The growing trend of educating pre-kindergarten children has given rise to a new set of design parameters for educational facilities. Children as young as 3 years old have much to gain in their social and intellectual development from an early educational experience. Early-education centers (EECs) must be designed to meet the special needs of 3- and 4-year-olds.
Classroom sizes for this age group usually are larger than those for older children-generally 1,250 square feet compared with 900 square feet-to allow more space for larger materials, educational play and greater movement. Instead of 25 to 35 chairs and desks with perimeter storage, an early-education room is likely to contain chairs, tables and modular storage, as well as a toy kitchen, puppet theater, Lego table, painting easels and a manipulatives area for items such as puzzles or blocks. Each classroom has foldout pads for naps or rest time, and toilets.
Flexibility is important in classroom design. Generally, EECs do not have specialized classrooms for subjects such as art or science, so each classroom must be designed to accommodate varied activities.
Typically, a room is divided into several activity centers: wet, for science and artwork; dry, for manipulatives and imaginative play; quiet, for reading and work on computers; and active, which might involve play with puppets or a toy kitchen. Different activities take place simultaneously in small groups while the teacher circulates to observe and facilitate the children's work and interaction.
A classroom may have two teachers or a teacher and a full-time aide for every 20 children. The room's flexibility allows the teachers to arrange their rooms to meet their specific goals and change the layout of the room periodically to highlight educational themes.
Early-education centers do not have gymnasiums; instead, there are gross-motor rooms, which are smaller and more welcoming than a standard gym. These rooms include game lines on the floor for relay races and other games appropriate to the age group.
Interior circulation and scale
Moving 20 three-year-olds from a classroom to a cafeteria is not always easy. Circulation throughout the building should be kept simple; each new area should be clearly marked. Although children are not left to navigate on their own, clear organization of spaces increases their comfort as it signals a change in activities.
A memorable route provides youngsters with a feeling of orientation and familiarity. Identifiable landmarks, such as striking colors, architectural features and materials, can be used to mark the route between classrooms and common areas. Clarity also is enhanced by establishing interior views that connect significant spaces.
Scale is critical in an early-education center. Counters, windows and built-in seating must be accessible to youngsters. Counters should be one foot, 10 inches high for children-a foot lower than the ideal height for adults-and seating should be about 10 to 12 inches above the floor. Windows should be low enough to provide easy viewing. Open cubby areas that allow teachers unobstructed visibility are preferable to enclosed coat rooms. Even restroom areas often are open to view as a safety precaution. Surveillance is an important factor for the entire facility; EECs should have the ability to closely monitor anyone entering or leaving the building.
Materials and site development
Select the quality of building materials with an eye toward durability and comfort. Hardwood or rubber provides resilient surfaces for flooring, and area rugs offer comfortable seating for floor games.
Enhance the interior character of the building with educational materials and displays of students' work to cover every available surface. Subdued interior finishes can provide an appropriate background for these materials. Because young children learn from hands-on exploration, the physical environment should stimulate learning by providing a variety of materials, views and spaces.
Outdoor play is essential to a preschool curriculum. Children typically have one outdoor play session in a half-day program and two sessions in a full-day program. Play structures may include equipment for sliding, climbing, crawling, balancing, running and imaginative play. All outdoor play areas should have convenient access to toilets and drinking water, and provide a mix of sun and shade. Install a safe, durable surface under and around all play equipment.
The importance of site development does not end with the design of playgrounds. With hundreds of 3- to 5-year-olds in attendance, traffic control is critical. Preschoolers are more likely to be transported by car than by schoolbus, and a facility with 300 students can expect about 500 vehicle visits a day. A traffic analysis may be needed during the design of an EEC to anticipate traffic volume and the capacity of adjoining roadways.
Pickup and dropoff areas must be safely situated and sufficiently large. Typically, parents either park and wait in their cars for children to be delivered by school staff, or they park and enter the building themselves. Even though children are never permitted to go there by themselves, the dropoff areas should allow them to reach the building without crossing a street. Some schools have separate entrance and exit roads to avoid two-way traffic.
Many early-education centers house social and educational activities for parents and community groups. The EEC should include a parents' center of about 250 square feet for meetings, seminars or social events. The center should have networked computer stations, slide projectors, screens and markerboards. A community room of about the same size could be used as a multipurpose room for other social and educational activities.
The school's library/media center should be available to community and civic groups. The gross motor room and cafeteria can be used for public meetings, adult education or local theater performances. In addition, after-hours use by the general public can be a strong selling point for funding an early-education center.
Set within an urban neighborhood in Boston, the Mattapan Early Education Center (EEC) has introduced a new type of building to the city's public school system. Designed to accommodate 300 three-, four-, and five-year-old students, the facility also serves as a community center.
The Mattapan EEC, one of the first schools built in Boston in more than 20 years, acquaints youngsters with technology, while functioning within standard educational concepts. The 35,000-square-foot, two-story building contains 12 classrooms, a library, a gross-motor room, a cafeteria/kitchen, an administrative suite/parents room, a fully networked computer system with six stations in each classroom, and outdoor play areas and gardens. Each classroom provides a variety of learning centers, with areas designated for reading, visual arts, dramatic play and games. Specific centers also are set aside for science, math, writing, music and movement, and sand and water play.
The school is designed for durability and comfort, as well as aesthetics. Classroom floors are made of rubber tile, with terrazzo and porcelain ceramic tile flooring in the corridors. Double-hung mahogany windows are used throughout the building. The exterior is composed of brick, natural-weathering cedar, and copper-materials that last a long time and look good as they weather.
Along the street side of the building, the low, one-story, curved masonry wall stretches the entire length of the site, unifying a number of different functional elements behind it and corresponding in scale to adjacent smaller buildings. The wall terminates in a two-story tower that houses the library reading room on the second floor. The height of the tower, oversized windows and articulated roof offer the appearance of a treehouse,which appeals to youngsters.