School Resources

The concepts underpinning good design in ECE

This insight piece will be useful for existing early childhood care and education environments, or in new centre design.  This research review gives detail about various aspects of spaces and design, but this article is about the concepts behind good design.  

The best design, whether for sessional ECE or a full day environment, is child-centered. In practice this means that, as a child, what you see, hear, feel and engage with will work with your mind, body and emotions. ‘Work with’ means stimulating, but not over-stimulating, allowing security and rest as well as exploration and experimenting. Most of all, it will be at child scale. Unfortunately, many beautiful building designs are only beautiful to adult eyes. Try sitting on the floor and see how it looks. Big open plan rooms and high ceilings, hard surfaces (and the consequent noise), are not child-centred. Just as ECE outdoor spaces are not playgrounds, so indoor spaces are not classrooms. Both are living spaces first, and then spaces for complex human development. Good ECE design is about quality of life first.   

An ECE environment is characterised by contrasts. It can require design for children from babies to five years old, but also for adults of varying body sizes doing physical work (with associated physical risk). It needs active, messy and occasionally noisy places, but also places to retreat, to rest, to sleep, to socialise (one to one, or group interaction), and engage in detailed, protected play. It is a space for education, but it’s also a home away from home.  

So how do we achieve quality of life in full day ECE? 

Jim Greenman and Ann Stonehouse explain that ‘the programme doesn’t happen in the environment; the environment is the programme’. Consider the activities of a day. What will make the day the best it can be for a child, and as far as you can, for a teacher? It’s also good to consider parents, as they are part of the ECE community. 

Before any design takes place, make a set of lists. 

  1. Experiences 
  2. Activities 
  3. Learning 

Always consider experiences before activities, especially in full day ECE. Experiences include combinations of sensory, social and psychological factors, all working together. Sleeping and waking are experiences. Belonging and security are not activities. A focus on activities or learning may cause you to miss important aspects affecting quality of life. 

Examples of holistic thinking in design 

This research review has topical detail, but these examples present opportunities to use the whole whāriki – a holistic approach, in experience-based design. 

Example 1: Servery 

Think of helping with setting up for lunch when you are four. It’s your favourite job, one that says you belong, you’re part of the team – so is that an activity, or an experience?  Can you smell lunch cooking? Can you chat with the cook, and ask about how you make that? Can she ask you to please carry this over there?   

Design elements: While this experience contains activities, it is so much more.  It will not be the same if the kitchen is disconnected spatially or visually from the dining space, or if children cannot be involved and help with serving.  

Example 2: Loft or mezzanine space 

Consider a loft space (height, perspective), with a draped fabric roof and/or curtains (enclosure, security), with LED light stars above the fabric (imagination space, and the peaceful but inspirational pleasure of soft and sparkly light mixed together), with your two best friends (companionship, sharing, belonging). The experience is not derived from just one thing; it has an infinitely variable recipe. How high is the fabric ceiling? What colour or colours?   

Design elements: From this experience, identify the design components that make such an experience possible. They will include: 

  • A loft structure 
  • Attachment points for hanging fabric (on the loft posts and/or the ceiling) 
  • Power and attachment points for LED light strings 

While these features can be retrofits, the facilitating components should be considered at building design stage. The design components do not determine the experience – they are enabling features for many potential experiences.  

As you read through this research review, you’ll find a mixture of concepts and practical pointers. That’s because, for some aspects of design, it is a concept that really matters. There may be hundreds of ways of making it work. For other aspects, very specific physical details can really make a difference. For example, protected space is an attribute or concept – you can make it work in so many ways, but a ‘wet area’ shower in the disability access toilet, for bathing a child, is a great specific design feature (missed in most designs).  

Finally, don’t design by regulation compliance. Regulations are minima, and New Zealand’s minimum regulations relating to design (space, hygiene) have been shown to be impractical for quality1,2. Design for what children and teachers need– you will almost certainly comply. 

The understanding behind this insight article and the accompanying research review is drawn from a number of references, particularly Anita Rui Olds’ Childcare Design Guide3, but it also from work by the Wellington Regional Public Health Unit, (1992-2001 and 2006-2009), and the author’s experience addressing practical design in several hundred early childhood care and education centres. The Public Health Unit ECCE programme developed a Te Whāriki-based blend of health science and pedagogy. It included about 100 interactive, problem-solving workshops with ECE  teachers, as well as work with centre developers from planning stage.  

By Dr Mike Bedford


Dr Mike Bedford

Mike is a specialist in ECE wellbeing and design with over 25 years’ experience. He has a Master of Public Health (ECE health needs assessment) and a doctorate in ECE environmental health. Mike designed and ran the Wellington Regional Public Health programme for ECE in the 1990s and 2005-2009, and contributed to the original draft of the ECE health resource Nga Kupu Oranga. Mike advised the Ministry of Education Design and Build programme, and provided much of the health advice and resources used in the original Criteria for Licensing guides.

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