It is unquestionable that environments directly influence the behavior and emotions of their users. Human beings spend approximately 90% of their lives indoors, making it imperative that the spaces we inhabit stimulate positive behavior and emotions, or at least don't influence us negatively. There exists a specific term describing the stimuli that the brain receives from its environment: neuroarchitecture. Several studies have been published on this topic, most focusing on its impact on work environments. This article approaches this concept through a different, yet essential lens: emphasizing its importance in the design of spaces for children in early childhood.
The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was formed in San Diego, California, in 2003, during the AIA convention. Dr. Fred Gage, a senior neuroscientist at the Salk Institute and former president of the Society for Neuroscience, posited the term neuroarchitecture during a speech where he closely linked the two disciplines.
In simple terms, neuroarchitecture refers to the different responses produced by the brains of users during their presence in a certain environment. These neural responses can directly alter the mood and behavior of users in any space, both in the short and long term.
Among other parameters, these effects can be measured by analyzing: 1) brain stimuli (in areas of the brain that are active during the period that the user is in the environment); 2) the responses produced by the brain in that environment; 3) vital signs that change in the environment (for example, heart rate).
When designing spaces based on neuroarchitecture, it is necessary to take into account that each user receives and decodes the stimuli of the environment in a unique way. In other words, there are no rules, just a few things to consider. One such consideration addresses the human being's need to belong. The need to belong, according to the definition by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, refers to the urge to be part of a social group. This theory of belonging was widely disseminated and adapted in neuroarchitecture, which considers the human need to feel like part of a physical space. For example, it is well known that good memories are positively decoded by the brain. That is why investing in visual, auditory, or olfactory memories can be quite important when designing interiors in which users feel belonging.
Special attention must be paid to projects for children. According to the studies of doctor and teacher Maria Montessori, the first years of an individual's life are the most important for their education, determining the constitution of their personality, self-esteem, and character. We have already talked in more depth about the benefits of designing environments based on this philosophy.
'We could say that adults acquire knowledge through our intelligence, while the child absorbs it with his psychic life. [...] Thus, the child undergoes a transformation: impressions not only penetrate her mind, but form it. They fit into it. The child creates her own 'mental flesh', using the things found in her environment. We call her mental type, the absorbing mind' - Maria Montessori in 'The Absorbent Mind'. 1949, p. 36
As with adults (according to the theory of belonging), children need to feel that they belong to their environments for their brains to react best to the stimuli. Among the advantages of preparing environments to meet the needs of children is the strengthening of their self-esteem. Using child-sized furniture and facilitating easy access to items of interest (to their eyes and hands) are important steps to take. So how can a child, even so young, be stimulated by their environment?
How Does a Child Perceive the Environment?
Maria Montessori's studies of how children's brains work have been heavily praised by neuroscience. We will address this concept in laymen's terms, but essentially what Montessori discovered was that the child's mind during early childhood can be divided into two phases: the unconscious absorbent mind (from 0 to 3 years old) and the conscious absorbent mind (from 3 to 6 years). This theory establishes that, from birth, the child absorbs all the stimuli from the environment in which they find themselves in the same way that a sponge does. This is why it is so important to design suitable spaces for them.
'If we prepare an environment at home that is appropriate to the dimensions of the child, to his strengths, to his psychic faculties, and if we let them live in freedom, we will have taken an immense step towards the solution of the educational problem in general, because we will have given the child his environment' - Maria Montessori in 'The Child in the Family', 1929, p. 65.
But how does such a small child absorb these stimuli? Through their senses! A child who has grown up in a suitable environment for them since birth will produce more positive brain responses. And children growing up in environments that positively stimulate their brains take on a few characteristics: they learn faster and feel more motivated and focused.
We have selected some factors that can be applied to any environment inhabited by children, but which will be most efficient when incorporated into bedrooms, playrooms, and classrooms. Below, we discuss in detail four of these factors: sight, smell, hearing, and touch.
In consideration of the child's vision, it is important to address account the colors and lighting of their surroundings. Light and pastel tones inspire a calmer and more peaceful atmosphere, whereas warm, strong colors might encourage children to have more energy than usual.
If possible, it is preferable to incorporate natural light, but it is also important to include enough artificial lighting to keep the child active and focused. Some studies show that learning improves up to 20% in better-lit classrooms. Check out more tips for lighting kids' indoor spaces here.
Spatial organization, an important pillar of neuroarchitecture, helps a lot in improving the visual aspect of an environment. It is important to plan ways to keep children's toys and supplies as organized as possible.
For children (especially younger children), being able to touch objects is extremely important. Feeling the textures and temperatures of different objects is actually enriching for children's development. To this end, it is recommended to design an environment with textures accessible to the touch.
Regarding the sensory development of children's hearing, it is essential to address two parameters that seem to contradict, but which are actually complementary in children's environments: music and silence. There are several studies proving the benefits of classical music in fetal development and also during early childhood. On the other hand, silence is essential to guarantee greater concentration in children. The ideal is to find a balance between sound and its absence.
Much is said about olfactory memory being the strongest type of memory in human brains. Therefore, it is important to consider the smells of an environment that, in the future, might become part of the olfactory memory of children. A good strategy to improve smell may be to include indoor plants. In addition to improving relaxation and providing daily contact with more living things, the olfactory possibilities of a home garden, for example, are endless.
- How to Stimulate Children's Autonomy Through Architecture and the Montessori Method
- How to Design Schools and Interiors Based on Waldorf Pedagogy
- Schools of the Future: How Furniture Influences Learning
- Wooden Architecture for Children: Designing Warm and Playful Spaces
- MONTESSORI, Maria. Mente absorvente. Rio de Janeiro: Editorial Nórdica, 1987 (tradução de Wilma Freitas Ronald de Carvalho),1987.
- MONTESSORI, Maria. Montessori en familia. Rio de Janeiro: Editorial Nórdica, 1987 (tradução de Wilma Freitas Ronald de Carvalho),1987.
- Neuroarq Academy / Academia Brasileira de Neurociência e Arquitetura. Accessed June 22, 2020.
- Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). Accessed June 22, 2020.
- 5 mudanças simples para repaginar a casa / Gazeta Do Povo. Accessed June 22, 2020.
- Neuroarquitetura: entenda a ciência que cria espaços para estimular o bem-estar / Casa e Jardim. Accessed June 22, 2020.
- Neuroarquitectura: Como os ambientes impactan no cérebro? / Marelli. Accessed June 22, 2020.