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Educators across the world pay attention to the design and set up of learning environments. We look at how to arrange the furniture, whether we like the overall look, flow and practicalities of the room. When done, we review, and change the organization of the furniture and spaces over and over throughout the year. Deciding where to put the furniture to maximise the best use of the space is a high factor in creating a functional end result.

Generally, practical consideration of where the noisy block area is situated, the proximity of the painting easels to the sink, or the location of the quiet reading area for a calm space, are often the criteria for setting up the environment. Does any of this sound familiar?

What if we considered the needs of the brain when setting up the learning environment?

We might see classroom design through a different lens. Designing smaller spaces in the learning environment that are skill based and developmentally appropriate – including the recognition of brain development – is key to providing optimal learning opportunities for young children. Combining what we know about neuroscience, developmental research, effective classroom practices, pedagogies such as Reggio Emilia, Montessori and others guides us to the design of effective, child focused learning environments – that is the essence of the Brain-SET Environments Formula©.

What is the Brain-SET Environments Formula©?

Brain-SET is a training program that shines the light on the importance of aligning brain development with the design of the environment.

Dr Kathyn Murray is the creator of the original Brain-SET process for shaping early childhood spaces and places to promote learning. Her mantra of “A calm brain is a thinking brain” highlights the value of understanding the ways to support the needs of the brain to experience Safety, Emotional connection and opportunities for Thinking.

Originally, this method was called the Brain-SET Formula for Classroom Design. Dr. Kathryn soon found that her formula was applicable to all environments along with Early Childhood centres. We invite you read a little more about Brain-SET and reach out to us for staff training to support learning, calm environment design and staff wellbeing.

The brain in the Brain-SET Environments Formula©

The brain is the only organ that is not fully developed at birth – meaning that only essential neural pathways have been developed. Over the next 5 years, over 1 million neural connections are being created every second. So, the stimulation the brain receives through rich learning experiences is pivotal to development. This means that the way we set up the learning environment is vitally important for holistic growth and development.

Brain-SET focuses on the three general area of the brain – the Survival, Emotional and Thinking needs. Although we know the brain is a complex organ, understanding these basic levels allows us to design and implement learning experiences and spaces that harmonise and support the needs of the young child’s developing brain. Let’s take a brief look at why these levels are important.

Survival – is the focus of the brain stem at the base of the skull. This part of the brain takes care of our involuntary muscles such as breathing, pumping blood through our body, digestion and more. Its primary function is to make sure we survive and are safe. The brain works best when it senses that we are safe and will survive.

Emotions – are housed in the limbic system that includes the amygdala which sits near the ear. The amygdala registers how we feel and in conjunction with the brain stem, controls the flight, fight or freeze responses. The two levels harmonise to ensure children have a sense of safety and also feel safe and valued in their environment.

Thinking – this can best occur when the survival and emotional levels of the brain are aligned. Then the neocortex at the top of the brain comes into play. Problem-solving, decision-making, memory and communication occurs naturally. Children and adults who suffer trauma often have clear-headed thinking compromised because the bottom two areas of the brain are not harmonised (Gluck, Mercado & Myers, 2016). This is when we have ‘brain fog’ – we can still think, but not as clearly and confidently as when the brain is calm.

Recognising and satisfying the needs of the brain, as well as the commonly known developmental domains of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language go hand in hand to provide children with opportunities to extend or learn skills, such as:

  • Creativity, imagination
  • Decision making
  • Problem-solving/solution-finding
  • Collaboration and negotiation
  • Communication, oral language and social skills
  • Contextual literacy, numeracy, scientific learning
  • Self-regulation and emotional control
  • Engagement and focus on tasks and skill development
  • Playful learning and risk-taking
    (Adapted from Nagle & Scholes, 2016; Murray, 2021)

The learning environment should be designed to facilitate these skills through careful consideration of elements of design that includes the selection and placement of furniture.

Learning Environment Design

Once we understand the function and advantages of aligning the levels of the brain, educators can begin to design an environment that incorporates 3 Design Pillars and 16 elements. These Brain-SET features support the needs of the brain and are conducive to building a range of necessary skills. Utilizing the 3 Pillars of Design and the 16 Design Elements (seen in the Venn Diagram) across the whole learning environment ensures that we operate from a strengths-based approach.

When designing a learning environment, we want to create spaces where “A calm brain is a thinking brain” (Murray, 2021) and children and educators have the opportunity to shine! Consequently, where we position the furniture is important, but is not the sole consideration of designing a learning environment. Ensuring that the furniture is seamlessly part of the overlapping elements of design means that at first glance the room looks like defined pockets of interest-based spaces.

Some design elements to consider in terms of satisfying the needs of the brain include:

  • The rooms should not be overly cluttered and walls not overly decorated (Survival)
  • Interesting and eclectic artefacts scattered throughout the spaces (Emotions, Thinking)
  • A range of different-sized spaces to provide areas to sit, move, or collaborate with others or use individually (Thinking)
  • Open-ended materials are offered for the children to explore and expand their imagination (Emotions, Thinking)
  • Soft furnishings used to promote the familiar feeling of home (Emotions)
  • Tables and shelving that have soft corners (Survival)
  • Shelves that are placed at an angle or are curved (Survival)
  • Lighting that is soft and warm (Emotions)
  • Small learning spaces are defined and purposeful (Survival, Emotions, Thinking)
  • Natural materials are used to reflect nature and play a major part of the room design and calming the brain (Survival, Emotions, Thinking)

Using soft materials, natural timber or plants, repurposing existing resources mixed with new additions adds interest and keeps the brain from being bored. The whole environment and the experiences within the environment, are pivotal to holistic development and growth.

The furniture should not overshadow the intent of the spaces. Spaces must be purposefully curated with a focus on developing skills, regardless of the level of ability or age of the child. In his book ‘Brain Rules’ John Medina (2011) says that the brain doesn’t do boring and that we are all born natural explorers. So – let’s give children a learning environment to explore that supports the needs of the developing brain. It’s more than just where we put the furniture!

If you would like to learn more about the Brain-SET Environments Formula© and staff training dates, please contact Dr. Kathryn Murray.

This article has been adapted from an article by Dr. Kathryn Murray, previously published in Brainfeed Magazine, India (2023).

About Dr. Kathryn Murray

Dr Kathryn Murray is the founder of Future Strong Education Consultancy. She is an award-winning early childhood specialist, sought-after public speaker, workshop facilitator and coach. She is a pedagogical expert using her original Brain-SET Environments Formula© research. She feels strongly that all children should be given the best possible start in life.


Gluck, M. A., Mercado, E., Myers, C. E. (2016). Learning and memory: From brain to behavior. New York, USA: Worth.
Murray, K. (2021). The Brain-SET formula for classroom design. The Space. Issue 65, Spring, p 4-6
Medina, J. (2011). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Read How You Want, Limited.
Nagel, M., Scholes, L. (2016). Understanding development & learning: Implications for teaching. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

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