Designing the Right Child-Care Center

In a unique program, child-care professionals work with architects to create the best setting for children

Although Bruce Brook is an architect, he never thought about the design of child-care centers until he became a father three years ago. Then, as he and his wife, Laurel, looked for day care for their infant son, they made a sobering discovery: Most centers are not really designed at all. Instead, he says, many are simply "thrown together out of whimsy."

Often they are relegated to leftover space in church basements, former schools, and office buildings, occupying windowless rooms that give children little exposure to natural light and few opportunities to play outdoors.

So unsatisfactory were the options available to the couple that Mrs. Brook, an attorney, left her job to care for their son. Mr. Brook also began studying child-care design and now designs child-care centers professionally.

"There's a critical social need to create environments that allow children to blossom in their early years when they are learning in a lot of ways more rapidly than at any other point in their life," says Brook, of Concord, N.H. With the number of centers increasing by 6 percent a year, he sees a great need to improve their "emotional quality."

Long hours in day care

Brook serves as an instructor at the Child Care Design Institute, jointly sponsored by Tufts University and Harvard University. For six days recently, 42 child-care professionals, 17 architects, and an interior designer gathered for the fifth annual institute seminar, reportedly the only such program in the world.

"The child-care center is really becoming the child-rearing habitat of future generations in this country," says Anita Olds, director of the design institute.

The average child in day care, she explains, spends 10 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year "in essentially the four walls of one room. That amounts to something like 12,500 hours by the time a child reaches 5." Conservative estimates, she adds, show that the number of children in child care is increasing by 550,000 a year.

"No other country or culture is treating its children the way we are," Ms. Olds says. "If you look at other industrialized countries - Germany, France - child care is supported by the government. A lot more money is put in for furniture, or the facility itself, or for paying staff."

Olds calls day care "a new building type in search of a model." Budgets are often so limited, she adds, that centers end up as "boxes of space - very bland and predictable. The assumption is that if you just give child-care professionals a clean, well-lighted place, they'll take it from there and do everything that's required."

That assumption places an unfair burden on care-givers, says Nancy Adams-Leonard, a consultant for the Child Care Resource Center in Elirya, Ohio. "They may be wonderful, but they can't always make up for what's lacking - the space or the equipment they've been given."

Central to any good design, experts say, is giving children a homelike setting. "Home is their world," says Brook. "But that's lost when the institutional prevails because of lack of resources and minimal design."

Corporate centers, he finds, are often built with the same materials and building standards used elsewhere in the building, resulting in spaces that are "incredibly sterile."

Brook calls child-care centers "very complicated" to design because of children's varying ages and interests. Rooms must accommodate group activities ("a lot of wet and messy play") plus individual activities, meals, and naps.

The need for quiet zones, active zones, and messy zones requires collaboration between architects and interior designers.

As one exercise in collaboration, architects and child-care professionals at the design institute divide into teams and design their own ideal centers.

Brook encourages "breaking what are assumed to be the rules - doing that in a way where you can still get a license, but providing the best environment for children you can."

Again and again, teams emphasize the importance of natural light, especially for infants, who spend more time indoors. One group also includes what it describes as "a lot of interior windows, giving kids the ability to look into other classes." Another designs an infant room that is "acoustically isolated" from other spaces. Groups also stress the need for welcoming entry areas. "People don't realize how important entranceways are as a transition space for your mind and your body to ease into the next environment you're going into," says Ms. Adams-Leonard. "You're switching gears and changing hats, whether you're a staff person or a child or a parent."

One team adds a porch. Brook calls porches "intermediate spaces to outside. You're giving children a different kind of play space. They can even sit there and watch it rain."

Another group includes a refreshment center where parents can mingle.

Robert Riffel, technical representative for the United States Army's child development centers, offers other ideas. Army centers, he says, feature maximum visibility throughout the space so care-givers can monitor children. "And we design parking lots so children don't have to cross traffic lanes."

Using children's art work

Yet even professionals can err. "Sometimes architects will overdesign a center," says Jonathan Dotson, facility development manager for Bright Horizons in Chicago, which operates 130 employer-based centers. "You don't need to build a lot of color into a facility permanently. Color can come from the children's art."

Adams-Leonard agrees. "Child-care centers tend to be designed for adults, not children," she says. "When parents come in, they can say, 'This looks wonderful.' How easily we can be deceived by 'stuff' and expensive things. Children don't need that stuff. They need dirt and water and contact with real things, such as plants and animals."

Also working against a homelike feeling is the increasing size of centers. The average facility, Brook says, serves nearly 90 children. "You end up inevitably with long corridors," he says.

Olds, the design institute director, finds that in centers with more than 65 or 75 children, "the whole program changes. There's a lot less attention given to children." If a center has to accommodate more than 75, she suggests "a campus-style design, with linked facilities under one roof."

Whatever the size, children are not the only ones needing well-designed space. Noting a 40 percent annual turnover in child-care workers, Brook says, "Staff members need to be cared for. They need respite. They need good daylight and resource rooms where they can get materials readily."

Summing up the long-term challenge, Olds says, "It's no longer the case that child-care people can just make do. They have to begin to lobby and exert their professional expertise to insist on quality and better support from society as a whole for the needs of children. When you make do, you stop dreaming. They need to dream and get somebody to respond to that vision and help make it manifest."

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