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Since the beginning days of the industrial model, learning environments have been anchored to direct instruction and information-giving models. A place where students, or pupils, show up to a building to learn because that location was the only place for it to occur.

Fast forward more than 100 years to today, we are stuck in a game of tug and war between the endless availability of information and the spaces that suggest the teacher still holds all the keys to the information. This juxtaposition showcases the need for skills and space alignment to support curriculum tied together between content and skill-based learning.

To build a strong foundation for their children, Cranston Public School District, has realigned their vision for learning and teaching. They are committed to designing learning environments that reflect the values and aspirations of all their learners. Their dedication to meeting the students and educators where they are is reflected in their 2019 Eden Park and 2021 Garden City Elementary new school designs.

In 2020, Fielding International and Natural Pod’s design and planning teams embarked on a journey to bring the students and educators into the planning process with a specially designed project-based learning opportunity. The authentic challenge was the perfect opportunity to put the children, specifically 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders, in the planning seat, and the educators in the project manager’s seat. Over the course of one semester, each student group of 1-4 students designed their ideal learning space, keeping in mind what inspired their space, the intention of the space, and the challenges they encountered along the way.

This project created an opportunity for students to share their first-hand experience of how the future learning space could support them and their learning needs directly. When adults solely reference their own learning experience as the current state and fail to capture student input, they are perpetuating the cycle of creating outdated learning spaces. The needs of students have shifted dramatically in recent years due to technological advancements and wide access to information. By listening to students who are in learning environments today, we are flipping the system upside down and intentionally moving toward what children need from the built environment – with the tools, information, and skills they need right now, to grow into the future that is already unfolding.

This project took place to shift educators’ thinking, model the way for students, and encourage adoption of learning environments to be the catalyst for change.

The Garden City leadership team began by creating a container where educators felt safe and encouraged to innovate and create change. The result was educators supporting each other in discovering new ways of engaging students by connecting in-class learning with experiences that happen in the children’s daily lives. This cascading effect of educators within the school modeling this behavior is provoking transformation and will pave the way for others in and out of the district.

By creating environments where children can learn by doing, children have context for the understanding of situations that can more easily be carried with them outside of the classroom walls. This is how we use an environment to be a learning experience and opportunity, by rooting their learning in a context greater than a textbook.


Garden City Elementary students showing their learning space ideas


An environment can be a catalyst for change in a multitude of ways:

  • By not being “in the way” for educators and students. Space should be adaptable to the lessons of the day – or better yet, be part of the lesson!
  • Space can foster the skills we value – as outlined in the ideal graduate. We are trying to do a lot with space; support what we’re working toward in developing people who can encourage self-appropriation, and critical thinking about the world around them. A range of spaces can speak to the whole child learning by engaging the senses, supporting individual work, group work, play, experimentation, and problem-solving. Offering multiple choices in space further encourages students to make a selection that meets them where they are in their learning journey.
  • An environment that’s considerably shaped by students’ input reflects back at students, giving them a sense of ownership, responsibility, and self-confidence. With the ultimate result being that young learners experience they can be narrators in their own educational journey. Thereby greatly increasing their engagement in that experience and their relationship to learning.

To actively involve students in the design process of creating their future space, their voices were included throughout every step of the process. In May 2021, team members from Natural Pod met with each student group to listen to their design presentations. Natural Pod associates then asked questions and gave feedback to each group of students who presented to future elaborate on their designs.

“From big picture discussions to furniture design, and from painting the safety fencing around the construction site to having a two-way dialogue with the builders, their [students’] hands and voices are literally woven into every aspect of the project,” Principal Brian Byerlee said. “They feel a sense of ownership and pride in the building, before it even exists, which will translate into connection, investment, and student leadership when we are in the building.”

This feedback was the key input for furniture prototypes created for and shared with the Garden City students on January 11, 2022. Nearly a year after initial conversations, students were able to see their ideas brought to life, as they participated in small groups as part of the “prototype team,” responsible for building the furniture pieces on site. Students will continue the prototype process in their temporary school, to inform how furniture will be used in the next space.


Garden City students constructing a Natural Pod Play Arch together

Garden City students constructing a Natural Pod Play Nook together

Set to open for learning in September 2023, the new Garden City Elementary will embrace student input for the initial design and continuous improvement. The space will be the catalyst for change and set these children up for success now, and well into their lives. The new school environment will support students and educators each day, with the ultimate goal to create well-rounded, self-appropriated and insightful beings, ensuring that these learners and educators will be positive forces for change for Garden City and the broader community.

Children have one childhood to build a strong foundation for the rest of their lives – what happens during these impressionable years sets them up for all the subsequent phases of life. This is not a small opportunity – it’s one of the greatest opportunities we have as a society and human race. An opportunity to create well-rounded, self-appropriated, and insightful beings is not the sole responsibility of a few but a shared collective set of experiences shared by all of us.

To perpetuate such a cultural shift, adults need to enroll themselves in being part of the change and adopting the necessary leadership direction and long-term implementation goals.



Jill Ackers-Clayton; Senior Learning Designer for Fielding International, is passionate about taking large-scale educational projects from inception to systemic execution. Her experience spans Early Childhood, K-12, & Higher Education. She has worked in over 20 countries and in almost every state in the US. Her work includes designing learning environments, and leading workshops for school leaders and teachers. Jill’s future-focused work stems from a personal commitment to bold values for education, learner-centered environments, and constructivist methods.

Michelle Carpenter; is currently Chief Strategy Officer at Natural Pod, having previously worked at Herman Miller for many years. Michelle also sits on the Board of Directors of Green Schools National Network.