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Imagine a world in which every child’s life is a succession of positive opportunities for development—opportunities through which a child can come to know who they are and discover the wide range of possibilities for what they can become. Imagine different types of learning settings in which those kinds of opportunities are also intentionally built and optimized, regardless of zip code. Imagine, too, that all adults dedicated to the well-being of children and youth think that it is their job to identify each child’s talents, interests, and aspirations and align them with learning and development opportunities designed to promote them and build on them to create new competencies.

This is not the world in which we currently we live, but it is one that we can now begin to create. Building on new knowledge from the science of learning and development—coupled with a commitment to advancing equity for all learners—families, schools, and community partners can bring these opportunities to bear for every young person.

The need is great. Even as the United States has led the world in so many areas, it remains a country of dramatically widening inequalities, with many children living in poverty and with significant adversities of many kinds, including food and housing insecurity, exposure to increasing gun and racial violence, lack of access to health and mental health services and to educational, employment and engagement opportunities that build competencies and connections in ways that contribute to agency and identity.

Throughout 2020, the combination of COVID-19, the economic recession, and increased racial reckoning have further revealed the systemic inequities and injustices built into our current systems. The dramatic inequalities in the conditions of living and learning in America have been exposed. These events have also demonstrated the resilience and resourcefulness of families and of the community-based organizations that work with them, in concert with and independently of schools.

During the pandemic, community-based organizations became first responders for many young people and their families as they navigated rapidly shifting realities—in numerous communities staying open for essential workers when schools were closed, checking in with families regularly to ensure basic needs were met, and continuing or strengthening partnerships with schools on everything from space to food delivery to complementary and enriching learning opportunities.

At a time of increased disconnection, the adults and young people working in community-based organizations and networks demonstrated not only their nimbleness to respond but also the relationship-driven nature of their approach. Voluntary by design, they intentionally blend a combination of interest-based learning, safe and engaging group dynamics, and problem-solving around individual and collective needs. This is what they do naturally. If it’s not a safe, engaging and relevant experience, young people and families will look elsewhere.

The pandemic also underscored the relative vulnerability of these community-based organizations and of their workforce. While many were able to stay open, social distance requirements led to smaller groups sizes, more limited use of buildings, and related reductions in the workforce. These organizations—especially those that are embedded in the community and have staff and volunteers from the community—can be experienced as safer, more culturally relevant and more engaging for young people than the major public systems that they must interact with regularly, including schools.

The year further exposed how institutionalized racism and classism are baked into the design of the U.S. education system itself. This system reinforces beliefs about who has potential and who is worthy of opportunity that are false, harmful, and discriminatory on both scientific and moral grounds, and contributes to growing inequality in our society. Community-based learning settings are driven to be more equitable because they have been created to support the interests, reflect the cultures, and understand the experiences of our children and youth. Especially for groups that have been repeatedly marginalized, this stands in stark contrast to the experiences that they have had in our public education system, as well as other public systems. We can’t expect a system that was not designed for equity to rapidly transform to embrace it.1 We need to not only acknowledge but strengthen and center leaders from the community—not just as potential partners, but as critical shapers of the solution. Why not start the transformation from the outside this time?

The inequities shaping and challenging our children’s futures before the coronavirus, heightened by anti- Black and other forms of racial violence, have been dramatically amplified by these concurrent and devastating events. These forces cry out for a redesign and reimagining of all the systems that support our children and families and educate and prepare our youth. The situation facing our country demands that we use the major disruptions of 2020 as an empowering stimulus for transformational societal, educational, and economic change— defined by the goals of social justice, multidimensional equity—and the opportunity for each and every young person to thrive. Just as disruption sparks change in natural ecosystems, we must respond to these incredible disruptions across the humanly constructed ecosystems of learning and development.


As schools continue to re-open and we move towards our next “new normal,” we must all resist the temptation to go back to business as usual. The softening of the walls that occurred “when out of school time became all of the time ” forced families, educators, community practitioners and learners themselves to adapt and see each other in different ways. The next few years offer an incredible, unprecedented opportunity to build upon this new awareness to position and strengthen the diverse range of community-based organizations and programs that became even more visible during COVID-19. We must build forward together—intentionally leveraging the flexibility and complementary assets of these community settings in support learning and development.2

Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biologic systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain. Researchers who are studying the brain’s structure, wiring, and metabolism are documenting the deep extent to which brain growth and life experiences are interdependent and malleable. (See “Foundational Science of Learning and Development Research” for the key articles and reports that form the basis of this work.) Because researchers know so much more about the brain and development than they did when the 20th-century U.S. education system was designed, we can now use this knowledge to not only redesign that system, but acknowledge and affirm a healthy learning and development ecosystem that fully acknowledges the role of families and communities as instrumental places for engaged learning. As learning is not simply content mastery or memorization but, ultimately, about meaning making—connecting new information and experiences to those that have come before—an awareness of what young people are experiencing in the broader ecosystem is essential. As schools across the country tackle the challenge of creating more equitable opportunities for learning, for making meaning in ways that connected to community and culture, they are acknowledging the value of completely rethinking their role within the ecosystem.

