Building Better Brains

The following piece by John Noble, AIA, LEED AP was featured in the Spring 2017 edition of Learning by Design, online version available here.

Over the past decade there has been a gradual, but steady, increase in the awareness of the importance of quality early childhood education, both at home and in schools. Through careful science and intensive research studies, we have learned that roughly 90 percent of the physical development of a person’s brain- the brain-cells and, perhaps more importantly, the connections between them- takes place in the first five years of life. Furthermore, this development has proven to be impacted by the immediate environment to a remarkable extent, with readily identifiable factors contributing to more and better development. Based on the research, we know that by using the right tools- singing, talking, expanding vocabulary, modeling constructive behavior and conflict resolution, enabling curiosity and exploration, facilitating engagement with the natural world –  we can literally build better brains.

Conversely, the challenges faced by children raised without these tools are substantial and, as Professor Robert Putnam illustrates in his book Our Kids, they are self-perpetuating. Lack of access to opportunity imposes hardships that, in turn, make it even more difficult to access opportunities. Despite a 50-year effort to eliminate the “achievement gap” through the intuitively reasonable vehicle of K- 12 education, we find that it has not only not improved, but it has widened in scope, across race and geography, irrespective of urban, suburban or rural environments.

While Our Kids contains a great deal of rather bleak data, there is one particularly-telling statistic that seems to suggest a better way for­ ward. It turns out that there is a great deal of evidence showing that the impact on the “achievement gap” of K-12 education is minimal, especially in light of the quantity of effort and resources expended. While this seems, on the face of it, like a very depressing statistic, it may point to a possible solution: If the “achievement gap” is unaffected by 12 years of concerted effort to imp rove access to opportunity and learning, is this effort being made too late? If one cohort of children is building their brains surrounded by the tools for success while the other cohort are raised in environments characterized by uncertainty, anxiety, boredom, and limited adult interactions, does it not stand to reason that the first cohort will enter kindergarten, with a much better chance to succeed than the second? And if their brains are literally denser, more interconnected and stronger, does it not make sense that the advantages would be sustained over the course of the next 12 years and on into adulthood?

To be fair, these findings are not an indictment of any one individual. And they apply across all of the usual social categories-any child who receives access to these brain-building tools will build a better brain, and there are countless cases of individuals overcoming the challenges of a difficult life to achieve great success. But if we are trying to help all of our children, it makes sense to focus our efforts where they will make the most impact and help remove barriers for those facing the toughest road.

Closing the Achievement Gap

This is where the story becomes optimistic. The impact of all of these tools is additive: Four or eight hours spent in a high-quality early childhood learning environment makes a huge difference.  While there is no substitute for committed and knowledgeable parents, pre­ school can help fill in the gaps.

Analysis of longitudinal studies by Professor James Heckman and his colleagues have identified tangible and lifelong benefits, both at an individual and society level. In fact, in his most recent study, Heckman calculates a 13.7% per annum return on investment for every dollar spent on quality early childhood education. For the individual, this return takes the form of better lifetime earning capacity, reduced incidence of arrests, violent behavior, and drug addiction.

Community Involvement

There is growing recognition nationwide of the importance of Early Childhood Education (ECE) and the need to increase access to it. In our region (southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky), there are initiatives to directly address this issue underway in all of the major urban areas.  In Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as the four counties of northern Kentucky, ambitious plans have been developed involving joint public/private efforts to help provide tuition assistance, while increasing parental awareness of the importance of ECE. In Cincinnati, the importance of ECE was evidenced by the overwhelming passage of a five-year, $48 million-per-year tax issue to fund these efforts.

While these efforts are critical to success, they are just the beginning. Based on census data, and assuming that the public awareness campaigns are successful in persuading just half of the families with children under the age of 4 to send their kids to a quality program, there would still be a 200%  deficit in the number of available high-quality slots for children in northern Kentucky And there is nothing to suggest that our local region is an anomaly Studies prepared by the William Penn Foundation along with its partners in Philadelphia found similar trends, as have dozens of communities across the country.

Environment: The Third Teacher

One final point: In every study I have seen, a clear distinction is made between early childhood education and Quality Early Childhood Education. This is more than just a semantic distinction; there are clear and highly quantified characteristics that constitute Quality ECE, ranging from the level of certification and educational background of the teachers to the methods by which they engage the students to the standards of cleanliness of the facility and the means and methods by which they are maintained.  And this is where we come in, because there are environmental aspects to the definition of quality as well.

Most states have rating systems that consider the total square footage per child, the need for direct auditory and visual supervision, the size and quality of the outdoor play area; and many identify additional qualities to be addressed such as access to natural light and views and indoor air quality.  Most also acknowledge the importance of an appropriate “fit” between the inhabitants and their surroundings (furniture size or the height of window ledge, for example). One can quickly imagine taking the idea further by adding a radiant floor for more comfortable crawling, rolling, or lounging or creating “caves” or “perches” that foster imaginative play and satisfy the craving for different ways of seeing or being in the world.

Beyond the requirements of codes and certifications, there is a chance here to do much more. The best designs start with the pedagogical strategies of the school and build from there, taking into account the different ways that space is utilized: the varying approaches to time and schedule, the importance of individual vs group work/play, even the extent to which the curriculum itself emanates from the teacher’s lesson plan or from the students’ interests and passions. The notion that the environment is the “third teacher” is perhaps most potent in the context of ECE and offers a wealth of opportunity for the motivated designer to be an active and contributing partner in education.


In light of the trends outlined in Our Kids and in the real-world events that they have led to, it may feel challenging to find areas of common ground within our communities.  For those who want to make the effort, it makes sense intuitively to start locally and with the youngest among us. The stakes are high.  In a very short time, they will be where we are now and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure that they have every tool available to them, including great big, beautiful, densely interconnected brains. And quality ECE is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.