FIRST DAYS IN SCHOOL

According to U.S. Office of Education reports, two decades ago, only 10 states were providing pre-kindergarten programs. Currently, it is reported that 39 states and the District of Columbia provide support for pre-k programs. States are contributing about $4 billion to pre-kindergarten and childcare programs. In 2001, states spent in excess of $1.9 billion for more than 765,000 children to attend pre-k. In its publication, The Condition of Education 2004, the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that pre-primary enrollment increased by 20 percent, from 1993 to 2003. It is noted that an important aspect of this increase is the participation of children in full-day programs. In 2003, approximately 56 percent of the children attended full-day programs, compared to 40 percent in 1993.

The recognition of the positive impact of early childhood programs on the cognitive development of pre-school age children, as well as a variety of social and economic factors, has created public pressure for the availability of pre-kindergarten education programs, not only in urban areas, but in suburban and rural areas as well. The material that follows is intended to provide a conceptual framework on which to develop the general design requirements for an early childhood education center. It is not intended to provide educational specifications for instructional and support spaces, the design of which are situational, in that they should respond to programmatic requirements established by the school district. Compliance with applicable federal, state and local requirements is assumed.

The overall design, interior decoration and finishes within the center should reflect an understanding and awareness that attendance at this facility will, in most cases, represent the first experience of the child with a structured educational environment and separation from the parents. Every attempt should be made to create a setting that facilitates this transition from the home environment and is minimally intimidating to pre-school age children. The inclusion of soft furniture, large graphics, plantings, fish tanks and aviary should be considered in the design.

Among the attributes critical to the design should be its ability to provide the children with a sense of security and safety. Aside from the prevention of injury, the design should recognize that, if a child perceives a threat or the potential for injury, his or her ability to learn will be severely diminished. The safety and security of the children should be addressed from a number of perspectives. Facility-wide voice communication and an addressable alarm system should be provided.

The facility location and orientation on the site should provide for the safe arrival and departure of children, with direct access to the classroom area to which the student has been assigned. If feasible, student entrance and exit should be at the rear of the facility. Drop-off areas should be designed so that a child may exit the vehicle on the pedestrian side and move directly into the center. A covered transition space should be provided at the student entrance to each section.

Teachers must have an unrestricted view of the children at all times, both in the classroom and outside play areas. Observation panels should be provided in corridors and between rooms to aid in supervision of children.

Controlling access by unauthorized persons to areas occupied by children, both within the building and in outside play areas, should be a primary concern. The use of closed-circuit television cameras and digital video recording surveillance of all entrances and circulation areas in the building, as well as parking and play areas, should be anticipated. All exits and entrances must be secured. Visitors’ access to the center should be restricted through one easily identified, controlled main entrance. The administrative suite, the clinic, the media center and the cafetorium should be located close to the main entrance, so as to provide accessibility, without travel through classroom areas. Appropriate signage should provide direction to each of these areas.

An area for short-term parking for parents and other visitors should be provided. A separate area for staff parking should be located, as close to the center as possible, for ease of access and safety. A lighted buffer zone, of at least 30 ft. around the facility, should be anticipated.

Play yards should be seen as an extension of the classroom spaces and, to the extent possible, should be integrated into the overall design of the center. Play areas should provide a mix of sun and shade with sheltered spaces for solitary, small group and quiet activities and have convenient access to toilets and drinking fountains.

Outdoor play spaces should be enclosed by fences to define the play area, provide for ease of supervision and protect the children from unauthorized individuals and stray animals. Fences should be at least four ft. in height with the top free of protrusions. Fencing should be designed to preclude children’s heads, hands or fingers from entrapment. Access to the play spaces should be provided for maintenance equipment through gates that are secured during student occupancy.

Play equipment should be developmentally appropriate and should include equipment for sliding, climbing, crawling, balancing, running and imaginative play. Wood treated with chromated copper sulfate (CCA) is not to be used in any equipment or furnishings in the play spaces.

The recommendations of the Consumer Product Services Commission Document #1005, regarding playground surface materials, should be followed. Play space should be barrier-free and sensitive to all disabilities. Paved areas for pathways, wheeling and games, along with grass/turf surfaces in open play areas, should also be provided. Storage for outdoor play equipment should be available and be readily accessible to teachers.

The design of the facility should anticipate the possible organization of students into small learning communities, sections, houses or schools within a school. Each section should be self-contained and include classroom/activity centers, as well as a multipurpose area that will be used for a variety of large group activities and gross motor skill development. In addition, each wing should include a small group activity area, teacher workspace and an office/conference room.

The design must address the impact of color, noise, lighting, indoor air quality and other environmental factors on childrens’ behavior and achievement.

Research has established that color choices influence student attitudes, behavior and learning. Studies have found that color affects students’ attention span and teachers’ sense of time and has an impact on academic achievement of young children. It has been suggested that the proper use of color can reduce absenteeism and change an atmosphere that is monotonous and depressing into one that is pleasing and stimulating. Predominant colors should be neutral, off-white, beige, pale yellow, pale lavender and the like. Stronger color should be used as accents in smaller areas. Colors should be used to identify particular areas. The use of a variety of colors and textures appropriate to particular areas and that provide young children with landmarks and direction within the building should be included in the planning.

Chronic exposure to noise has been shown to be harmful to younger children whose language and discrimination skills are forming. While the external sources of some noise may be difficult to control, the source of noise is frequently in the design of the space. Reverberation and background noise generated by HVAC systems are the major sources. Reverberation should be controlled through the use of sound absorbing materials and surfaces. The use of acoustically engineered central air handling systems should be considered to reduce the potential of noise from HVAC systems.

The importance of classroom lighting, as a determinant of student behavior and achievement, has been widely investigated. There is little disagreement over the advantages of daylighting either through window spaces or skylights. A large-scale study in California found a correlation between daylight and a wide variety of physical, behavioral and emotional advantages to students. Teachers should be able to provide a combination and variety of well-lit and dimly lit areas within the classroom. The design should consider the use of direct/indirect pendant lighting fixtures and linear strips of accent lighting, along display areas and white boards, as a supplement to daylight

Teachers should be provided with the ability to control not only light levels, sun penetration and acoustic conditions, but also the temperature and ventilation in their classrooms. Extensive research has established that the failure to address the issue of indoor air quality potentially reduces the level of productivity of both students and teachers, and also increases the potential of short- and long-term health problems. The potential operation of the Early Childhood Center on a 10-hour day, 245-day schedule mandates that the facility be fully climate controlled for year-round operation. The design and equipment specifications must address the issues of ventilation, control of temperature and humidity, and indoor air quality in general.

We have attempted to identify some areas that should be considered in the early phases of the planning of an early childhood education facility. There is a larger issue that school district decision makers should also consider. Research in early childhood education has established that in order to be successful, programs must be child-centered. It is equally true that the facilities in which these programs are offered must also be child-centered.

JOHN R. FLYNN Flynn is vice president of Kiernan Corporation, located in Cinnaminson, N.J. He has also served as a teacher, chief school administrator, served in a number of positions with the New Jersey Department of Education and is author of“A Strategy for Educational Planning.”

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