. Treasures of nature and intriguing objects for children to explore occupy this heart-centered place, in which childhood cannot help but grow and flourish.

When designing early childhood classrooms, our first thoughts typically focus on the different pieces of furniture needed to equip the space such as tables, chairs and shelves. Also, some thought might be given to furniture needed for the home living area (i.e., stove, refrigerator, kitchen table), quiet area (i.e., couch, book shelf, rocking chair), or creative area (i.e., easel, art supply cart). In most instances when selecting furniture, it is a matter of what furniture is contextually appropriate, what we personally think is needed, or what is mandated and required by governing agencies. Far less attention is given to what children want or need when it comes to furniture-making decisions or designing early childhood classrooms. In order to design classrooms with children’s needs and interests in mind, we must seek, value and explore ideas with them regarding their classroom environment. This is called designing with empathy. 

According to authors and design thinkers Rikke Dam and Teo Siang (June 2018), designing with empathy involves putting aside our own mindset in order to understand the needs of those for whom you are designing. “Your goal, as a designer, is to gain an empathic understanding of the people you are designing for and the problem you are trying to solve. This process involves observing, engaging and empathizing with the people you are designing for in order to understand their experiences and motivations.” For the early childhood practitioner, this means recognizing children’s viewpoints and gaining an understanding of their physical and emotional needs. 

Anyone who has been around children for even the briefest time knows they love to play—almost anywhere, anytime and with anything. Although a great majority of children prefer playing outside, they are also happy playing inside. Early childhood expert Tom Bedard (2016), in his work with children at sensory tables, suggests at the core of children’s play—whether inside or out—is transporting (all kinds of stuff) and a keen interest in levels, spaces and holes. David Sobel (2001), founder of place-based education, believes there is an inherent predisposition and need to build one’s own special space. These special spaces come in the form of a blanket over a small table; a den made from pillows; sofa cushions and towels; or an under-the-bush hideaway constructed from tree branches and twigs. Regardless of where, when or what comprises early childhood play, it is our responsibility as designers of young children’s classrooms to create heart-centered environments. A heart-centered environment is one that is designed based on the child’s perspective and inherent needs. There are two underpinnings or theories of heart-centered design: empathic design thinking and biophilic design.

Empathic design thinking is designing classrooms from the user’s perspective (Dam & Siang, 2018). It requires putting aside our adult views and embracing children’s viewpoints. Most importantly, designing classrooms with empathy means identifying and understanding children’s needs, such as their inherent predisposition to explore, play and manipulate. It is, therefore, essential to intentionally design classrooms as places where children can actively interact and especially where they can influence and impact relationships with and to objects (i.e., furniture) within their environment. Also important is the need for teachers to design environments that are responsive to children’s emotions and well-being. 

Biophilic design thinking is based on the idea of infusing nature into the built environment (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014). The term biophilia is a word derived from Greek bios, meaning life or living organisms and philos, meaning a liking or attraction for something, bonding and love. Coined by Harvard biologist Wilson (1984), biophilic design is based on the idea of humans having an affinity to be close to nature and natural elements. This connection of nature to humans is not a new notion and, indeed, there is a substantial body of research indicating the positive benefits (i.e., physical, emotional, social, cognitive) of children connecting to nature (Chawla, 2015).

Unfortunately, according to Kellert and Calabrese (2015), this important connection to nature is severely impeded by our built environments. “This is especially problematic, because while humans may have evolved in the natural world, the ‘natural habitat’ of contemporary people has largely become the indoor built environments where we now spend 90 percent of our time.” (pp 5) This problem drizzles right down into young children’s environments. Since children spend much of their day in our classrooms, it must be our responsibility to incorporate elements of biophilic design. It does not necessarily require ideas as large as green roofs, skylights or large windows with access to natural views. It can be as simple as a vase of fresh flowers, a bowl of pinecones, or introducing more curvilinear forms into the environment. It is easy—just design with your heart. 

Designing Heart-Centered Classrooms

The very first thing you need to do before you begin the journey of designing heart-centered classrooms is to think about what you most value in children: Do you value children who are capable... competent... curious? Your classroom should reflect these values, as well as the children’s needs and interests. The furniture, furnishings, and materials in your classroom will showcase what you believe is important and what you value most in children. If the classroom is designed with integrity and with your values in mind, the children will reflect these values as they come to understand their own capabilities and competencies. Here are some ideas to get started with designing heart-centered classrooms with the focus on empathic and biophilic design thinking.

Empathic Design Thinking‭: ‬Simple Strategies

Remember: designing classrooms from an empathic viewpoint means seeing the environment from the child’s perspective, putting yourself in their place, and understanding how they are feeling and viewing the classroom.

Listen to children’s voices. To help shift into a more heart-centered narrative, ask children which areas of the classroom are their favorites. Have them measure the spaces with appropriate tools or objects such as rulers, yardsticks, unit blocks or string. Compare and contrast the measurements in the different sections of the room. For example, is the block area smaller or larger than the science space? Then, seek their opinions: What areas would they like to see larger, smaller? Are there ideas for new centers? Suggestions for furniture or materials? Take a heart-centered approach to this activity by having them also consider such things as how the spaces make them feel. Ask what might be done to make spaces feel better (Hall & Rudkin, 2011).

