The Whole Child Framework – Part IV: Engagement

A Framework for Understanding the Goals of School Design

Introduction: This article is part four of a four part series exploring the Whole Child framework. Please see the previous articles for an overview and discussion of Wellness and Learning.

 In the previous articles, we discussed providing an environment where learning can thrive. This kind of learning environment is safe, healthy and accessible and is designed to support the school’s educational program yet flexible enough to adapt to change. In this article, we discuss how schools can be designed to foster engagement in the world – in their school community, local community and regional and world contexts. Engagement is the third component of the Whole Child framework, and it reflects the need to connect our students and their learning to their environment at multiple scales.

Engaging Design

Let’s start with the building itself and how it expresses itself. If each design speaks to us in a different language, what are our school buildings saying? Think about your school. Does it say I am a fun, colorful home for learning? Or does it say I am an authoritarian institution that could be a factory, a school or a prison? Through the creative use of form, transparency, scale and color, architects can employ a design vocabulary that is engaging to students and teachers alike. This may be through the use of age-appropriate colors, sizes or iconic forms. Views into important spaces, such as libraries, allow the space itself to portray the nature of the activity within. In this way, it tells a story about your school, and communicates the vibrancy of your brand experience. All of these techniques are ways architects connect people to their environment.

In our view, there is also a great opportunity to connect the architectural design with its region, and resonate with a sense of place unique to its context. This has practical benefits as well. We can learn much from how vernacular buildings are built in response to the local climate and availability of materials and skilled labor. This approach results with building designs that are environmentally responsive and readily achievable given local building capabilities.

Sustainable Design

Two key concepts that are taught in schools is environmental stewardship and global citizenship. These ideas teach values that position the student in a larger context. A school project is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the importance of these values through action.  Sustainable design is another way a school can engage its school community in a dialogue about our broader role on this planet.

There are other benefits as well.  In addition to being healthier and more productive, a sustainable design approach results in buildings that use less water, electricity and fossil fuels. They use more recycled and renewable resources as well. All in all, this approach results in buildings that are more durable and less costly to operate, with a smaller environmental footprint. Through their design, green buildings can become teaching tools for environmental awareness.

Community Access

Most school buildings function as a community center for its local community. For US schools, this includes the use of the building by the town or neighborhood after hours. For International schools, the building functions as a home away from home for its students, parents and teachers.

Many schools are designed in such a way that the main public functions can be easily secured from the rest of the school. This often includes an “event entry” for this purpose.

Other schools encourage learning in community and/or bringing community consultants into the school such as an artist-in-residence on a regular basis. In this example, the design of the school should readily accommodate this kind of activity.

There has also been an increasing focus on local food systems as well. Gardens, greenhouses and/or community kitchens must be planned for to integrate these activities into school life


We hope you have found this series thought-provoking and helpful. The Whole Child approach has helped us organize the multitude seemingly disparate goals of school design into a cohesive framework. First, as a baseline, we must provide schools that are safe and healthy and promote Wellness. Second the design must align and support the Learning program. And third, schools must foster student Engagement – with the school and broader community. Through this lens, we believe we can better understand how to create schools that support our children in becoming healthy, responsible, engaged citizens.