This playbook suggests a set of design principles that were developed by a group of educators, practitioners, scientists, and parents, building on the knowledge we have today and the contributions of many in the field to nurture innovations, new models, and new enabling policies. These principles are already being applied in places where innovative approaches to learning have taken root. The companion playbook for schools—Design Principles for Schools: Putting the Science of Learning and Development Into Action —lifts up recommendations for both structures and practices as well as powerful examples of how these design principles are currently manifested in leading lights across the country. The playbook for schools aims to promote the scaling of these structures and practices so that all schools—not just the highly resourced or highly innovative—are fully manifesting these Guiding Principles for Whole Child Design.

In this playbook, we explore how these principles are the nonnegotiable starting points for community-based settings, including how these principles are being explicitly used to engage and validate learners who have been marginalized or “othered” by the traditional education system. Paralleling the schools playbook, we include an overview of the Guiding Principles for Whole Child Design and individual sections exploring each principle. (See Appendix A for a full description of how the design principles were co-created.) This playbook also offers framing for how to think about these design principles in the context of the diverse structures and complex array of programs, organizations and institutions operating in the “community” space. This includes both a typology for community-based settings and a comparison of this somewhat idiosyncratic array of settings to the more recognizable features and factors of the public education system. With the aim of promoting a more healthy learning and development ecosystem co- created by young people and adults across family, school and community settings, we close with a discussion of the power of partnerships.

At their foundation, the design principles are intended to advance the following goals for youth learning and development (see Appendix B for a more in-depth treatment of the goals and their embedded components):

  • Learners can think critically and creatively to solve complex problems.
  • Learners deeply understand content and can apply their knowledge beyond the classroom.
  • Learners are self-aware and engage meaningfully with others.
  • Learners hold a positive sense of identity, self- potential, purpose, and direction.
  • Learners make healthy life choices.
  • Learners are empathetic, ethical, and proactive in contributing to the welfare of their communities.

The desired result of these dual playbooks is to support increasingly robust innovations, new collaborations aligned with the resources for positive growth found in young people’s communities and cultures, and a commitment to the reimagining and redesign of our education and learning systems in both formal and informal learning settings.


If you are reading this as a creator of community-based learning opportunities, think about how you are elevating these design principles in the particular places and spaces that you are creating for young people. How have you structured and combined the characteristics of your adults, your young people and your particular setting in ways that take these guiding principles of equitable whole child design into account. Also, use this playbook to help you think through the things that you have in common with your counterparts throughout the community, and ways that you can lift up these practices in your partnerships with schools and other systems.

If you are reading this as a K-12 educator, this playbook can help you better understand the extensive diversification of community partners. It can help you explore where different partners are coming from, what their starting points are, and the particular components/ ingredients that are part of their design—so that you can more readily identify how they complement what you are working to create inside of your school as well as how you can draw upon their expertise in your own transformation efforts.

In addition, you can use this playbook as a way to see the range of experiences that your school is offering in the more flexible spaces and places beyond the academically focused classroom (e.g., the ball field, the choir room, youth leadership, the library, the cafeteria, the playground, the camp site). As you think about the many staff and volunteers in your school building that are from the community and frequently also play similar roles in community settings, this playbook can help you identify and lift up the range of roles and approaches that they are taking to engage young people in transformative, personalized, empowering, and culturally affirming ways.


In this playbook you will find:

  • Overview of the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design
  • An Exploration of Community-Based Settings, including:
  • Applying Design Principles in Diverse Settings
  • A Typology of Community-Based Settings
  • Common Elements that Vary Across Schools & Community Settings
  • The Guiding Principles - Chapters that discuss the key principles and practices related to each essential component of whole child design.
  • Positive Developmental Relationships
  • Environments Filled with Safety and Belonging
  • Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development
  • Development of Skills, Habits, and Mindsets
  • Integrated Support Systems
  • Levers of Change: Enabling Conditions to Accelerate the Implementation of Equitable Whole Child Design Across the Learning Ecosystem


The many learning and development settings (e.g., homes, classrooms, cafeterias, gyms, playgrounds, clubs, maker spaces, workplaces) throughout the range of community settings (e.g., schools, non-profit community organizations, faith and civic organizations, libraries, recreation centers, businesses) that work collaboratively to support the whole child.

An approach to designing learning and development settings that calls for the policies, practices, and relationships established across a learning and development ecosystem ensure that each child, in each school, in each community, is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Five research-based essentials of equitable conditions for learning, development, and thriving.

The implementation strategies associated with each of the five guiding principles.

Robust equity involves individual and collective thriving across every life domain both in the moment and over time. Robust equity includes but goes beyond fairness, which is a basic component of most definitions of equity. In addition to fairness robust equity includes eight elements; inclusivity, wholeness, sufficiency, high success standards, opportunity, agency, quality outcomes as a measure fairness, and multidimensional measurement.

The myriad of community partners that work independently, with each other, and with schools to support learning and development in diverse settings throughout the community.


Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biologic systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain. Researchers who are studying the brain’s structure, wiring, and metabolism are documenting the deep extent to which brain growth and life experiences are interdependent and malleable.

Three papers synthesizing this knowledge base form the basis of the design principles for community-based settings presented here. For those seeking access to the research underlying this work, these papers are publicly available.

  • Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science , 23(4), 307–337. /10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B. J., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science , 24(2), 97–140.
  • Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science , 24(1), 6–36.

1Vossoughi, S., Tintiangco-Cubales, A.G. (2021) (In Press) Radically transforming the world: repurposing education & designing for collective learning & well-being. Equitable Learning Development Project.

2The Readiness Projects (2021). Build Forward Together. together/