Spaces and Places – The Basics of Designing Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Environments

Who will live in this space?

If we can thoughtfully and in great detail answer this one question, and, in essence, become these children, we will be well on our way to designing environments that meet both the developmental needs and interests of their inhabitants.

We must have a solid foundation in growth and development – the ages and stages – of the early childhood years. In order to create optimally, we need to know where the children are now; where they have been; and where they are going – physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually – in a few months, by the end of the year. For they will grow during this time and the environments we create will need to remain flexible to keep up with these changes. We must continually observe, reflect, plan, purchase, and place furniture, equipment, and materials appropriately.

The following just scratches the surface of this topic, but it will give us a way to begin our thinking.

Young infants spend a great deal of time on their backs – looking up. So, we create comfortable, soft places throughout the space where the infants will have a variety of views. We take advantage of natural light. We minimize glare from ceiling lights with diffusers. We arrange protected areas where infants can watch the action from the floor. We provide soft toys. We place pictures at their eye level on the walls, ends of cribs, ends of shelves. We provide pleasant and soft sounds, gentle music. Essentially, we create a peaceful environment.

Mobile infants need safe spaces where they can crawl; low, carpeted risers that they can climb on and navigate; secure rails they can pull on to stand and hold while they cruise; and places where they can walk, fall safely, and walk again. We provide forgiving surfaces and open space. Mobile infants are on the move! In addition, we create soft areas and places to sit with adults, to cuddle, and to be comforted. We organize space for appropriate play experiences – open-ended toys and unique materials to investigate; balls to roll; books to look at; simple props (scarves, hats) for imitating and pretending. If needed, we use low dividers so that children and adults can see one another while children explore freely.

Toddlers and twos need space that is rich in opportunities that support their development. They learn with their bodies! They are physical. We make room for safe jumping, climbing, throwing, tumbling, crawling through a tunnel, and running. These are the teenagers of our programs – independent one minute and needing a snuggle the next. We design their spaces for playing alone initially, and then with another as they grow; for cuddling with an adult; for moving their bodies and anything else not bolted down; for both active and quiet time.

We provide places for creating with art materials; for imitating and pretending; for sand and water play; for stories and books; for playing with toys and other interesting materials; for playing with soft blocks, and for music and movement. We provide duplicate toys – for toddlers and twos cannot yet share. Tables, chairs, cots or mats, shelving units and dividers begin to appear and take up some of the space. This increasingly complex room arrangement later helps twos make the transition to a preschool environment.

Preschoolers live in interesting space defined by learning centers: blocks, dramatic play, puzzles and games, art, sensory table, music and movement, discovery, and books, which now become the library (and includes writing and listening). Optional experiences include cooking, computers, and woodworking.

Preschool classrooms are busy with children and filled with materials – the challenge is using the space effectively and efficiently and keeping it organized. We establish traffic patterns for movement from one area in the room to another; we define areas that need protection like block building or a cozy book nook; we locate relatively quiet interest centers away from the noisier ones. We decide which areas need tables and chairs (thinking about size and versatility), and which need water, good lighting, or electrical outlets. We think about washable flooring vs carpeting, and how to use our space most effectively. Everything should have a designated place. All children (and adults) benefit from this kind of order. So, we clearly label storage places with pictures and words. And, if our room arrangement and design is to work well, adults should be able to see as much of the classroom as possible – from every angle.

So, there is much to consider in each of these environments as we make our plans and begin creating.

How to do this takes patience, practice, and perseverance. It is often a trial and error process. When the environment is working for both children and adults, it just hums. Everything flows. When it is not working, the children will tell us what they need by their actions and behavior – then it’s back to the drawing board!

As long as we have a foundation of developmentally appropriate ages, stages, and practice, and, as long as we observe and get to know the children in our care, we will be able to design the basics for them.

But, how do we move to the next level of inviting, homelike, and aesthetically pleasing indoor environments? And, why?

This is my next post!

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