Designs for Living and Learning Book Study Guide

Transforming Early Childhood Environments - Deb Curtis and Margie Carter

Designs for Living and Learning Book Study Facilitator Guide.pdf

Written by Liz Goddard and Char Norris

The purpose of this guide is to deepen the book study participant's understanding of the power of the environments in which children spend their time. This will give educators an opportunity to discuss what they are learning and to apply it to their context and space. As they critically reflect on their practice in meaningful and relevant ways, this professional learning experience can be transformative.


Research tells us that environments are an instrumental part of children’s growth and development and influences the people who use them. “Every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who use a space and the activities that take place there.”(Designs for Living and Learning, p 19)The way we think of and value children and the respect we give them is evident in the spaces that we create for them. Environments shape the identity and influence the thinking of the young children that inhabit them. These spaces are indicative of children’s learning, development, and beliefs. When environments are grounded in a strong image of children, we can provide a higher quality of care and will see better outcomes for children. Designs for Living and Learning is a reflective guide to gaining new insight into transforming early childhood environments while providing insightful questions for each educator to examine what he/she believes to be true. This book can be a catalyst for all educators who want to improve their understanding of young children’s learning and enriching environments for young children.


Book: “Designs for Living and Learning” by Deb Curtis &Margie Carter
Article: “Making Your Environment ‘The Third Teacher’” By Margie Carter (included)

Timeline and Logistics

This book study guide has been written and implemented in center-based environments with a leader facilitating the group and teaching teams working together. Minor adjustments can be made if group sizes or dynamics differ from this.

The timeline below outlines the course for this book study. As a group decides on a common day and time to meet. Participants can plan on 1-1.5 hours for the discussion portion of each section. You will notice that each meeting starts with a reflection on the thinking of the participants since the last meeting. As we practice reflection with educators before each interaction we have with them, we hope to see that paralleled in their practice before their interactions with children.

Meeting Date and Time Assigned Reading
1   Introduction pg. 1-15
2   Chapter 1: Lay a Foundation for Living and Learning pg. 17-34
3   Chapter 2: Think beyond a Traditional Classroom pg. 35-58
4   Chapter 3: Create Connections, a Sense of Place and Belonging pg. 59-88
5   Chapter 4: Keep Space Flexible and Materials Open-Ended pg. 89-126
6   Chapter 5: Design Natural Environments That Engage Our Senses pg. 127-152
7   Chapter 6: Provoke Wonder; Curiosity, and Intellectual Challenge pg. 153-188
8   Chapter 7: Engage Children in Symbolic Representations,… pg. 189-216
9   Chapter 8: Enhance Children’s Use of the Environment pg. 217-234
10   Chapter 9: Launch the Process of Transforming an Environment pg. 217-234
11   Chapter 10: Face Barriers and Negotiate Quality Standards pg. 265-294
12   Chapter 11: Seek Children’s Ideas about Environments pg.295-319

Meeting 1


Discuss pages 1-15

The Importance of Environments

Introduce the topic of environments. Some questions to be reflecting on include: What comes to your mind when you think about environments? Why is this an important subject for early childhood programs?

Group Discussion

Ask a question that provokes thoughts about environments

  • Picture the last place you were in that made you think, “Wow! This is beautiful!”
    • Share about the space: What were the characteristics? What made it beautiful to you? What did you see? What did you smell? How did it make you feel?
    • What do you think successful environments have in common?
  • As a group, discuss how your program’s environment reflects these same characteristics? What makes it beautiful? What feelings does it invoke? Does the environment reflect the values you want it to?

Clarify the aspects of environment

  • Physical environment –space, layout, design, materials, etc.
  • Social environment –how does it feel, how are relationships cultivated and supported
  • Temporal environment –routines, timing, sequence of daily activities

Introduce the book

  • Share Anita Rui Olds’ quote from the first page of the book. “Children are miracles. Believing that every child is a miracle can transform the way we design for children’s care. When we invite a miracle into our lives, we prepare ourselves and the environment around us...We make it our job to create, with reverence and gratitude, a space that is worthy of a miracle! Action follows through. We can choose to change. We can choose to design spaces for miracles, not minimums.”
  • Challenge to educators: What are we willing to do to design our space for miracles, not minimums?
  • Flip through the book together. Notice the layout, the reflection questions, and the many pictures that are there to help learning and understanding.

What’s next...

Assign the next reading (Chapter 1, pgs 17-34)

Ask participants to come next time prepared with a drawing of the way their space is designed now and prepared to discuss.

Have participants complete the assessment from AppendixA pg. 324 Assessing from the Child’s Perspective before the next meeting. Encourage them to get on the floor and assess from a child’s level.

