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A useful spatial design guide from community playthings

Community Playthings, a company that manufactures wooden products (such as tables, chairs and storage units) have collaborated with child care experts in America to create this design guide (2009). Whilst it works to "show off" and advertise their products to early childhood practitioners and may not be exactly architecturally inspiring, it does offer some good practical advice for when considering space in an early learning centre (I've bolded the keywords):

The importance of space

"Our designs shape children's beliefs about themselves and life. In a well designed area, children are engaged and feel secure. A well designed area can facilitate predictable, consistent and intimate care for each child" (Olds, 2001).

Too often spaces for early childhood are in society's cast-off spaces: church  basements, converted warehouses...and even "purpose-built" centres are often designed more to the adult's needs rather than the children's.

A good early learning space is predictable, has clear boundaries and pathways, enables movement and exploration, privacy, variety, is challenging, flexible, stimulating, inviting, welcoming and homely.

Activity Areas

Community Playthings advocates an "open-structure" room layout - therefore allowing the children access to choose from a range of "activity stations" - reading, block-area, an area for projects, an area for active play and outdoor play space. They make the point that this type of layout best allows children to follow their natural interests and impulses - the children can decide what they want to do and for how long - helping them develop their own routines and supporting happy and motivated play.

Anita Olds describes five attributes to consider when planning activity spaces: location, boundaries, play and sitting surfaces, storage and mood.


Predictability: "Institutional settings are inherently unpredictable: one is never sure what will happen next, who will arrive, and for what purpose. Unpredictability increases children's lack of ease and control" (Olds, 2001).

Olds stresses that whilst children love to explore and discover, they also rely on a level of predictability and like to be in control of their environment. Therefore it is important that entrances, exits and pathways are clearly defined, whilst activity areas are "inviting islands" - with room to move around, and that rooms that are arranged as clusters rather than using corridors.

Regions & Zones: Community Playthings state that the early learning centre works best when divided into a wet region and dry region.

The wet region includes: the entry zone - where children's personal things are stored, and space where the children can sit and wait for parents; and the messy zone - can contain tables, chairs, easels woodworking benches, sand & water centres, a nature study, and a kitchen area.

The dry region includes: the active zone - supporting motor play, wheeled vehicles, music and movement, climbing and dramatic play; the quiet zone - containing books, blocks, construction toys, puzzles, games, and soft cushions for a comfy and cosy corner; and finally the outdoor zone - containing the playground, natural elements such as climbable trees, hills, mud, sand, plants, flowers, as well as paths for biking, scootering and other wheeled vehicles.


Well-defined boundaries protect children from traffic, lunch and other distractions - and efficient boundaries can double as shelving, display or movable screens...

Paths: well-defined pathways allow children to move quickly and easily from one activity to another. Different types of paths can allow for different experiences and behaviours: "a meandering pathway with forks and T's encourages shopping for an appropriate activity and perhaps observing the activities of others. A straight pathway with one beginning and one ending emphasises reaching the destination. Unbroken paths encourage, perhaps even insist upon, running" (Greenman, 1998).

Movement: children need scope for movement and teachers can direct movement so that it is safe and doesn't disrupt other activities. Climb and slide equipment can suggest appropriate activity for children.

Freedom to explore: children need to explore using all of their senses, Therefore it is important that space allows children to move, explore and experiment - whilst providing a range of sensory experiences. "If you want to do something good for your child...give him an environment where he can touch things as much as he wants" (Buckminster Fuller).

Privacy: "In an ideal setting, the children have access to rooms where they can withdraw from the main group if they wish, to play without interruption, to relax and daydream" (Dudek, 2000). It is important that children have space to take time out in, a protected space - such as cubbies and comfortable corners, where they can have a bit of privacy.

Play and Sitting Surfaces

Variety: It is important to consider a wide range of different spaces and textures to support children's many different activities - stimulating their imagination and curiosity - and keeping them interested.


The need for storage is a very important component of early learning centres.

According to Jim Greenman (1998), good storage is: located close to the point of use, able to comfortably hold and display contents when open, the right size and shape for the space, aesthetically pleasing, clear and understandable to its user, whether 20 months old or 20 years old, and safe.

Storage can also combine display for children's objects,sculptures and nature exhibits.

It can also be holistically incorporated into the overall design of the centre's layout - to be used as flexible movable partitions - to easily manipulate the environment, and even combine elements of play (for hiding and sliding on?).


The amount of space in a room and how it is arranged affects children's behaviour - a tight space may encourage working together, but can lead to aggression and frustration. Reducing clutter and using flexible furnishings can maximise use of an area. Whereas, too much space can cause children to be restless and unfocused and reduce interaction with peers.

Ann Epstein (The Intentional Teacher) points out that "When children are in a large space, they feel small in comparison to their surroundings, and time seems to pass more slowly for them. When children are in a play house, in a play yard tent, or under a table, they feel large in comparison to their surroundings, and attention seems to  be sustained. Perception of the size of space in which children play affects the quality of the play and thus the potential for learning."

Therefore, rooms should have a balance of well-defined spaces for a variety of activities, suggesting moods that reflect the task of each "mini-environment". For example, the reading area should be quiet and soft, whilst the art area - colourful and creative. Children take cues from the environment to regulate their behaviour.

Research shows that institutional settings are stressful for children and can have a negative effect on their development. Therefore, it is important to create a well-organised and homely environment, so that children can be relaxed, comfortable, and free to learn - encouraging positive behaviour and interaction.

Good design can create a sense of welcome - curving planes give a sense of warmth and nurture, whilst straight lines can appear hard, obtuse angles are inviting, whilst acute angles are rejecting...the whole space must be intimately scaled and child-oriented.

"A spirited place satisfies children's souls. It possesses a wholeness that makes the hear sing, the soul rejoice, the body feel safe and at rest. It is the spirit of the place that makes it memorable, that expands our sense of possibility and puts us in touch with what is most loving, creative and human about ourselves" (Olds, 2001). As Olds describes here, a memorable centre is a place of wonder and enchantment - it is where the mysteries of children can be given full expression.

Equipment and Materials

The guide describes the need for equipment that stimulates and is complex enough to capture the children's interest.

Kritchevsky (1977) describes four types of play equipment:

A Potential Unit: a clearly defined space with no play materials (e.g. an empty table).
A Simple Play Unit: has one obvious use, no sub-parts or additional materials (e.g. a swing).
A Complex Play Unit: has sub-parts or several materials that allow improvisation. Can consist of a number of simple play units. Allows for a higher level of interest.
A Super Play Unit: has three or more play materials (e.g. a corner with dolls, dishes and costumes).

Anita Olds (2000) describes the following contrasts as offering the child stimulation:

In/Out: the contrast between indoors and outdoors (accented by windows, porches, fences, transition areas)
Up/Down: varying heights of floor and ceiling (steps, ramps, lofts)
Light/Dark: bright areas and dimmer corners (lattices, screens, curtains, awnings, shadows)
Exposed/Tempered: wet and dry, hot and cold, windblown and still (porch, garden wall, shrubs, shade)
Something/Nothing: the contrast between a wall and a window, empty or cluttered space. (window seat, arches, alcoves, corners)
Order/Mystery: the contrast between order and chaos, predictability and surprise (partially concealed entrances, winding paths, possibilities for discovery

Via Community Playthings pdf document: Pre-K Spaces: Design for a quality classroom.


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