Engaging Early Learning Interiors

An early learning center is not an elementary school. Early learning environments need to provide a warm, welcoming setting that reflects a home environment rather than an institutional or school environment. Yet the same place needs to provide support for the physical and emotional needs of young children during the 6-to-8 hours they spend there each weekday. Whether the early learning center is within an elementary school, a church basement, or is a brand new facility, key interior concepts can be incorporated to provide a physically and emotionally supportive space.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that simply using a smaller scale version of an elementary classroom is an insufficient response to the needs of children under the age of five years. The AAP recommends spaces that emphasize safety and are nurturing for our youngest children. Early childhood spaces should be purposeful environments designed to give comfort to the child and their families, as well as support them in their expanding thirst for knowledge. Similarly, spaces for young children should allow them to feel secure and give them confidence to engage with their teachers and classmates.

Commonly our youngest children are easily intimidated by new and unfamiliar places, especially when the parents drop them off and depart for work or school. Early learning environments should endeavor to minimize this feeling by providing a place that feels familiar and secure. Anita Rui Olds, author of Child Care Design Guide, notes that a sense of security happens in the early learning environment when attention is provided to a child’s four basic needs: movement, comfort, competence, and control. Olds further clarifies the intent to each of these needs:

  • Movement—opportunities within the immediate environment for a child to move about with no restrictions
  • Comfort—providing a balance to stimulation that promotes interaction
  • Competence—a variety of accessible events that a child can successfully complete
  • Control—a place for a child to feel orientated and comfortable

So, how can the physical environment respond to these needs in a way that encourages children to be engaged in the program?

Movement: Movement is part of a child’s physical and intellectual development. Early learning environments should openly respond to this need with spaces that encourage movement by limiting barriers between the child and their surroundings. A child should feel free to toddle, crawl, and climb as an exercise of independent learning. A “moving” space should include activities that encourage gross motor activity, either on the floor playing with blocks, pushing a toy car, or on supportive furnishings. Additionally, providing windows with views to the outside and lofts to climb up to gain a different view of their space will encourage the movement needed to explore.

Some classrooms may have limited space to allow movement. Supplemental space can be accommodated with the help of a dedicated gross motor room or defined space in wider hallways. Within these supplemental areas may be a variety of activities to encourage movement: dramatic play, block play, and play lofts. Consideration for similar spaces for movement should be provided within the areas mainly used by parents. Placing a small window seat or play platform gives the child an opportunity to be content while their parent meets with a teacher.

Comfort: An early learning environment should be rich in experiences without being overly stimulating so the children feel engaged with their surroundings. The environment should include a range of experiences that entice all their senses and encourage participation. To avoid a dull, institutional feel, include a variety of interests that encourage discovery.

To start, incorporate a passive color scheme that becomes a backdrop to introduce interests such as large graphics or individual art projects completed by the children. Accent colors can help to define a unique place within a larger space such as a play kitchen or a reading nook. When selecting wall color, consider the influence color itself has on a child’s imposition when applying it to a specific activity. Aside from paint colors, a unique place or learning center can be manifested through textural materials that encourage a different sense of exploration—a soft rug on the tile floor, fluffy pillows that define a reading area, or a sculpted wall that attracts the sense touch.

The introduction of plants, flowers, or other natural items typically found outside will also help increase a child’s comfort by inspiring their sense of touch and smell. Exterior windows provide additional opportunities for engagement with controlled views to gardens or natural playgrounds and an influx of natural daylight to flood the room.

Competence: This can be accomplished by including a variety of opportunities within the grasp of the child for them to “do it themselves.” Spaces encouraging competence allow children to explore and learn independently. Providing opportunities for a child to competently complete a task seeds more confidence with each task they complete.

The natural focus here is to create early learning environments at the child’s scale. Providing child-sized, age appropriate furnishings and fixtures is a start, but don’t stop there. This also means providing accessibility to facilities such as sinks without the need for a stepstool. Similarly, place toys on low shelving and within open containers. Another consideration is child-scaled openings into adjacent rooms or to the exterior. The learning environment can foster competence by supporting self-sufficient behaviors which can lead to successful outcomes.

Providing an assortment of flexible spaces can give opportunities for a variety of learning opportunities to accommodate each child in their own speed of learning, giving them opportunities for achievement. For example, a platform and ramp will provide one child gross motor play while another learns gravity thru the inclusion of falling blocks.


Control: The early learning environment should respond to a child’s potential anxiety of not being at home or not being with their parents. The surroundings have a duty to provide a sense of reassurance and comfort, and also provide a place that a child can identify as belonging to them. This sense of ownership enables the child to feel secure, safe and oriented and therefore feel they have some control over their immediate surroundings.

A space may best provide a sense of control when it provides both openness and solitude. The overall space should provide connections to adjoining rooms, hallways, and the outside through large openings or windows. This openness allows the child to understand where they are by providing references that are familiar. This idea should not be limited to classrooms, but also incorporated in hallways, activity areas and common spaces.

There are times when a child needs to break away from the larger group. A child reacts by withdrawing to spaces they feel are uniquely created for them. That child feels in control when these unique spaces are provided within the room such as a window box, a shallow alcove in a wall, or even a platform raised slightly from the floor. Play lofts and arrangements of soft pillows or mats within the room can also define a unique place for them.

The early learning environment should be a place that children feel belongs to them containing features with which they uniquely identify. The posting of their name, their photo, their art work, and even photos of their families can bring not only comfort, but an opportunity to share their story and therefore bridge the gap between home and a child care institution.

Olds, Anita Rui. Child Care Design Guide.
New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,
2001. Print.

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