  • What do you see?
  • What areas are you excelling in? How can we celebrate and expand that space?
  • Which statement do you find lacking in your room? How can we better support those aspects?

Meeting 2

Chapter 1: Lay a Foundation for Living and Learning

Discuss pages 17-34

Group Discussion

  • “Every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who use a space and the activities that take place there.” (p 19) What does your space imply about your values and beliefs about the children in your care?

In Teaching Teams

  • Share the floor plan of the room you work in. Share your findings of what each participant discovered. Are there ideas from one classroom that could be explored in another classroom?
    • Some questions to explore together:
      • What materials that the children in your care most enjoy playing with? Consider the sensory aspects, the textures, the way they move, and the sounds they make. How do these connect to other aspects of the children's lives?
      • Will these materials sustain their interest over time?
  • Consider your communal areas. Assess your entry, your outdoor spaces, etc. from a child’s perspective.

What’s next...

Assign the next reading (Chapter 2, pgs. 35-58)
Assign each teaching team the additional reading and activity from “Making the Environment “The Third Teacher” article, the section titled, “Strategy: Explore Values for Your Environment”. Each team needs to come prepared to share their findings with the whole group.

Meeting 3

Chapter 2 –Think Beyond a Traditional Classroom

Discuss pages 35-58

Share Out

Have teaching teams share their insights from “Making the Environment “The Third Teacher” article, the section titled, “Strategy: Explore Values for Your Environment”. Values work.

  • What values did each team find most critical?
  • How are these values represented in your individual spaces? How are these values represented in your program as a whole?

Group Discussion

Too often when we picture early childhood environments we think of K-12 classrooms, commercially influenced spaces, or catalogs full of “cookie-cutter” environments. But in chapter 2 we learn that“Institutional settings create barriers to trusting, warm relationships and are not conducive to the big ideas and actions children bring to their learning.” (p36) It’s important that we do not look at this book as another catalog with pretty environments, but that we think more carefully about the values underneath the designs. “Continued study is the key to creating environments that are more meaningful for you and your group of children. Rather than just trying to copy someone else, be inspired by new ideas and images then adapt them to reflect your values and vision from your program (and space).” (p45)

  • Have each participant choose an image from this chapter(p38-57)and reflect on the underlying values and vision that are portrayed. What ideas speak to you and how do they tie into your own values and vision?

Teaching Teams

Brainstorm together how you can embrace the “power of aesthetics”. (p37)

  • Explore together how you already use the six design parameters (color, choice, complexity, flexibility, connection, and light) to enhance your spaces.
  • What are some small and simple changes that you can implement to support your values and vision for the children in your space, keeping in mind the six design parameters?

What’s next...

Assign the next reading (Chapter 3, pgs. 59-88)

Ask participants to be experiment with and try some of the small changes they discussed in their teaching teams. Be prepared to share successes and challenges with the group next time.

Meeting 4

Chapter 3 –Create Connections, a Sense of Place and Belonging

Discuss pages 59-88

Share Out

What changes did each participant experiment with, in their space? What were some successes? What were the challenges? Discuss possible solutions or ideas to work through challenges.

Group Discussion

Creating connections is fundamental to having a welcoming, “home away from home” space.

  • Why is a “home away from home” important for young children and families?
  • What are you already doing to hold to this idea?

Teaching Teams

Teams will walk through your program and discuss the questions on page 65. Come back together to discuss findings as a whole group. Discuss ideas for making the environment of your program reflect your values and vision for your program.

What’s next...

Encourage educators to do a similar walkthrough with a few parents to gain their perspective on the program’s environment.

Assign the next reading (Chapter 4, pgs. 89-126)

Assign each teaching team the additional reading and activity from “Making the Environment “The Third Teacher” article, the section titled, “Strategy: Bring words to life”. Each team needs to come prepared to share their findings with the whole group.

Meeting 5

Chapter 4 –Keep Space Flexible and Materials Open-Ended

Discuss pages (89-126)

Share Out

Which quote did your teaching team decide to represent together? What about this quote spoke to you? Invite participants to share the visual representations that they came up with together.

Group Discussion

Read the following quote together, reflect, and discuss each participant’s thoughts.

  • “While we want our spaces to be safe, clean, and organized for children, we should also be eager to design an environment that meets up with children’s flexible minds and energetic bodies...Young children bring their active bodies with them wherever they go, and their physical development is a critical aspect of their cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children deserve to be allowed to use their bodies to explore space and their own competency—climbing to a high loft, jumping off logs, going up and down steps and ladders, running or riding fast on a pathway, squeezing into a small box, or hiding under a blanket or behind a bush.” (p90)

Teaching Teams

Reflect on and discuss the questions on page 92 in your teaching teams. Be prepared to share the highlights of your discussion with the whole group.

