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This L.A.-based childcare center is designed with kids’ sensory issues in mind

It’s less ‘Elmo’s World,’ more West Elm.

This L.A.-based childcare center is designed with kids’ sensory issues in mind
[Photo: Emily Young/courtesy Brella]

The childcare environment can be noisy. Yes, there are the little chatterboxes and the sound-emitting toys with no volume control. There’s also a significant amount of noisy chaos—the bins of building blocks, the poster-covered walls, the exuberant use of primary colors. It all adds up to a space that can be a bit over-the-top. For kids with sensory sensitivities, including those on the autism spectrum, the combined audio and visual cacophony can make learning more challenging.

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[Photo: Brandon Shigeta/courtesy Brella]
Brella, a childcare company in Los Angeles, is trying to make childcare a quieter, less-jarring experience. Cofounded by Darien Williams, a former architect who worked with big firms like OMA and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Brella is a thoughtfully designed childcare center that considers its physical environment a key part of the education it provides.

[Photo: Brandon Shigeta/courtesy Brella]
The company currently operates one childcare center in Playa Vista, a neighborhood in the Westside area of Los Angeles, and will be opening a second location in Hollywood in the next month. With a palette of colors scientifically proven to calm children, the use of natural materials in its furniture and interiors, and an abundance of natural light, Brella’s space was designed specifically to ensure that children would not be overwhelmed.

“When there’s so much information coming through your senses, your brain can’t really process the experience,” says Williams. “Especially for children who have any sensory or stimulation-based-processing issues, it can completely impact their ability to acclimate in a new environment or to emotionally regulate.”

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[Photo: Emily Young/courtesy Brella]
Brella’s design takes a more minimal approach, with a heavy dose of what Williams calls “metaphorical white space” within the room. “You can’t just completely bombard a child or an adult from every angle. It’s too much,” she says. “You walk into a space that’s overwhelming, you’re not going to be able to focus or absorb new information, or connect with a peer.”

[Photo: Brandon Shigeta/courtesy Brella]
That’s not to say the space isn’t colorful. Purples, blues, and tan shades fill its rooms, and each is divided into seven learning zones, from a library reading area to an active play space and “innovation station” where kids can make crafts and explore science and technology themes.

It’s an approach that’s gaining traction in the realm of early childhood education, according to Alicia Noddings, an associate professor of education at Missouri Baptist University. “Our senses are not fully developed and coordinated when we’re born. It takes often in the range of six to eight years for that integration to take place, where we learn what to weed out and what to pay attention to and what is relevant to us on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “Teachers and administrators have become more aware of these ideas over the past 10 to 15 years.”

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Noddings, who said she couldn’t fully evaluate Brella without visiting the site in person, said that the images she saw of the center indicate a space more capable of addressing the different ways children with sensory sensitivities learn, particularly through the space’s muted colors and natural materials.

[Photo: Emily Young/courtesy Brella]
“If we can give them that environment that helps support them and give them the predictability and order and other types of influences that they need, then we can help promote their self-regulation too, just like we would a typically developing child,” Noddings says.

Williams is hoping the idea catches on. The company has plans to open a third location later this year, and she’d like to eventually spread Brella beyond the L.A. region. As a parent, she knows that a well-designed childcare space can be beneficial not just to children but also to the parents handing off their kids to the influences of unfamiliar territory.

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“There’s always a high level of anxiety for both parent and child in that separation,” she says. “I knew as a designer that the environment plays a huge role in that, and that it could also help. “

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