5 Building Blocks of Early Childhood Design

Early Childhood Design


For human beings, learning is as fundamental as life itself. From the moment we are born up through age three, our brains create 700 new neural connections each second. A quality education during early childhood is proven to have life-long benefits, academic achievement being chief among these.

But while early childhood education impacts life-long learning, the ways we learn change dramatically over time. The fact is, early childhood students are in a very different stage of development compared to their elementary school peers. And the different ways young students learn demand a very different type of learning environment — one built on the foundational elements of: Sensory Learning, Movement, Imagination, Nature and Empathy.


In the rush to prepare children for success in kindergarten, we too often turn our preschools and early learning centers into mini elementary schools. However, simply providing smaller tables and chairs meets only a few of our youngest learners’ needs.

Early Childhood Design


Active Learning. High-quality outdoor learning spaces are exceptionally important to early childhood education.

“From ages zero to three, children are exclusively sensory learners,” says Gabriella Rowe, head of school at The Village School in Houston, Texas. “They learn through experiences like taste, smell and touch. The simple act of tasting the difference between sweet and sour food creates new pathways in the brain.”

According to Rowe, designing for sensory learning means focusing on the student experience. “Build some nooks,” she says. “Maybe it’s a little garden. Maybe it’s a science corner. Maybe it’s a simple window with a view to the outside world. Teachers will take advantage of these spaces and students will love them.”

Creativity is key when it comes to designing for the student experience. At the new West Point Elementary School, located on the West Point Military Academy in New York, early childhood spaces are designed with kitchen hubs in each neighborhood. These cozy areas are perfect for snack time, while allowing children to observe food as it is being cooked. Hard counter tops and durable flooring let students participate in food preparation, without fear of making a mess.

Sensory development in young children also has significant implications for the scale of learning environments. “Don’t put a small child in a large space,” says Rowe. “From a sensory standpoint, it is impossible for a small child to tell where the walls are in a big space. They need smaller spaces to truly understand their environment.”

Early Childhood Design


Placemaking. Scale is important, even outdoors. Create spaces to give every student a sense of place.

Creating smaller spaces often flies in the face of limited budgets. In school construction, straight lines are less expensive; angles and curves cost more. If you are on a tight budget, consider breaking down the space through a variety of seating options or through floor patterns that create visual nooks and gathering spaces. Even these small investments make a big impact.


Movement is the second building block of a great early childhood environment. The energy shown by young students is incredible to behold. But according to research, young children aren’t just moving to move; they’re moving to learn.

“Young students need to move to develop their senses,” says Dr. Thomas Mueller, managing partner of VS America and an expert on early childhood education. “Never design an early childhood classroom to be filled with stuff. Give students space to move. Fifty percent of the room should be furnished and fifty percent should be open.”

Early Childhood Design


Outside In. Corridors can become places to explore Nature on days when students aren’t able to venture outside.

Designing for movement takes on very different forms, depending on the curriculum and budget. At British International School of Houston in Katy, Texas, the Early Years Center classrooms are open spaces defined by a variety of learning stations and experiences. Students flow seamlessly between space for art, music, dancing, building, gathering and outdoor exploration. The flexibility of the open environment allows British School faculty to change the space to reflect the evolving educational needs of young learners.

More traditional early childhood schools include smaller classrooms with fixed walls. In these environments, movement is still possible. Rather than creating a pod with four identical classrooms, consider designing each classroom to serve a different purpose: a space to get messy, a space for life skills, and so on. Then allow students to move from space to space during the day.

Dr. Mueller stresses that movement should occur even in smaller spaces. “Children love to work on the floor,” he says. “Don’t just give students access to different learning experiences. Let them have the same experience in different ways, whether they are sitting, standing or lying on the floor.”

Early Childhood Design


Room to Move. Open areas with a variety of learning experiences allow young students to be active and to follow their imagination.

During planning and design, the need for movement must be balanced with curriculum requirements. Public schools are increasingly directed to focus on pre-reading and technology skills, even at the youngest ages. When addressing these mandates, create a mix of spaces. Designing for exploration and academic achievement go hand-in-hand, as long as students have space to move!


No one questions that imagination is an important part of a child’s early education. But too often, the physical environment is a barrier to imagination, rather than a catalyst for it.