  • What concepts are you excited about trying?

  • Are there any ideas that make you nervous?
  • How can we help you problem-solve through those questions or challenges?

What’s next...

Answer the question, “How will you adjust your environment to keep it flexible and the materials open-ended this week?” Make a plan for small adjustments, implement it this week, and come prepared to share successes and challenges.

Assign next reading (Chapter 5, pgs. 127-152)

Meeting 6

Chapter 5 –Design Natural Environments that Engage Our Senses

Discuss pages 127-152

Share Out

What adjustments did each participant experiment with, in their space? What were some successes? What were the challenges? Discuss possible solutions or ideas to work through challenges.

Group Discussion

Share Jim Greenman’s quote from the first page of the book: “Perhaps if we through more about childhoods and less about needs, some of our programs would look less like schools and more like homes and children’s museums, or like fields and parks. We might develop varied places with a genuine sense of play –of beauty, variety, and elements of surprise and mystery; places where adults and children delight at times in simply being together, messing about, and working at the tasks that daily living requires.”

  • How do the ideas and pictures in chapter 5relate to the quote from Mr. Greenman?

  • Why do you think that including natural environments that engage the adults and children’s senses is important to children’s learning?

Teaching Teams

Reflect on and discuss the questions on page 129.

  • What are some goals that you can set as a teaching team to implement the ideas of your group?

Group Discussion

Discuss a program goal(s) for implementing natural environments within your programs. What are some small steps that you can implement right now? How can you support one another? Who else needs to be included in this conversation, to make sure all voices are heard?

What’s next...

Assign next reading (Chapter 6, pgs. 153-188)

Come prepared next time with specific ideas of ways that you can enrich your environment with nature items that engage the children’s senses.

Meeting 7

Chapter 6 –Provoke Wonder, Curiosity, and Intellectual Challenge

Discuss pages 153-188

Share Out

Participants share ideas of ways to include nature to enrich their environments. Did anyone try to include anything since we last met? What were the successes and challenges?

Group Discussion

Read, reflect and discuss the following quote from chapter 6: “When teachers fill classroom environments with standard materials aimed at teaching with achievement-oriented outcomes, the message conveyed to children is that learning is dry and boring. It also suggests that you have a narrow understanding of what is valuable to learn and provide for. The use of cartoon images and commercial figures in classrooms suggests that learning should always be entertaining. These kinds of things disregard and disrespect children’s innate eagerness to explore, inquire, and make meaning of what is around them. Instead, set up environments to take advantage of children’s passionate quest to investigate and theorize about things that provoke a sense of magic and wonder and intellectual challenges.” (p155)

  • What do your environment and teaching convey about learning and children’s abilities?

Teaching Teams

Assign teaching teams the reflection table/activity from “Making the Environment “The Third Teacher” article, table titled, “Worksheet for Goal Setting and Addressing Barriers”.

  • Discuss as you complete the worksheet together

  • Make a goal, either individually or as a teaching team
  • Present goal to the whole group

Group Discussion

Discuss the goals presented by each team and potential barriers to those goals.

  • Are there any commonalities among the goals set by each team?
  • What barriers would we need to address?

Set program goals, based on the chapters read thus farand assign strategies for implementing goals to teams. Create a timeline for goals.

What’s next...

Assign next reading (Chapter 7, pgs. 189-216)

Meeting 8

Chapter 7 –Engage Children in Symbolic Representations, Literacy, and the Visual Arts

Discuss pages 189-216

Group Discussion

Discuss how your thinking about symbolic representation, art as a thinking tool, and how this relates to language and literacy development has changed or expanded.

  • What are some new insights you have?
  • What changes might you want to make in your environment?

Teaching Teams

Consider the different areas of your spaces and decide on a focus for improvements. Examples include:

  • Adults modeling their creation and use of literacy, symbolic representation, and the visual arts
  • Opportunities for children to read, write, and decodeď‚·Routine use of drawing as a thinking tool
  • A studio space with real tools and art media for focused work
  • Documentation of children’s expanding literacy understandings and representation skills
  • Opportunities to explore the languages of art, drama, music, and dance to communicate ideas and feelings
  • Ways to engage families in understanding the children’s communications with materials.


Once you have decided on a focus, spend some time further developing concepts discussed in this chapter that you are less familiar with. Come back together and share what each teaching team discovered. Are there ideas from one classroom that could be explored in another classroom? 

