Designing with the child in mind
07.11.17

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When considering the development of a new childcare centre, it is vitally important that the design takes into account the needs of children, and can work above the minimum requirements to assist educations in delivering the best possible outcomes for children.  The ultimate goal when designing a new center is to create a nurturing environment for children away from home.

Before you begin

There are several questions you, a would-be developer of a childcare centre, might ask yourself right at the start.  These include: what is the typical family size in the area, is there likely to be population growth here and what is the economic profile?  Before progressing with site selection and design, you must ensure that there is a high demand for your future centre in your chosen area, and that population growth is likely to occur.

The design

Designing a new childcare centre is only as straightforward as the brief that is developed between the client and their architect, so it’s important that you choose a professional with whom you can establish clear communication.
When thinking about the design of a space, we often ask our educational clients what pedagogical model they use, and we think about how the chosen pedagogy is represented in the design. Often, it is the small things, such as colour and material choices, which emphasise natural environments, or the framing of views to the outdoors.

It can also be the big things, like giving children choices as to which space they want to be in for their learning and play. Choice gives children the opportunity to take their own decisions about their learning, and this ultimately develops independence and confidence.

The concept of choices can be reflected in other aspects of the design, too. Small nooks are not just places for children to find respite, they could be used as places to keep toys, or read a book with other children and staff. Bag stores and lockers are not just for storage, but could be used by staff as mustering points. Versatile spaces also allow for the varied use of learning aids and equipment, with sufficient storage imperative.

When planning the entry area, it’s easy to think it as simply a reception point for families and deliveries, but you could also think of it as a ‘community hub’.  Have somewhere for parents and staff to relax; fill it with children’s artwork and information; and provide viewing windows into the childcare rooms and the outdoor play areas if possible – parents will love watching their child play happily. Create a space that encourages parents to meet up and socialise, and all of a sudden, you have a welcoming community hub, not just a reception area.

Of course, regardless of the design, childcare centres need to be robust and clean in nature so that they can be hygienically maintained, and can withstand the everyday activities of children.

Repurposed buildings

All sorts of existing buildings can be repurposed to suit a new use as a childcare centre– I’ve even worked on turning a former cinema into a new early education facility! One of the arguments for the repurposing approach is that it is environmentally sustainable – adaptive re-use of an existing structure and materials is a form of recycling.

A building’s former use is also a great way to frame your overall design concepts – try scratching the surface to find out if your building has an interesting history. If your design team is deft enough, they can convey this history to the children, thereby making the building the third teacher!

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A child’s perspective

As designers, we make a conscious effort to see from the child’s perspective; we believe that a sense of familiarity and a home-like environment is the least we can provide for our youngest users, helping to put them at ease.

For the child, the childcare centre represents the beginning of the lifelong learning that occurs outside of the home. To nurture this early learning, the architecture and design of childcare centres needs to comprise a combination of residential and
educational spaces.

Now, by ‘residential’, I simply mean that spaces need to feel somehow familiar, and therefore comfortable, to their users. While you might struggle to remember what you did last week, you can probably remember your first day at school or even child care. How fond that memory is probably has something to do with the quality of the space.

As an example, in the cinema adaptation project I mentioned earlier, existing windows were far too high, and the children could not look out onto the bay. Lowering the sill height was a simple solution to give the children views to the outdoors and beyond.  The same principle can be applied to your reception desk – using a low desk allows children to better communicate with frontline staff.  Seeing the design from a child’s perspective helps you create a centre that offers children a sense of ownership

Consider your site, your target market and staff ratios; how your space offers all the functional requirements; your educational objectives; and how you will create a sense of safety and familiarity and you’ll have the right ingredients to a successful childcare centre!

About the author

Redmond Hamlett is a Director of Woollan Hamlett Architects based in West Melbourne. The firm specialises in education facilities, including childcare
centres and schools. For more information, visit www.woollanhamlett.com.au

Article originally published in Belonging Magazine, November 2017 Volume 6 No 3.