No longer is childcare for young children simply babysitting. Today’s childcare centers are dynamic places of learning. They are real educational facilities where children grow, play, socialize and share, and where families receive holistic support, guidance, and care. More than just a place to pass the time while mom or dad are at work, they are community-oriented anchors activating and rejuvenating neighborhoods, towns, and cities.
But what makes a childcare center successful? How does design shape the learning environment and provide positive outcomes, for individual children and the community at large?
With both the husband and wife employed in 47.5 percent of married-couple families in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, childcare centers are by necessity playing an increasingly important role in many of our children’s lives.
To ensure the design of these critical components to the fabric our community is having a truly positive impact on our children, we need to embrace a few key design truths for childcare centers. Through our childcare and early education work, we’ve identified the following three critical design considerations:
A sense of place
It starts with an understanding of basic human psychology. Abraham Maslow theorized that people were guided by their needs and as soon as one need was satisfied they’d move on to the next. His Hierarchy of Needs marked five stages of human growth. Like a ladder, we’d climb from physiological needs, safety and security needs, belonging needs, esteem needs, to self-actualization. For children, the fulfillment of these needs – individually or with the help of family and community – leads to healthy development. Any insufficiency may hinder a child’s performance at home, school, and in adult life.
For children, the basic physiological needs are food, water, and sleep. Once these are addressed, the next level is safety and security. These needs can be equally important at home, at school, and in the neighborhood.
Childcare programs may provide services for children as young as 6-8 weeks up to 5 years of age. Often available from very early in the morning to late at night, and even on weekends, very young children can spend up to 10 hours a day or more, 5 days a week in a community-based childcare setting. Thus, childcare programs must meet the needs of a children’s entire developmental spectrum – cognitive and intellectual, physical, and socio-economic development – and truly be a “home away from home”
Childcare centers need to provide children and parents with a sense of place – that they are welcome, safe and secure. Furniture, displays and surroundings should be to scale, intended for children to use and explore. How various spaces relate to each other is equally as important, with distinction between public and private spaces. Finding a way to balance privacy with accessibility, for areas like toilets and hand washing for example, can be challenging but critical to the end result. Spaces should be sized appropriately to give infants and toddlers room to practice walking and crawling, or preschoolers room to play together and learn to get along with others. Open floor layouts to limit nooks, crannies and hiding places improve visibility and accessibility. More surveillance and monitoring (both overt and covert strategies and technologies) help increase safety and need to be factored into space for systems.
Design of a childcare center in a dense city might not look at all like one in a suburban or rural community. Childcare programs need buildings that fit within the context of their community and need not resemble a single-family house. Involve teachers, caregivers, parents in design.
Comfortable to learn
Childcare programs need to provide opportunities for sleep and relaxation, eating, personal hygiene, play and exploration, and social interaction on top of educational program. They are not just kindergarten or first grade classrooms scaled down with smaller furniture.
Children, especially young children, experience their environment through their senses – touch, taste, smell; everything is listened to and examined carefully. Spaces must tolerate movement and noise. Children, like adults, are influenced in how they feel and behave by the overall environment and their physical setting. A large open area may be an invitation to run, or bring about feelings of loneliness or fear. The physical can support and encourage a child’s curiosity and sense of competence if done right.
Comfort is important to human learning. We learn better when we are in an environment that is comfortable (free of stress, ergonomic, visually interesting). Unfortunately, many classroom environments are too loud, and distracting. According to statistics collected by “The Third Teacher” in many classrooms listeners with normal hearing can only understand 75 percent of words read from a list, while the most ubiquitous desk and chairs may actually be hurting students’ ability to learn, as reported in the New York Times.
We need to make peace with fidgeting and design with movement in mind. Flexible learning environments that can accommodate different learning and teaching models, as well as spaces that make acoustics and noise separation a top priority are vital.
Space to play
Children need age appropriate spaces to run, play, and let off steam. All young people, children and adolescents are naturally restless. A child in elementary school will lose concentration after five, or at the most, 10 minutes, according to Dr. Dieter Breitthecker, a sports and physical scientist, but if you ask someone to do an exercise where his vestibular system – or balance system – is challenged after 5 to 10 seconds they’ll be able to concentrate again.
With childhood obesity on the rise, providing active space inside and outside the childcare environment is crucial. Outdoors, playgrounds don’t have to be limited to the “ground floor.” Rooftop play areas in urban environments are great ways to give children access to nature and room to run. Naturalizing play spaces, allowing grass and plants to flourish promotes discovery and imagination. Gardens can be integrated into the curriculum providing bounty for cooking meals, as well as lessons on where food really comes from giving children a learning opportunity and a chance to get their hands dirty.
Childcare facilities play an integral part in a child’s life and must provide space for all areas of development. They must have meaning for children and their families. To give children the best start in life and put them on a path to academic and life-long success, childcare design must acknowledge how the physical environment impacts child development and well being.
Baker, Al. “Ergonomic Seats? Most Pupils Squirm in a Classroom Classic.” New York Times. Jan. 4, 2013.
Evans, Gary W., Ph.D., Maxwell, Lorraine E., Ph.D., “Community-Based Child Care Settings.” Implications, Vol. 06 Issue 01. InformeDesign. University of Minnesota, www.informedesign.umn.edu.
Maxwell, Lorraine E. “Designing Child Care Settings.” Children’s Environments Series. Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. 1998. (p. 7-8, 21-26)
OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, Bruce Mau Design. The Third Teacher. Type A Print Inc., 2009. (p. 27, 33-38, 42-46, 78-79, 82-88, 93-97).