That children are influenced by their physical environment should be no surprise. It can have a significant effect on the way that they perceive the world as well as their behaviour. Whether we realise it or not we all consciously or sub-consciously react to the physical environment around us. Put a small table in the middle of a large, and otherwise empty, room and people will congregate near it. Provide a very small cosy space, tucked away to the side of a room and young children will gather in it.
For early childhood care the role of the physical environment, both inside and outside, is to support the activities and needs of the users. This demands a deep understanding of what makes an effective place for children, but also the adults too. Children need a safe and secure environment, but one that allows them to interact, and perhaps allows them some independence. To this extent such environments need to be challenging.
As children explore their environments using all their senses, the attention to light, colour, acoustics, touch and feed of materials as well as smell are clearly critical. Whilst the types of space provided are important such as activity areas, baby changing spaces, storage and so on are important, as well as the amount of area dedicated to each and on what basis that calculation is made, there are also some more general principles that are worth attention too.
This list and the examples given are not exclusive, but they do provide a flavour of what the research is suggesting.
Location. For example whether the pre-school or daycare centre is close to or connected with a primary school which may allow for the delivery of integrated services such as child health care or support for families, easy access for parents with children in both school and daycare, or as some experts argue a gradual introduction and familiarisation with school routines for younger children.
Accessibility. Not only should the entrance be easily identifiable, but critically they should be designed to enable parents with other small children and with buggies to quickly and easily get into the building. Often this does not happen.
Scale. Whilst acknowledging that adults use these buildings too, they are for children which means that the size and in particular the height of objects is important. Not only does this apply to the furniture but critically to those elements that are fixed, for example window cills that are low enough to allow views out, reception desks part of which are lowered to enable a child to see over, a sink that is low enough for a child to use but high enough to discourage them to climb in easily.
Visibility. It is important to enable children to see what is going on around them so that they feel connected but independent. It offers a sense of security that they know that there is an adult there. It is also important that they have the sense of being able to move easily between different activities and have a clear view of where they can go and how to get there.
Remember too that these places are work environments for adults. There has been much concern about how to reduce the stress on teachers and carers in their work environment. Often, managing the buildings better is one part of the solution. Essentially the buildings have to be easy and intuitive to use, they must enable the teachers and carers to carry out their work with as little stress placed on them by the environment as possible. Often it is the simple things that get in the way such as windows that are hard to open, sinks that are in the wrong place, and not enough storage, or a degrading building because it is difficult to maintain.
Find out more on the OECD's Centre for Effective Learning Environments (CELE) website