Spaces for Children: what NeuroArchitecture can teach us

By Andréa de Paiva

Have you ever stopped to think about the effects that the physical environment can have on us will not necessarily be the same on a child? Throughout development, the brain undergoes a series of intense transformations. Therefore, their vulnerability to the stimuli of the space around them changes in different periods of childhood and adolescence. In today's article, we will talk about how NeuroArchitecture can help us to understand some of the developing brain particularities in order to create better environments for children.

Imagem de Daniela Dimitrova por Pixabay

When studying the brain and behavior, it is important to keep in mind that the development process transforms our brain and its functioning significantly over time. In this sense, the effects that the same environment can generate in young adults will not necessarily be the same as in children (or in the elderly!). More than that, the brain does not develop uniformly throughout childhood.

What neuroscience has been showing is that there are several "windows of development", or "sensitive periods", in which different neuronal systems mature [1]. In other words, children will not always be affected in the same way by the environment. Depending on age, the brain will be at a different stage of development. For example, only between 4 and 5 years of age do children begin to learn that other people have feelings and thoughts different from their own, which is known as theory of mind [2].

In relation to the environment, younger children are able to build a mental representation of known spaces, but the ability to integrate the different parts of this representation is not yet developed. Therefore, they have difficulty using navigation strategies such as the selection of landmarks or even a map to navigate in unknown places. Only around 12 years of age children refine their spatial orientation and navigation strategies [3]. Therefore, when creating complex environments such as schools and children's hospitals, it is important to think of different sensory cues that can help children feel safe and be able to navigate with some independence. This not only facilitates the use of these spaces, but it can also contribute to the child being stimulated and better developing navigation skills.

It is worth mentioning that despite the high levels of plasticity throughout these development windows, our brain maintains part of its capacity for transformation throughout life. The "sensitive period", however, represents an even greater sensitivity to stimuli in the environment, allowing some neuronal systems to be shaped by the experience of individuals.

For the application of NeuroArchitecture in children's environments, we need to keep in mind, first of all, that the development of some brain areas related to sensory processing only happens if adequate stimuli are received. For example, the 1981 Nobel Prize winners in Physiology and Medicine, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, found that when covering the eyes of newborn kittens throughout the postnatal period, a change in some basic patterns of visual cortex functioning occurs, resulting in the inability to see even after removing the cover [4]. Certain skills depend on experience for the brain to develop normally, especially in the postnatal period. That is, we need some basic stimuli during certain windows of sensitivity to ensure proper brain development [6]. If we do not receive this stimulus in time, the areas of the brain that needed it to mature do not develop as they should. Hubel and Wiesel's studies of kittens illustrate this situation.

On the other hand, Professor Stanley Graven realized that over-stimulation in neo-natal ICUs was detrimental to the development of babies, especially premature ones. Before, ICUs were designed with a focus on the needs of nurses and doctors. That is, the lighting was strong so that any changes in the babies were noticed. And the noise of machines like air conditioning and speakers was constant. But this excess of continuous stimulation, in the case of newborns, could hinder the development of the senses of sight and hearing, resulting in less efficiency of them throughout life [5].

Researcher William Greenough, when studying the developing brain, realized that creating laboratory animals in impoverished cages (cages in the standard laboratory model) or in enriched cages (larger cages where the entire litter is kept, with toys exchanged regularly) affects the development of various brain structures and functions. Animals brought up in complex environments have a denser cortex, an increased number of cells supporting neurons (such as glial cells) and even an increased complexity of the cerebral vascular system [7]. More than that, many of the effects of developing in a complex environment persist even when the animal returns to poorer conditions. In other words, it is important to ensure that environments where children will spend more time, such as the school and bedroom, for example, are rich in stimuli that contribute to healthy development.

The environments where children develop and thrive also have another important function: supporting the creation of a sense of identity. It is during childhood and adolescence that we build our basic memory bank that will guide our behavior throughout life. Part of these memories will be part of our autobiographical self [8], which consists of our autobiography, the story we know about ourselves. Sensorially enriched environments can help to create stronger memories that stay more alive throughout our lives. It is important that children's environments are challenging, that they stimulate the senses and encourage exploration. But at the same time, children need to feel safe in these spaces, given that chronic stress also affects development. Finally, it is important that architecture stimulates not only the brain, but the child's body as well. An active body that moves around the environment is essential for the mental and physical health of adults and children.

Architects who design spaces for children (homes, schools or hospitals, for instance) need to keep in mind that children have different needs than adults. It is important to have knowledge about development and empathy to know how to see the world through the eyes of children. Perception, emotions and cognition in developing individuals are different from adults. Children of different ages have different needs and will also perceive the same environment in a different way. This is not only because her stature is shorter than that of an adult, which changes her visual perception of the environment, but also because she is developing her skills, her senses and creating her bank of memories and her sense of identity. Finally, the buildings and environments that we create are not only used to safely and comfortably house children, they also serve to support the development of skills and memories that will accompany individuals throughout their lives.

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[1] Hensch, T. (2004) Critical Period Regulation. Annual Review of Neuroscience2004 / 07 Vol. 27; Iss.1

[2] Lowry, L. “Tuning In” to Others: How Young Children Develop Theory of Mind. The Hannen Centre.

[3] Newscombe, N., Huttenlocher, J. (2000) Making Space: The Development of Spatial Representation and Reasoning. The MIT Press.

[4] Hubel, D., Wiesel, T. (1964) Effects of monocular deprivation in kittens. Naunyn-Schmiedeberg's Archives of Pharmacology1964 / 08 Vol. 248; Iss. 6

[5] EBERHARD, J. (2008) Brain Landscape The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford University Press, USA.

[6] Greenough, W., Black, J., Wallace, C. (1987) Experience and brain development. Child Dev. 1987 Jun;58(3):539-59.

[7] Stiles, J., Jernigan, T. (2010) The Basics of Brain Development. Neuropsychol Rev. 2010 Dec; 20(4): 327–348.

[8] Damásio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens. Harcourt Brace.

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© 2018 by Andréa de Paiva