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The Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) is a non-profit, interdisciplinary association of professionals working at the intersection of learning and place to drive the evolution of learning environments. Made up of regions and chapters across the globe, their purpose is to ‘strengthen learning for all through better environments.’

In my role as Natural Pod’s Chief Strategy Officer, I had not only the pleasure to attend the A4LE Early Childhood Conference and witness Ashanti Bryant’s, Director of Early Childhood at IFF,  opening keynote. A few weeks later I got granted the opportunity, together with Bryan Byerlee (Garden City Elementary), Jen Leyva (Fielding International), and Jay Litman (Fielding International) to share the impactful work that’s taken place over the past two years engaging students in planning their new school at A4LE LearningSCAPES International Conference.
To give you an insight into the conversations I am sharing my key takeaways from both events which I left truly inspired and deeply motivated to support and help to expand this community of changemakers.

A4LE Early Childhood Conference:

Ashanti Bryant, Director of Early Childhood at IFF, set the stage for the conference with a focus on the state of early childhood in the US. His clear structure covered three steps to move the broader agenda of learning change forward: Connect. Create. Amplify. 

Speakers throughout the two-half-day conference followed Ashanti’s lead and shared stories of successful projects that also brought people together, created a space for them to thrive, and amplified the message of how the place impacted the learners within. 

All learners were included in this storytelling, from our typical learners to those that are non-typical. As someone who was raised with a non-typical sibling, the emphasis on this learner was deeply impactful on many levels. Most importantly, to know that the learning community is truly working to embrace all learners for their unique needs, and to create learning opportunities amongst all learners. Separation of learning types is not the answer; there are learning opportunities in being with peers who are different from oneself. 

This emphasis on the range of learners, and the types of spaces they need was present throughout the topics.

Key takeaways were:

  • Spaces talk: Surroundings and places inform “self” at young ages; they communicate without words. What are your spaces saying?
  • Nature is sensory: Biophilic design is sustainable design. Connectivity to natural wood grains, natural edges that offer texture for a sensory experience can actively contribute to the learning experience. Neutral colors can also offer a calm space to dampen any sensory overload.
  • Floor comfort: Our youngest learners spend a considerable amount of time on the floor; educators spend a considerable amount of time standing or walking within a learning space. Let’s make sure this learning space is also as comfortable and clean as possible.


A4LE LearningSCAPES international conference

This convening of education leaders continued on the positive energy from the ECE conference the month prior. At A4LE’s international conference, LearningSCAPES, the design and education community came together to explore the best in design, share best practices for strategic planning, and learn from student voice. 

Alongside Bryan Byerlee (Garden City Elementary), Jen Leyva (Fielding International), and Jay Litman (Fielding International), I shared the impactful work that’s taken place over the past two years engaging students in planning their new school. We presented the established framework and selected preliminary visuals of what the new school will look like when opened in the fall of 2023.

Our student voice session was one of over sixty compelling sessions during the conference. Through listening to others and engaging in conversations, these were the key takeaways, or areas of confirmation that we’re on the right track:

  • Student voice: Students have first-hand experience learning within the buildings and spaces the adults are creating. Asking and listening to their experience is more than a single post-occupancy survey to inform a future project. There are learning opportunities in gathering student voices, such as asking “What is your ideal learning space?” 
  • Choice: What environment in your life do you not have a choice on where to sit? Maybe a movie theater or the DMV, but in most places you do have a choice – whether a type of seat or posture, location within a room such as by a window, or away from a kitchen. Choice is imperative to creating a sense of self-agency and support for one’s learning needs on a given day. This also encourages movement – moving from seat to seat is ok!
  • Classroom functionality: Oftentimes the grand architecture can cloud the smaller spaces in a building. Those smaller spaces, classrooms, are where students spend most of their days and deeply engage with the environment around them. Let’s ensure we’re moving the dial in these spaces to encourage and support active learning. No more rows of seats facing the front, please. 


Both events provided exceptional connectivity to the community-led and united by the aim to transform learning spaces. While this work often feels slow-moving, hearing the experiences and learning about projects where the change has already come to life reassured me that change is happening! Creating student-centered spaces which can evolve with needs over time is the way to avoid getting pigeonholed into a singular-use space.

We at Natural Pod hope that these dynamic conversations continue in frequency as they push the learning landscape forward; further toward student-centered and dynamic spaces as we need to support the learner’s evolving needs.