Fostering Connection: Design Strategies to Create Community-Based Learning Environments

A 24/7 news cycle. Frequent school shootings. Never-ending extracurriculars. Instantaneous likes and dislikes. The perfect selfie. Young people today are exposed to these and other innumerable stressors that have contributed to higher rates of anxiety and depression, feelings of loneliness, lack of confidence, and separation from self and community. As a result, today’s schools must be equipped to accommodate these behaviors and to compensate for the level of connection students once experienced elsewhere—schools must provide environments that facilitate a sense of choice, inspire higher self-esteem, and promote a sense of security and belonging.

As humans, in order to survive and thrive, we must find ways to connect with each other, the environment, and community. As designers, we have an opportunity to create environments that foster these connections. We believe that through good design we can foster community to make school a place where students feel seen, supported, and engaged.

So how do we design learning environments that empower all students to build confidence, autonomy, and community? We take inspiration from four design approaches—Biophilic, Sensory, Experiential, and Universal—while also implementing key program elements that inspire collaboration. The result? A rich ecosystem of learning, engagement, and community.


As we increase our use of technology, we decrease our connection to nature. To counteract this trend, we apply principles of Biophilic design, an approach rooted in the cognitive, psychological, and physiological benefits of connection to living things. Reconnecting students to nature enables them to relax, focus, feel safe, be energized, and find inspiration. Natural cues like daylight orient students, allowing them to navigate the building instinctively. The incorporation of natural materials, plant life, and even outdoor classrooms can provide new opportunities for learning and developing academic, social, and emotional skills.

Sensory design takes into account what it is like to experience a space with all of our senses. It taps into our emotional response to an environment—to how it makes us feel. In practice, this could be the use of a certain material or texture to evoke familiarity or a particular type of vegetation to instill connection to nature. By designing positive sensory-rich experiences, educational environments provide students opportunity and choice, so they have control to choose activities and areas in the building that make them feel comfortable and engaged. This gives students the ability to connect and communicate with their environment, peers, teachers, and school community. 

How can we understand an environment from the standpoint of human experience? Experiential design encourages us to consider the full spectrum of experiences—functional, emotional, social, symbolic—that coincide to influence how we feel, and how we behave, in a space. The quality of the resulting experience inspires and empowers, influencing how students interact and the level of their engagement with one another and their environment. We can play with scale to encourage specific behaviors, such as creating intimate nooks with views of outside for quiet reading or reflection. Designing a variety of experiences that provide layered choices empowers students to experience their environment in a way that makes them comfortable, whether that be engaging in the thick of things or watching from a less active spot on the periphery.

A well-designed environment is inclusive of all who experience it regardless of age, gender, mobility, or socio-economic class. Universal design removes barriers to promote a welcoming environment in which individuals can connect to the greater whole. Learning environments designed with universal principles in mind accommodate functional requirements in an inviting and engaging way. For example, use of one-story buildings and uniformly leveled surfaces ensure that all students can navigate their environment freely, without feeling that accommodation of their needs was an afterthought.

These design approaches are interconnected and particularly powerful when used together. All four influence the level of connectivity students have with themselves, with the environment, and with the school community, making students feel safe to be creative and to let their true selves be seen.


The human body is an ecosystem, a rich, layered, and complex interconnected network of systems that support each other while performing different and distinct functions. So, too, are buildings; contained within the brick and mortar are multifaceted systems serving diverse users with numerous and varied goals. Through the lens of building as a living, breathing entity, we have identified four key categories of programming that foster community and connection.                 

The Brain. Programmed space where academic learning happens from learning labs to specialized rooms for art and music.

The Heart. These unprogrammed spaces are where social and emotional connection happens. These spaces celebrate the core values of connection to community. They are the “third place”—the physical and psychological space between home and school that engages students, teachers, families, and the greater community—where students experience the warmth of a school community and a sense of belonging.

The Skeletal System. This network of sensory cues and hierarchy of scale, symbolism, color, materials, and views enable students to navigate the campus.

The Soft Tissue. Spaces between spaces, the soft tissue provides opportunities for people to collaborate and interact less formally. These may be areas for casual socializing or places of respite for teachers.