Assume children’s mindsets. Children have an inherent need and primary urge to play. Support these play needs by providing spaces that promote creative and imaginative play. Reduce the number of single-use toys that have predetermined outcomes and offer only one way to use the object. Instead, increase the availability of open-ended materials and loose parts. Include furniture that can be played with in a multitude of ways. For example, although an ottoman can be used for sitting, storing, and as a table, children can creatively transform it into a dog house, baby bed or washing machine.

Assume children’s perspectives. Understand children’s visual perspectives by surveying the classroom from their vantage point. From the classroom doorway, kneel to the height of the children to see the world from their perspective and to better understand their world. Do the same thing from the middle of the classroom. What do you see? From the middle of the room, be aware of any limited views (i.e., backs of shelving units, not being able to see into the learning center) or blasé views from the classroomdoor such as custodial furniture (i.e., cubbies, changing tables). If the visual views from the middle of the room are uninteresting or the view from the door does not readily invite children to come in, it is time to adopt an empathetic design strategy and change the classroom layout (Duncan, Martin, & Haughey, 2018).

Know children’s natural instincts. A child’s greatest need is the natural instinct to move. “Providing areas with openings that allow children to expand their play into other areas and move without restriction fosters creative freedom. Children need the perceived sense of freedom to grow into competent, autonomous adults” (Duncan, Martin, & Haughey, 2018, p. 130). An empathic classroom design is one that allows and encourages children to move. 

Give children spaces of their own. In empathic design thinking, the classroom belongs to the children. Children need their own space—to create, recreate, move, add, change and change again. Find an unencumbered spot in your classroom. If you do not have a blank space, try to make one by clearing out a piece of equipment or extra storage shelf. Give it to the children. It is their own special space, in which they are allowed to make, break and rewrite the rules based on their own needs, situations and stories they are telling (Hall & Rudkin, 2011). 

Reframe your thinking. For example, instead of thinking of shelving units as a place to store materials or a way to divide space, begin thinking about shelves from an empathic or child’s viewpoint. One strategy for transforming shelves from their typical passive and inactive roles into active shelf spaces is to provide affordances for small worlds. Small worlds are small dramatic play spaces where children use tiny figurines and small props to create their own little worlds and stories. In many instances, small worlds represent special themed worlds such as fairy houses, under the sea, or at the farmyard.

Biophilic Design Thinking‭: ‬Simple Strategies

Remember: Biophilic design thinking is connecting built environments (your classroom) with nature. This can be done by including Kellert and Calabrese’s (2015) ideas suggested in “The Practice of Biophilic Design”: (1) direct experience of nature (i.e., plants, animals, air, light); (2) indirect experience of nature (i.e., images of nature, natural colors and materials, naturalistic shapes and forms; and, (3) experience of space and place (i.e., refuge, attachment to space, sense of belonging). Here are some easy-to-implement ideas for designing with a biophilic design approach.

Understand the importance of curves. Much of nature is filled with glorious curves and rounded edges. It is within these rounded natural elements that we can learn important lessons in classroom design. Research by Paul Silvia and Christopher Barona found that our minds are more accepting of free-flowing curves rather than straight and angular lines. We have a greater sense of well-being and feeling of calmness when in circular rather than angular environments. Given this research, consider your own classroom and tally up the rectangular shaped furniture or furnishings (i.e., cubbies, tables, rugs), count the curved furniture, and then compare the number of curved versus rectangular objects. If your classroom is similar to most, there are probably more rectangular shaped objects with lots of sharp, straight, or angular lines. What does this mean for the early childhood classroom? It certainly doesn’t mean that all angular furniture needs to go. What it does mean is that we need to figure out how to incorporate more curvilinear features and curves in the classroom, such as round ottomans, stools, pillows or even rugs.

Connect indoor and outdoor environments. Take an outside walk with the children for the sole purpose of finding a tree to adopt. Go through an adoption ceremony (much like the Cabbage Patch adoption process, in which children promise to take care of the tree to the best of their abilities). Bond with the tree by (1) hugging it; (2) sitting under its leaf canopy; (3) collecting the tree’s ground gifts such as pods, twigs, and leaves; (4) creating a tree trunk or leaf rubbing; or (5) sketching the tree (Duncan, Martin, & Kreth, 2016). Photograph the adoption ceremony, frame the image, and hang in a prominent place in the classroom. Make a present (i.e., wire mobile or a string of beads) and give it to the tree. Or, after decorating clay pots, go on a search for tree bud plants (usually found growing under the tree) or any type of native plant in your environment that can be removed without disturbing the landscape and is safe for a classroom. Bring fresh plants back to the room and plant them in the children’s decorated pots. Then together, decide where the pots should be located. What are the considerations? Do the pots want to be together in one group to make a small forest somewhere in the classroom, and if so, how does that impact availability of space in that area? If we choose the opposite path and place them separately throughout the classroom, what are the considerations and why? What do we need from our placement of our plants, and what do our plants need to thrive? Use the tools and techniques of the sciences (i.e., sorting, sequencing, classification, observation), along with the collaborative, iterative, and empathetic process found in design thinking to help children make important connections to their indoor and outdoor environments.