Remember to work on your outside as well as the inside the environment, and your hallways and bathrooms in addition to your classrooms.

What’s next...

Assign the next reading (Chapter 8, pgs. 217-234)

Assign to teaching teams –Follow up with each other at least two times before we meet again to discuss and problem-solve challenges and celebrate successes.

Meeting 9

Chapter 8 –Enhance Children’s Use of the Environment

Discuss pages 217-234

Group Discussion

Use the following question to consider your personal thoughts and discuss your program and practice. Then choose an element you would like to work on in your program:

  • How would you describe your program’s social-emotional environment?
  • Have you and your colleague's given collective thought to the values you want your program space and routines to communicate?

Teaching Teams

Discuss the following:

  • Are there features in your room that could be expanded to accommodate at least two children?
  • What demonstrations of materials or interactions would benefit the children in your program?
  • What new teacher role would you like to weave into your practice?
  • Do you have any new routines for collaborating or taking perspective you want to add to what you offer the children?
  • What changes do you want to make in how you present materials that invite children’s investigations and learning?

Group Discussion

Read the quote on page 222: “When you believe that children are curious, capable, and eager to make connections and learn, you won’t rely on expensive curriculum packages or learning materials to ensure particular outcomes or test scores. Instead, you will draw on your knowledge of child development, your observation of children’s play, favorite memories from your own childhood, and a creative eye as you move about the world to discover innovative materials to offer.”

  • Does this resonate with you?
  • What are some practices that you can adjust to align with this concept?

What’s next...

Assign the next reading (Chapter 9, pgs 235-264)

Assign teaching teams to continue to follow up with one another as many times as applicable for them (minimum of twice) to reflect, discuss, and problem-solve together.

Meeting 10

Chapter 9 –Launch the Process of Transforming an Environment

Discuss pages 235-264

Group Discussion

Examine and discuss your excitement as well as your hesitation toward transforming your environment. Use the following questions and suggestions to reflect on things that may be on your mind:

  • What were you most excited about in the stories of inventors that you read in this chapter?
  • What particular changes were you drawn to and why?
  • In which stories did you recognize environmental challenges that are similar to what you face in your program?
  • What first steps do you want to take? How will you begin?
  • Who in your life can support you in your efforts to transform your environment?

Brainstorm a web of specific outcomes you would like to see in your environment because of changes you plan to make.

Teaching Teams

Read the following quote: “Observe the children, their actions, and their interactions in your environment as you consider how to make their experiences in the environment more meaningful for them. Your observations are a critical part of the change process.” (p 238).

  • How will you and your team make these observations happen?

  • When will you take the time to reflect on them and then meet to discuss your findings?

Group Discussion

Read the following quote: “A big part of transforming your environment is figuring out the resources you have or will need, and how the work will get done.” p 243.

  • What resources do you have?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How will you get the work done?

What’s next...

Assign next reading (Chapter 10, pgs. 265-294)

Assign teaching teams to continue to follow up with one another as many times as applicable for them (minimum of twice) to reflect, discuss, and problem-solve together.

Meeting 11

Chapter 10 –Face Barriers and Negotiate Quality Standards

Discuss pages 265-294

Group Discussion

Reflect on chapter 10 and provide time to talk and decide on the values you have for children and your practice. (p 284)

Discuss either in teaching teams, small group, or whole group (whichever is appropriate for your program) any of the following questions that resonate with your group:

  • Discuss together what inspires you. What feels like a beginning priority in this journey?
  • How can you make embed reflection and teacher learning in this process to make truly meaningful quality improvements? (p 285)
  • How can you as a program make sure that your environment is not limiting fundamental learning experiences? (p 286)
  • How can you combat isolation and make time to get together and discover your shared issues, hear strategies that have been successful, and develop a collective voice to advocate for change? (p 290)
  • What mindset and mantra do you want to move forward with?

What’s next...

Assign next reading(Chapter 11, pgs. 295-319)

Assign teachers to brainstorm and come back next time with some ideas of who in your community you can partner with for creative problem solving and innovative, out-of-the-box thinking.

Meeting 12

Chapter 11 –Seek Children’s Ideas about Environments

Discuss pages 295-319

Group Discussion

  • How can you include children’s voices and ideas into your space?.
  • Were there any examples of including children in designing that resonated with you?
  • What ways did you find to acknowledge and uncover the children's thinking and preferences in your spaces?
  • What did you discover and how will it influence your choices for your environments?

What’s next...

Make a plan together. Using the information you have gained:

  • How do you want to move forward in your program?
  • Where will you start?
  • How will you respect the voices of the children and families in your care?

