Inspiring Classroom Spaces: Functionality Meets Calming Environment in this New Mexico Facility

All children deserve beautiful spaces to play, learn, and grow. 

For Gabrielle Wheeler, she took this sentiment and made it her calling. As the Executive Director of East Gate Kids in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she knew that many children in her community dealt with a lack of appropriate educational opportunities, and she wanted to change that. 

The classroom environment is where the magic of learning and proper development happen. For decades, Kaplan has helped thousands of early childhood facilities create classrooms and outdoor spaces that enable children to build positive bonds with peers, learn to regulate their emotions, and think critically to solve problems. 

In this article, we highlight East Gate Kids' fantastic transformation and the impact their updated classroom environments have on the children and community they serve. 

"I'm grateful to be here in New Mexico because it's a place where you can really make a difference and make an impact. I feel prideful sometimes, saying that I want my center to be a model center for the state, but the truth is, I don't just care about the children in my community; I care about the children in all of New Mexico." 

-Gabrielle Wheeler, East Gate Kids

An image depicting an image of East Gate Kids before the transformation. The classroom has bright blue and green walls and mix-matched furniture in various primary colors. An after photo shows a classroom painted in calming colors, featuring the Sense of Place Fireplace and green chairs.
East Gate Kids before the transformation.

The entryway of your early childhood facility offers the first opportunity to give parents, family members, and caregivers an impression that this space is a safe, inviting environment for their children to learn and grow. "The person in charge of East Gate Kids before me loved the color purple," says Gabrielle. "The entryway leading into the center was dark purple with yellow sunshine graphics stamped all over. It felt like walking into a dark cave whenever you came through the front door."

Research suggests that paint hues in dark shades and loud primary colors can negatively influence mood and behavior, something Gabrielle is all too familiar with. Before remodeling her center, she approached classroom color in a way that was overstimulating to children.

"I used to believe that ‘Disney colors’ were appropriate for early childhood centers. Each classroom had a distinct color palette in loud, primary colors," says Gabrielle. "I didn't realize at the time that those colors contributed to the many behavior challenges we saw in the classroom." 

Deciding to transform East Gate Kids.

"Don't children deserve beautiful spaces? I believe they do." 

While attending a 2018 conference hosted by the Association for Early Learning Environments, Gabrielle heard about the importance of the early childhood environment on a child's behavior and developmental success.  

"During one of the sessions, the speaker commented on fast food restaurants using bright colors because they didn't want customers to stay. Instead, they want customers to eat and leave so more guests can come in quickly," says Gabrielle. "I wanted people to feel like staying when they came to East Gate Kids, so the first update we made was to paint the walls and entryway in calming, neutral colors."

One aspect of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education is that the environment is the third teacher. This approach inspires Gabrielle, and she believes that when the environment lends itself to education, it lessens the work for the teacher and improves the learning outcomes for young children.

Discovering Kaplan Early Learning Company.

"Right before the COVID pandemic in 2019, I went to a presentation hosted by Dr. Sandra Duncan," says Gabrielle. "During her presentation, Dr. Duncan mentioned the Sense of Place collection, and I fell in love. Browsing through the Kaplan catalogs and seeing what my classrooms could become felt like I was being given a vision before walking through a dark tunnel."

Gabrielle didn't want East Gate Kids to look like an institutional facility lacking warmth and welcome. Instead, she wanted her early childhood facility to feel like a home away from home. "Children who attend a child care facility outside of their home need that home-like setting to support them as they learn and grow," remarks Gabrielle. 

"I dreamed about the Sense of Place fireplace," says Gabrielle about the lead-up to the transformation. Due to a limited budget, Gabrielle could not jump into the updates to East Gate Kids right away. So, while waiting for funding streams to come in, Gabrielle created a design plan for each classroom and listed which items would fit her space and bring her new vision for East Gate Kids to life. 

Read More: The Average Cost of Furnishing an Infant, Toddler, or Preschool Classroom

An image of the East Gate Kids preschool reading nook before and after the transformation.
Transforming East Gate Kids.