Cherish and nurture nature’s beauty. Infuse nature and natural elements in every surface in the classroom. In the home living area, use skinny pinecones for pretend noodles in the soup pot. Use river rocks or seashells for sorting and classifying in the mathematics corner. Place small gourds on the table in home living. Use small twigs for constructing in the block corner.

Infuse live plants and green foliage. Strive for placing at least one live plant in each of the classroom’s four quadrants. For variety, search for plants that offer a mixture of textures, colors, sizes, and scents.

Connecting Empathy with Biophilia‭ ‬

One of the most complex relationships to navigate is our relationship to nature. The challenge lies in the need for sustained, profound and meaningful experience with nature, coupled with the forces behind the many factors shaping contemporary life that, unfortunately, work against that connection. As we nurture children to become empathic with each other—and empathic toward the earth—we must respond to their need to be near, in, out, and around nature, whether in the built or natural environment. In the context of furniture for classrooms, and our values and approaches to designing and defining spaces for children, we are at the beginning of an exciting branch in our value systems that, if implemented with intentionality, will lead to new solutions, ideas, and considerations.

To teach our children to be empathic in their lives, thoughts, actions and ideals, we must first approach classroom design and furniture designs as the systems that they are: systems that begin with the notion of functionality and may possibly accommodate nature. But these systems may not put children’s needs and our connection to nature at the heart of the equation. Providing a heart-centered approach, one that connects empathic design solutions with biophilic design, will lead to the affirmative evolution of joyful learning spaces and the inherent rights and needs of all children. These wonderous and intentionally designed spaces are invitations for inquiry, curiosity, and wonder. At their very core is the essence of nature and the strength of empathy designed to nourish, support, and protect our greatest treasure—young children. 


Bedard, T. (January/February, 2016). Levels, spaces, and holes at the sensory table. Lincoln, NE: Exchange Press. 

Browning, W.O., Ryan, C., & Clancy, J. (2014). Patterns of Biophilic Design, Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment. New York, NY: Terrapin Bright Green. 

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature. 30(4), 433-452. 

Dam, R. & Siang, T. (2018). Design thinking: Getting Started with Empathy. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/design-thinking-getting-started-with-empathy

Duncan, S., Martin, J., & Kreth, R. (2016). Rethinking the Classroom Landscape, Creating Environments that Connect Young Children, Families, and Communities. Louisville, NC: Gryphon House. 

Duncan, S., Martin, J., & Haughey, S. (2018). Through a Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning & Wonder. Louisville, NC: Gryphon House.

Fanguy, W. (July 18 2018). Four essential steps to designing with empathy. Retrieved from https://www.invisionapp.com/inside-design/essential-steps-designing-empathy/

Hall, E. & Rudkin, J. (2011). Seen & Heard: Children’s Rights in Early Childhood Education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Kellert, S. & Calabrese, E. (2015). The Practice of Biophilic Design. Retrieved from www.biophilic-design.com. 

Rosenow, N. (2012). Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature. Lincoln, NE: Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. 

Sayuti, N., Montana C. & Bonollo, E. (2015). A study of furniture design incorporating living organisms with particular reference to biophilic and emotional design criteria. Academic Journal of Science. 04(01), 75-106. 

Sobel, D. (2001). Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Childhood. Detroit: MI: Wayne State University Press. 

Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 



“What do I mean by the phrase ‘heart-centered teaching inspired by nature?’ I am talking about a way of supporting children that comes from a place of love for each other and a place of awe and appreciation for the wonders of the world around us. I am talking about a belief that children’s skill development is only one aspect of learning and not the most important one at that. I believe helping children find out who they are and what they have to contribute to the world is the most crucial work we educators can do. And I believe connections with the natural world can provide strength and inspiration for our personal journeys… adult and child alike.”

–Nancy Rosenow, executive director of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and author of “Heart-Centered Teaching Inspired by Nature.”


Author Bios

As an adjunct faculty, Sandra Duncan works with doctoral candidates at Nova Southeastern University Fischler Graduate School of Education.  She is co-author of several books including “Inspiring Spaces for Young Children,” “Rethinking the Classroom Landscape,” “Through a Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder,” and “Bringing the Outside In: Ideas for Creating Nature-Based Classroom Experiences for Young Children.”  Duncan can be reached at [email protected].  

Gary Bilezikian is the president of GuideCraft, a company focused on design for early childhood education. He is a graduate of Pratt Institute where he studied fine arts and art education. He worked for the NYC Board of Education developing arts in education programs and teaching on the high school level, and is the author/illustrator of the children’s picture book “While I Slept”. As president of Guidecraft his work centers on creating universal, open systems that integrate design, education, business and social policy to advance the goals of early childhood education globally.