Creating a space within a Crisis Nursery for a Stay Play + Learn Indoor Learning Garden, a place to reduce stress and engage choice and control for parents, caregivers and children from 2 to 12.

Cultivating Behavioral Change:
How the built environment can reduce stress reactions in children and caregivers

Overshadowing the lives of millions for generations is childhood trauma. A topic that until recently was not often examined or studied, its impact is far reaching for many. Trauma can include many different types of negative events or circumstances that a child may experience in their life and are commonly referred to as ACEs or adverse childhood experiences. Common causes of childhood trauma can include neglect, physical abuse, separation from a caregiver, violence, poverty, accident, or death of a loved one. “Trauma is ubiquitous. In the general population, 67% of us have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience. In people of color, that figure is more likely to be 83%.” ( Research also suggests a strong link between ACEs during childhood and poor physical health as an adult. The CDC suggests that “preventing ACEs could reduce the number of adults with depression by as much as 44%.” The good news is that ACEs can be diminished through interventions that increase protective factors in the family and community.


The primary aim of this project was to create an optimal, child-centered environment that will reduce stress and increase positive interaction and learning among children. The project partnered with Vanessa Behan (VB), which is a non-profit organization that helps parents who are having difficulty providing safe shelter and care for their children. With the launch of a new program at VB that provides real-time parenting support to families, it was a rich opportunity to study how the built environment can support positive interaction and experiences in children. We propose that environmental interventions can reduce or ease the automatic response of the human nervous system by providing experiences of nature (biophilia) and personal control. When stress reactions are reduced, individuals are better able to attend to their environment, engage actively, and make connections with others. Focused design elements were inserted into the space to reflect nature, and all the furniture items allowed for user control. Families who on average spent 90 minutes in the space were then asked to fill out a survey about their experience with the built environment.


In general, the respondents experienced a drop in stress levels from their initial level when entering the space and reported feeling calmer. The trends across the data suggest that space when paired with effective training and emotional support can lead to positive experiences that reduce stress in children and caregivers. Space alone cannot overcome generational trauma that may include neglect, poverty, or substance abuse, but this study starts to highlight that thoughtful design can reduce stress levels in children and parents. The reduction of stress within the body may allow for more impactful services, training, or counseling to occur, reducing the potential of future ACEs occurring in a child’s life. Additional study will need to occur, but the data suggests that this approach to space could have impacts in many public spaces including, schools, healthcare facilities, daycare facilities, and civic buildings.

Meet the Research Team

Kelly Hendrickson
Interior Designer

Stacey Connor
Stay Play Learn Garden Facilitator,
Vanessa Behan