A few months after hearing Dr. Sandra Duncan speak, the pandemic hit, and Gabrielle, like many child care providers in the country, had to shut down care for the general public. However, East Gate Kids was still able to serve front-line workers.  

With fewer children attending the facility daily, Gabrielle and her staff decided it was the perfect time to declutter and clean each classroom. They tossed out old, broken items and anything no longer serving the needs of the children in attendance.

During this time, East Gate Kids was the lucky recipient of a PPE and Stabilization grant, which meant Gabrielle's vision for the facility was one step closer to happening. "I was drooling over the catalogs and had my heart set on the Reading Tree and some Sense of Place furnishings, among other things," says Gabrielle. "I worked with a Kaplan Sales Rep who understood my vision and helped me make all of my purchases."

Transforming the space is a long process that Gabrielle is still working to complete. When updating her classrooms, Gabrielle incorporates pieces from the Sense of Place collection with her existing furniture that is still in good shape. She also brings in plants and other natural elements that make the space feel warm and inviting and perfect for inspiring children's natural curiosities.  

Read More: Birch vs. Maple vs. Sense of Place Classroom Furniture – Which is Best?

An image of the toddler classroom at East Gate Kids showing the Sense of Place for Wee Ones furniture in a uniquely shaped classroom.
Working with an awkward room layout.

"I thought our 'purple room' was operational," says Gabrielle. "But, the shape is odd, and the walls come to a point like a triangle. Various teachers in that classroom would complain about the awkward layout and how it made positioning furniture difficult." 

The Sense of Place furniture collection features curves and crawl spaces, perfect for Gabrielle's unique classroom. "The design of this furniture works with my space," exclaims Gabrielle. "Now, every inch of the classroom is functional, and the children are fully engaged in play because every space has something that interests them."

Revealing the much-improved East Gate Kids.

The newly redesigned space at East Gate Kids is unique. "I didn't want to create a 'cookie cutter' classroom that looked the same as everyone else's," Gabrielle says. "We have quiet, calming spaces that help children step away from the busyness of the classroom. Our art center is near the sink for easier cleanup. We're even adding a skylight in one classroom to give children an interesting view of the outdoors."

A transformation like this doesn't just create a beautiful space for educators and children to spend their day; it creates memories that will last a lifetime.

"The furniture is functional and engaging for the children," says Gabrielle. "The environment we have created at East Gate Kids is a big selling point for families in and around our community."

Making an impact, one classroom at a time.

Designing an early childhood classroom is an ever-evolving process that takes time, thought, and inspiration. With simple updates such as swapping out bright colors with more peaceful ones and adding new furnishings that complement the play patterns of young children, East Gate Kids is seeing a significant impact from its transformation. 

"Our enrollment is currently full," states Gabrielle. "Parents and caregivers are always saying how beautiful the space is now. Some have even said that after touring multiple centers, they chose ours because of how the space looks and feels."

Even the teachers are loving their new classroom environments. Gabrielle says, "The recently updated classroom is the one everyone wants to be in because they love the design so much."

Read More: Why Heart-Centered Classrooms Matter

Let East Gate Kids inspire your early childhood facility transformation.

Your classroom environment shapes young children's memories and educational experiences. One piece of advice Gabrielle wishes to share is, "If you don't have a vision ahead of time, you won't know what to buy when funding comes in. Attend trainings, read books, or speak to experts who can help you understand great classroom design and the furniture that goes along with that." 

After reading this article, you know that with a bit of upfront planning and the budget, you, too, can create an inspiring space for the children in your community. Start planning today with the help of the myKaplan FloorPlanner. This free digital tool allows you to create 2D and 3D renderings of each classroom in your early childhood facility. You can create spaces using nature-inspired wall colors, Sense of Place furniture, and cozy rugs to enhance children's growth and development. 

Read this article to learn more about the myKaplan FloorPlanner design tool, how you can use it, and how it will take the guesswork out of furnishing your early childhood classroom. 

Try the myKaplan FloorPlanner. Use this free design tool to design a digital rendering of your classroom including furnishings, wall hangings and more. Get started now!