Discuss ideas of how to make the changes ongoing and sustainable in your program.

Write your plan as you discuss and then hang it in a staff area where everyone can see and can add to later.

Making Your Environment "The Third Teacher"

"In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers, in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge." 

- Lella Gandini (1998)

        The Italian schools of Reggio Emilia are acclaimed for their stunning environments their educators have created, and they provoke us to see the instructive power of an environment. This is not a new subject, but in their schools, we see vibrant examples of learning environments that dazzle our senses, inviting curiosity and discovery, and most importantly, foster strong respectful relationships. Reggio educators seem to have a different notion about the role of the environment in educating children,  for unlike the typical U.S. classroom, their walls aren't covered with alphabet letters, calendars, and job charts. Nor do you find commercially produced bulletin board, labels on every shelf and surface, or roles posted. What could they be thinking? 

        In the name of early education, homogenization and institutionalization are sprouting up everywhere in early childhood programs across the United States. Our programs are developing what author and Harvard educator Toney Wagner ( 2001) calls a "culture of compliance" aimed at regulations, not dreams for children and ourselves. For instance, teachers in a  Head Start program told me they were "dinged out of compliance" because they had a replica of a solar system hanging from the ceiling, not at the children's eye level. A child care teacher described how the children's enthusiasm for using the block area to create "the tallest building in the world" quickly waned her director arrived with a reminder of the rule not to build higher than their shoulders. These and many other stories tell me that we are not working with the idea Gandini suggests above, creating flexible environments that are responsive to the need for children and teachers to construct knowledge together. If we want our environments to be teachers in this way, it's time we do some careful reexamination to see how our standards and rating scales have begun to limit our thinking, and how commercial and political interests are shaping more and more of what we do. 

        In my opinion, if we are to embrace the idea of the environment as a significant educator in our early childhood programs, we must expand our thinking beyond the notion of room arrangements and rating scales. We must ask ourselves what values we want to communicate through our environments and how we want children to experience their time in our programs. Walk down the halls and into the classrooms of your program. What does this environment "teach" those who are in it? How is it shaping the identity of those who spend long days there? 

        When Deb Cutis and I were writing Designs for Living and Learning (2003) we found ourselves in a dilemma. We were eager to share photos of the inspiring environments we had begun encountering and working with programs to shape. But, we feared people might just flip through the pages looking for "decorating" ideas and bypass the text explaining the underlying concepts and principles the photos represented. Indeed, we have continued to invent training strategies to engage teachers in constructing their understanding of the environment as the third teacher in their room.


Bring words to Life

Depending on their learning style, people take different paths to bring words to life for their everyday teaching practice. I like to find inspiring quotes and have teachers pair them with their own visual images or ideas about how these words might be reflected in an actual environment. For instance, offer a selection of provocative quotes about environments, such as the following, and have your staff choose one to either draw a representation of what it means to them, or create a collage of magazine pictures. 

  • First we shape our buildings. Thereafter they share our lives.

Winston Churchill

  • More than the physical space, (the environment) includes the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think, behave, and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives. 

Jim Greenman 

  • Our thoughts as reflected in our designs, in turn, shape our children's beliefs about themselves and life. 

Anita Olds

  • The environment is the most visible aspect of the work done in the schools by all the protagonists. It conveys the message that this is a place where adults have thoughts about the quality and instructive power of a space. 

Lella Gandini

  • Every person needs a place that is furnished with hope.

Maya Angelou


Eliminate as well as supplement 

An environment that is crowded or cluttered may obscure the values you have in mind. Try to gather some sample pictures of the contrast between cluttered, harsh, or boring environments and well organized, thoughtfully planned ones and go through them one by one with some questions for discussion. For instance, if you were a child, what might your experience be in this environment. 


Explore values for your environment

Use some of your staff meeting time to identify the values that you want to be reflected in your environment. Pass out a set of blank index cards and ask teachers to use one for each value that they want to be influencing their work with children. Collect these, and together organize them into groups with common elements. Then, to move these values from abstract ideas to practical examples, assign each group of cards to a dyad or cluster of teachers with the task of using the back of the card to outline or sketch how this value might be specifically reflected in the physical environment and also in the social-emotional environment created by your policies, routines, and rituals. Consider value for adults as well as the children. Keep the following ideas in mind to prompt your staff should they need it. 

Values for children:

  • Being a home away from home
  • Connecting children to their families 
  • Helping children to be powerful and active 
  • Providing softness
  • Being a steward of the natural world 
  • Seeing oneself as a capable learner
  • Recognizing and being curious about different perspectives 
  • Forming mutually interesting snd respectful relationships