Detroit's early childhood centers emphasize design to enrich education

When a flood forced Angela Hayes to shut down her daycare center for a four-month renovation, she worked hard to return Lil Brilliant Mindz to the children and families she serves. Along the way, she made a few enhancements.
"The flooring was all white, and we replaced it with a patterned tile, which turned out to be a great teaching mechanism," says Hayes, owner of the center, which is located on Shoemaker Street in Detroit.
By leveraging the students' desire to skip from colored tile to colored tile on the mostly white flooring, teachers keep even the youngest children focused while moving through the hallways, explains Hayes. One simple flooring choice became a valuable everyday teaching tool.
Just like adults, children experience a boost in attention and productivity in an environment that has been thoughtfully designed. 

"Learning spaces that are physically and psychologically comfortable promote a sense of well-being, keep minds focused, and limit distractions," according to the Herman Miller Learning Spaces Research Program. "Comfort is not always a quantifiable phenomenon, but we know that when people are uncomfortable, they are distracted. Temperature, lighting, and furnishings all play a role in a person being comfortable."
Curating a feel-good space

Interior of Blessed Beginnings Learning Center

Last September, LaShawn Bridges received grant funding from IFF with the hope of upgrading the outdoor playground at her registered family daycare home in Detroit's Osborn community. The timing was more conducive to indoor improvements, so Bridges opted to replace the flooring, upgrade the lighting, and add an egress window at Blessed Beginnings Learning Center.
"I'm in love with the space now," Bridges says. "The egress window is three times the size of the existing windows and now we have a lot of natural light. We can see if it's raining or snowing. And with the grant, we also got LED lighting. Parents say that it's so much bigger and brighter than they ever expected."
Lighting affects both children's behavior and staff performance, says architect James Singleton, senior owner's representative with IFF. "Natural daylight within a space, in particular, has physical and mental health advantages," he says.
Windows that best allow children to see outside can also stimulate conversation and learning activities, according to the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. 
At Blessed Beginnings Learning Center, tan luxury vinyl tile flooring lends a calming, neutral color scheme and helps define the various learning areas for the children. "We have dramatic play area, sand area, block area, reading nook—all the same aspects of a classroom," says Bridges. 
Teachers label the areas verbally to help children understand routine, and recognize that certain areas are designed for certain activities, critical in the well-designed learning space. 

"This teaches kids about responsibility. They learn that they need to return things to where they go. We label all our bins and shelves because it's important that they know where things go. Even the one-year-old children are learning the lifelong skill of being responsible," Bridges says.

LaShawn Bridges, owner of Blessed Beginnings Learning Center in Detroit
With a goal of creating clarity in the learning environment, Bridges has organized every last detail, down to storage for diapers and wipes in the bathroom. 
"If a parent comes in, or a new teacher, they don't have to ask questions about the environment. They know where everything goes," she says. "You are not lost; you know where things are."
Teachable moments
Veronda Carter describes Ready 2 Learn Childcare Center as "family oriented." Occupying three of the five units in the building across from Sinai Grace Hospital on Schaefer Road, the center "supports a curriculum that advances the child from infancy to adulthood," Carter says. 
Together with safety and professionalism, the physical environment is a key component to effective learning. "Things need to be inviting," says Carter. "From the scent of cleanliness to fresh, new furniture, parents want a professional setting when they walk in." 
She believes that the classroom should be the "third teacher" by encouraging the children toward individual exploration. "The room can be a blank palette where review can take place, with materials geared toward a child's interest, adding in math, science, literacy, and everything else."

Toys at Blessed Beginnings Learning Center

Thoughtful, portable changes to the space augment learning, too. Carter recalls how a simple rug depicting continents, oceans, and children of various ethnicities linking hands became a focal point for a group of preschoolers during a unit on geography.

"Next thing I knew, the children knew all the bodies of water and the continents," Carter says. "They pretended to be on planes or boats and moved from Asia to South America. We talked about places to go on vacation. ... Then I put books in every area, and we talked about communities and families and how different families look around the earth."
Startup funds provided by Early Head Start programming bought size-appropriate furniture for Carter's center. "The children were so happy because it was exactly their size," she says. "Even a crawling baby could sit in one of the chairs. [One student] walked right up to the table and it came to his waist. He was tickled that it was just his size. He couldn't verbalize it but he immediately understood that it was for him." 
One surprising addition was a 60-foot exterior fire escape ramp. "I only saw it as expensive, but the children love it. They march up and down to get some air, even if it's too wet to play on the playground. We call it our deck," Carter says.
There is evidence that young children respond to their environments emotionally, forming strong attachments to spaces, according to research shared by the nonprofit Educause. The complex relationship between student and safe, comfortable learning environment is important at all levels of education.
"[The classroom] may become a place where students love to learn, a place they seek out when they wish to learn, and a place they remember fondly when they reflect on their learning experiences," the report states.
"We are people of the senses," says Bridges. "What is appealing to the eyes lights up in us. The physical environment means a lot to parents and their kids, and the children learn to love their environment too. I can tell they enjoy it by the way they take care of their toys, or how they push their chairs in when they get up from the table." 

This article is part the series "Early Education Matters" on the importance of facilities and programming in early childhood education. It is made possible with funding from IFF. Read more articles in the series here

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.