Dr. Mueller warns against designing early childhood spaces with a lavish theme. “Children don’t want a world that is given to them,” he says. “They want to build their own world. It is more interesting for them to construct and create their own environment.”

Rowe agrees wholeheartedly with this sentiment. “Young children learn through process, not product,” she says. “Instead of providing toy castles, we want them to build their own castles. If you give a child something prefabricated, there is no process and there is no learning.”

Early Childhood Design


Student-Centered. Playful elements encourage students to explore the world around them.

To allow children to shape their environment, show restraint during design. The television version of a preschool room, decorated in bright primary colors and featuring lavish graphic themes, will actually limit imagination. Instead, be strategic with where color is placed, and leave plenty of blank space. Many early childhood schools opt for a neutral color scheme throughout the building. Some educators even so far as to make sure the rugs are monochromatic. The goal of design restraint is to create a canvas for student artwork. In this type of environment, the child’s work is on display, not the designer’s.

While restraint during design is a good quality, playful elements still have their place. At the new Pike Early Learning Center in Indianapolis, Ind., animalthemed wall graphics in the corridors assist with wayfinding. The graphics support the school’s emphasis on connectedness and ground children in a sense of place. A memorable animal image by the main entrance lets a child know, “This is where mom or dad picks me up each day.”

At the same time, the design for Pike Early Learning Center places a strong emphasis on student work. The walls in the school’s main corridor are purposefully left blank, except for a large tackable surface for displaying student artwork. The art will greet students each morning as they arrive at school and journey to their classrooms.


Connections between indoor and outdoor spaces are critical components of early childhood education. Through creative design, young children are able to learn from nature, no matter what their geography or climate.

Early Childhood Design


Inspired Design. Dramatically-shaped spaces encourage the imagination and promote physical activity.

Whether you are building new or renovating, make sure to prioritize outdoor space. Playgrounds offer a variety of opportunities for sensory learning and the development of large motor skills. Make your playground multi-faceted and offer space for rolling down hills, digging in the sand, riding tricycles, exploring nature or taking care of plants or animals.

When designing for indoor and outdoor connections, it is important to clarify expectations for student movement. Will children be able to move spontaneously from space to space? Should doors leading to secure play areas have latches? Answering these questions will allow designers to maximize learning opportunities while meeting expectations for security and oversight.

When outdoor learning is not possible, consider bringing nature inside. British International School of Houston has large wooden trees in the corridors just outside the Early Years Center. The trees provide an exciting place for students to gather on the rare days they cannot venture outdoors. Other design opportunities include the use of natural materials in furniture and furnishings. “In our digital world, so much of what a child experiences is plastic or metal,” says Dr. Mueller. “Young students love to feel wood and stone — materials that connect them to the authentic world.”


Empathy is the final building block of early childhood design, and it is the most important factor of all. Clair Wain, director of Early Years education for British International School of Houston, recommends starting the design process by clarifying your beliefs about children and about childhood.

“Each choice springs from a different understanding of a child’s place in the classroom and the teacher’s role,” she says. “I would suggest that the first step in designing a new space for young children is to consider:

  • Who is a child?
  • What is childhood?
  • How do we learn?
  • How do children learn?
  • What is the meaning of education?

Once you are clear in your beliefs about children, then you will be able to design your space in accordance with your school community’s values.”

Wain also recommends close collaboration between designers and the teachers who will work in the space. Teachers are especially helpful, she says, in discussing practicalities such as the height of sinks and the number and placement of toilets.

Collaboration between educators and designers has always resulted in optimal spaces for learning, but there are also exciting lessons to be learned from other building types. The GAP Kids® stores with their separate doors for adults and children are an excellent example of child-centered design. Giving young students an entrance all their own says, “this is a place for you.” Children’s museums, with their emphasis on exploration and discovery, are another source of inspiration.


Advocates for high-quality early childhood education point to improved test scores, among other benefits. Yet while better performance on tests is a worthy goal, it should not be the sole criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of early childhood environments. Designing for sensory learning, movement, imagination, nature and empathy leads to facilities focused on a broader view of the learning experience for each child.

In fact, Wain suggests evaluating your space from a unique
perspective. She asks, “In your current school or future school, how would you respond to a child who wonders:

  • Do I belong here?
  • Is this place safe for me?
  • Do you know me?
  • Will you let me fly?”

The answers to these questions are the true measure of exceptional early childhood facilities.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .