If it seems like elementary school students keep getting younger, you’re not wrong! As states continue to expand funding for early childhood education (ECE) and pre-kindergarten (PreK) programs, elementary schools are increasingly incorporating education for younger children into their buildings. Much like the K-8 school model, which adds middle school grades to the traditional K-5 elementary school, designing for an elementary school with an ECE or PreK program within the larger school creates unique design considerations and a need for age-appropriate learning and play spaces.

What are some design considerations for ECE and PreK design that are different from elementary school design?

ECE and PreK programs operate differently than the older grades found within a traditional elementary school. For example, rather than teaching conventional subjects using tools such as teaching walls or projectors and assigning projects or homework, ECE and PreK classrooms are more playful and focus on motor skills, physical movement, spatial awareness, social skills, and the building blocks of formal learning, like number and letter recognition.

This difference in pedagogy leads to a difference in classroom design. Unconstrained by the need for a dedicated teaching wall or individually assigned desks, these early learning classrooms are instead designed with moveable furniture pieces, large spaces for group learning and movement, and nooks and other spaces that are size-appropriate for small children. Interior finishes are often dictated by licensing agencies and include smaller fixtures located at appropriate mounting heights. Additionally, small children often bring more personal items to school, necessitating storage options such as cubbies.

What are the unique design challenges that come with designing for younger children?

It is always important for designers to place themselves in the perspective of the end user. We recognize that creating welcoming spaces for young learners requires taking a step back from traditional classroom design and seeing the space from no more than two feet above the floor. Students in an ECE or PreK environment are spending all their time on the floor or at floor level.

For some of the youngest learners, these classrooms are their first experience away from home without a familiar caregiver. It is not enough for ECE and PreK classrooms to be practical for learning; they must also make students feel comfortable and encourage independence while maintaining safety. However, designing spaces that are size-appropriate for young children in both scale and proportion while maintaining certain building codes can be a challenge.

To think back to when you were a child is harder and harder the older you get, but tapping into those memories can help navigate design challenges. What can make these classrooms feel inviting, safe, and fun to a student that has never attended school until now?

                                                                                                                        – Renee Fine, Senior Associate, NCIDQ, LEED GA

When held to a specific room size or shape, providing all of the necessary casework, plumbing fixtures, and windows can be tricky. Wall space fills up quickly. Non-traditional classroom shapes can nicely incorporate these necessities while leaving an open floor space for the students.

What are some creative ways that classroom design can be adapted to better serve smaller children?

Because small children are much closer to the floor than older children or adults, adjusting heating and cooling methods to accommodate smaller children is an easy way to create a very comfortable learning environment. Radiant floor heat is a great example of designing for the user.

Additionally, lower windows, where possible, allow the students to engage with the outdoors on their level. Indoor/outdoor connection is an important aspect of Next Generation learning and has been shown to increase student wellbeing and health.

Installing teaching tools at a lower level allows students to participate and feel included. These tools can include markerboards, touch screen monitors, and writable surfaces.

How can interior design, wayfinding, and furniture selection be adapted for smaller children while still matching the rest of the school?

Because ECE and PreK students are often just on the precipice of learning the alphabet and learning to read, the use of color and symbols are incredibly important for wayfinding. Incorporating bold colors outside of the classroom differentiates spaces and creates visual cues that the students can easily pick up to navigate corridors and common areas. Light fixtures and layout can help direct students too. These wayfinding elements can easily be carried throughout the school for consistency and often create a sense of belonging for the students, who identify themselves with the colors and symbols.

Inside the classrooms, a neutral, soft color palette is preferred. These young minds are still developing habits related to learning and retaining knowledge, and softer colors minimize distractions in dedicated learning environments. Colors affect the body, mind and emotions; by choosing them carefully, designers can support the learning goals of the school.

Extensive research has been done on the benefits of movement while in a classroom. These benefits remain present from the earliest learning environments through a student’s senior year in high school. By providing a variety of seating types, including chairs that allow students to wiggle and fidget, classrooms better serve the needs of all learners. In fact, allowing students to move in appropriate and contained ways can increase their attention and focus without creating distractions for their classmates. Rugs, floor mats, small stools, bean bags and traditional chairs are all great furniture options for younger children.

Could you share a recent case study of successful ECE or PreK programming integrated into an elementary school?

Lake County Elementary School in Leadville, Colorado, is a great example of an ECE program merging with a traditional elementary school. Originally two separate buildings and locations, these schools are now incorporated under one roof.

HCM provided separate entries for the ECE program and older grades, as drop off is very different for an ECE student versus an elementary student. Custom wayfinding creates a unique identity for the ECE program without separating it from the rest of the school. The PreK classrooms and administration spaces are grouped together, arranged around a central “courtyard” space within the building that hosts an indoor playground. Because the school is located in the mountains at a very high elevation, it was important that students had a dedicated play space that was sheltered from the elements. Students and staff are continually interacting with one another inside and outside of the classroom, creating a true sense of community. Durable and easy to clean finishes with added texture were installed to create tactile play for students without adding more work to facility managers and staff.

Meet the Expert:
Renee Fine is a Senior Associate in the K12 Education market sector. An accomplished interior designer with a passion for creating spaces that are functional, age-appropriate, and aesthetically pleasing for the end users, Renee brings a creative and thoughtful approach to all of her work. With over a decade of experience, she collaborates with architects and environmental graphic designers to focus on all aspects of the built interior environment, programming, space planning, conceptual development, material selection, and construction drawings. 


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