Year after year, studies attest to the value of early-childhood education. Children who begin the educational process before entering kindergarten generally do better in grade school than those who don't. The need for early-education programs is reinforced by the growing need for childcare, as the number of dual-income families continues to rise.

As a result, early-childhood centers (ECCs) tailored to the particular needs of preschoolers are becoming more common. These specialized learning environments differ significantly from traditional K-5 elementary buildings, and those differences should be addressed during the design process.

Flexibility is a prime consideration for 4- and 5-year-old children. Most schools have “paired” rooms with folding walls that can be opened easily, or adjoining rooms with hinged doors that enable teachers to work as a team. Classrooms for pre-K and kindergarteners typically are larger than traditional ones, generally 1,200 to 1,300 square feet compared with 1,000 to 1,100 square feet in first and second grades. This does not include space for a toilet (usually 50 square feet) or a storage room (anywhere from 50 to 100 square feet). The extra room permits increased movement among the children and provides space for more educational and play materials.

Outfitting the classroom

Classrooms should contain coat alcoves for storing outerwear. Open cubbies provide space for coats, shelves for hats and gloves, and a tray below for boots. Coat alcoves often are adjacent to the outside door for easy access to outdoor play areas. Such access is convenient, but too many doors at exterior walls may pose a security problem and lead to cold drafts in the classroom.

The floor in an alcove usually is made of weather-resistant material such as tile or rubber. Carpeting typically covers the two-thirds of the room used for play areas; tile covers the remaining one-third of the floor used for play areas or around sinks. Cabinetry permits easy storage of teaching materials. Casework for small children should be about 25 inches high instead of the standard 36 inches, and all drawer corners and countertops should have rounded edges for safety.

In grade schools, toilet rooms are situated off the halls, with separate facilities for boys and girls, but pre-schools generally contain a single, self-contained toilet in every classroom. Sinks sometimes are outside a restroom so teachers can make certain that youngsters wash their hands.

The importance of aesthetics cannot be overestimated; for young children separated from their parents for the first time, a feeling of welcome and warmth is critical. Display surfaces, showing artwork wherever possible are a high priority. Cabinet doors and wall surfaces should be tackable so items can be displayed easily.

Every classroom in an EEC should have extensive windows to make the room appear bright and spacious. Windows also should have solar shades for light and heat control, and for occasional room darkening.

It also is helpful for every classroom to contain a drinking fountain. Research shows that dehydrated students struggle to absorb information.

Common-use areas

Areas outside the classroom that are used for special purposes are an important element in the design of ECCs. Pullout spaces — areas that can be enlarged or converted for different uses — often are combined to accommodate various functions. Art and science can be taught in the same room, although many schools prefer to keep art instruction in the general-purpose classroom.

Most early-childhood centers have a media center, as well as quiet nooks to encourage reading. Play furniture allows children to express themselves in individual play. Gyms in ECCs most often are designed for gross-motor-skill development rather than athletic events such as basketball. The floors generally are carpeted and the ceilings are lower (usually about 12 feet) than those in standard gymnasiums. This area typically has a platform stage that can be used for presentations.

A gym and cafeteria sometimes are combined, but in schools with an enrollment of more than 350, they should be separate facilities. The cafeteria usually is sized to accommodate half the student body, and lunch is served in two sessions.

EECs also must provide adequate space for teachers and parents. A room for small groups, usually a shared room between two classrooms with a door into each, is good for private conferences or student team efforts.

Especially critical in early-childhood centers are offices for specialists, such as social workers, speech therapists, psychologists and reading consultants. Most schools have at least four offices in the range of 200 to 250 square feet.

A facility should include workrooms for both teachers and parent-aides. A teachers' workroom, separate from the staff lounge, promotes interaction among the faculty, while a separate workroom for parent-aides, with lockers for coats and purses, offers a home base.

Interior designs

Lighting should be maintained in the range of 60 to 65 footcandles. Indirect uplighting with fluorescent fixtures hung on pendants offers a soft light that also is good for computer use.

Proper ventilation is exceptionally important for young children. Good air circulation keeps students awake and focused, and filtering out dust and germs prevents illness. Air conditioning is a necessity, and filters should be changed regularly in all ventilating systems.

A telephone and a television system are standard equipment in every classroom. Most schools also have VCRs or DVDs in classrooms.

Sound reinforcement is encouraged because on any given day, 10 to 15 percent of children in an EEC are likely to have a hearing impairment caused by an ear infection. New self-contained amplifier/microphone/speaker systems are becoming increasingly common. They are reasonably affordable (about $1,000) and are effective for communication.

Exterior considerations

Early-childhood centers should allocate a generous sum for a playground. On average, the cost of a playground is $100,000 to 200,000. Soft surfaces, such as shredded rubber, are recommended to guard against injuries from falls.

Because every school is part of a neighborhood, it should be designed to blend with the surrounding area. A residential image usually is preferable, with buildings no more than two stories high. Sloped, shingled roofs with brick exteriors have been found to work well. Light colors, with primary color accents, give the structure a warm, inviting look. The parking area should be convenient and provide space for about 100 cars in a 400-student school.

Young children often cannot find their way around a new facility, so moving about the building should be simplified. Few preschool youngsters are able to read, so signage must be handled creatively. Colors and graphics can make each area distinctive and easily recognizable. For example, a computer lab might be named “mission control” and illustrated with a space-age graphic. Signs should be placed at heights suitable for both adults and children.

Moxley is senior project manager for URS Corporation in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Prototype design in Detroit

The Detroit school system used a prototype design that would be applied to six early-childhood centers to accommodate a program to expand early-childhood-education opportunities. The schools house pre-K, kindergarten, second and third grades, and are adjacent to elementary schools with which they share common facilities such as gymnasiums and media centers.

The buildings are identical: two stories high, 44,000 square feet, containing 21 classrooms. The physical environment of each school is designed to facilitate learning while being flexible enough to accommodate different educational needs and methods of teaching.

Pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, all on the first floor, are 1,200 square feet, with two toilet rooms and a storage room. Coats are stored in cubbies. Second- and third-grade rooms, on the second floor, are 850 square feet, with cubbies for storing coats. Toilet rooms are at the end of the hallway.

Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows and translucent panels create classrooms that are light and airy while conveying a sense of spaciousness. Fluorescent uplighting is used in all classrooms. Photo sensors turn off the lights above the perimeter zone if natural light is bright enough.