Elements of design that are important to consider in early childhood environments are softness, texture, color, and lighting. When planned carefully, these elements can help to establish an aesthetically pleasing, homelike environment.
One thing that clearly distinguishes an institutional environment from a home environment is softness. Although softness is often eliminated in early childhood programs due to the desire to have an antiseptic environment, softness is important in creating an environment that is cozy, comfortable, cuddly, and homelike. Softness is also critical in reducing noise levels and reverberation. Children can experience softness through upholstered furniture, pillows, beanbag chairs, covered mattresses on the floor, and throw rugs. Teachers can also create the appearance of softness by adding tablecloths, curtains, drapes, canopies, and wall hangings.
Although our skin is the largest body organ, touch is the most ignored sense in planning early childhood environments (Olds, 1989b, p. 10). According to Olds (1989b), texture contributes more to overall ambiance than any other design element. “The view that childcare facilities should be antiseptic and childproof, and therefore replete with smooth, washable surfaces, deprives children of the textural richness they enjoy and deserve” (Olds, 2001, p. 232).
Anyone who has the irresistible desire to touch a rich velvet drape, run their hand along a bumpy brick wall, or feel a cold marble countertop knows the sensory pleasure derived from textures. Textures in classrooms cause light to reflect differently, creating interest. They also provide for a more complex environment, creating opportunities for children to compare, contrast, and experiment (Olds, 2001). According to Ceppi and Zini (1998), sensory experiences not only assist in learning, but the lack of sensory input negatively affects our future abilities to learn through our perceptions.
Children are born with an immense genetic capacity that enables them to explore, discriminate, and interpret reality through their senses. Neurobiological research has clearly demonstrated the co-protagonism of the senses in the construction and processing of knowledge and individual and group memory. It follows that an unstimulating environment tends to dull and deafen our perceptions. Studies have shown that this is true even for very young children, and therefore schools must be capable of supporting and nourishing the sensory perceptions in order to develop and refine them. (p. 7)
Textures also contribute to a more homelike environment that can help reflect the lives and cultures of children. On a practical note, textures help to control sound and to create space definition.
Different textures are also necessary because each person experiences perceptions differently. The environment needs to be rich in a variety of tactile stimuli, allowing each person to have her needs met (Ceppi & Zini, 1998).
Textures can be incorporated through more permanent design features, such as adding different floor, ceiling, and wall surfaces. These can include a variety of materials such as brick, wood, metal, glass, ceramic tile, rubber, and bumpy plaster designs. Different textures can also be added to environments through furniture, drapes, canopies, pillows, wall hangings, tablecloths, baskets, sensory tables, and play materials, and by creating texture walls. Everyday items used in a different way can also add new tactile experiences.
Like texture, color in the classroom can be used to create a differentiated space. Color can also be used to emphasize physical features of a room, to create an illusion of more or less space, and to make a room more attractive. Color affects the luminosity in the room by reflecting or absorbing light. There is also evidence that color evokes moods. However, it appears that this is culturally based rather than biologically based (Ceppi & Zini, 1998) and that it is not only the color but also the value and saturation that influence emotions (Manav, 2007). Perhaps this is why, after examining 200 studies of school environments, Higgens, Hall, Wall, Woolner, & McCaughey (2005), came to the conclusion that there “is conflicting evidence, but forceful opinions on the effects of colour” (p. 22) with studies producing inconsistent results.
In determining the best color to paint an environment, you should consider whether you want the space to look larger or smaller. Dark colors will make a space look smaller. If ceilings are high, you might want to paint them darker to make them appear lower. If the room is long and narrow, you can make the distant wall appear nearer by painting it a darker color.
Many design artists and early childhood specialists recommend using visually demanding bright colors only for accents (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Olds, 2001; Torelli & Durrett, 2000). Bright colors on shelves and furniture can cause overstimulation especially when we consider all the color that will be added to the environment by the toys, materials, items on the walls, and even the children’s clothing. Instead, experts recommend that neutral colors be used, with learning centers being painted different but harmonious colors to differentiate the space (Olds, 2001). The neutral background allows the emphasis to be placed upon the toys, materials, and inhabitants of the space. In Children, Spaces, and Relations, Ceppi & Zini (1998) emphasize that the walls should be a basic background allowing those using the space to exercise their own creativity in applying a “second skin” (p. 63). Varieties and ranges of colors in materials can then add needed complexity, variety, and richness to the environment. This gives children the opportunity to learn about, compare, contrast, and experiment with color. This philosophy is in opposition to the often-found practice of using bright primary color schemes or pastel nursery themes that are based upon a simplified viewpoint of children (Ceppi & Zini, 1998). However, all considerations of color should be thought about in relationship to contemporary and cultural beliefs, since the early childhood setting needs to reflect the society it resides within rather than be an isolated entity.
Lighting affects the aesthetics of the room as well as the visual acuity and mental health of the occupants. “Creating good lighting is not just a matter of having ‘enough’ lighting . . . . Good lighting is ultimately a matter of achieving a desired look and feel. Light can shape our moods. It can soothe the mind and invigorate the body. Light, in all its manifestations, has the power to not only illustrate what we see, but influence how we see it, even to make it beautiful” (Karre, 2003, p. 5).
Whenever possible, it is important to have natural light. As stated in the General Services Administration (GSA) handbook (2003), a set of regulations that govern all federal government childcare programs, “Natural lighting is essential in childcare centers. It is the hallmark of nurturing, quality environments” (p. 5–2). To help reduce glare, natural light should come from at least two directions (GSA, 2003; Olds, 2001).
Windows not only provide light but also allow access to the world outside, creating a “spirit of place” (Olds, 2001). Children can observe nature and the elements, and feel like they are part of the community surrounding the classroom. The room can feel larger when one can view the outside. If windows are strategically located, children can see what is occurring in the building before they enter, helping them to build anticipation and ease the transition (Moore, Lane, Hill, Cohen, & McGinty, 1994). Unlike artificial light, natural light from windows is dynamic, changing throughout the day.
Learning may also be enhanced with natural lighting. Researchers claim that natural lighting can improve achievement by 20% or more (Earthman, 2004; Heschong Mahone Group, 2003). Poor lighting, on the other hand, can cause “headaches, eye strain, and fatigue” (Higgens et al., 2005), negatively affecting learning.
Natural lighting also reduces energy costs, decreasing the needs for electric lights (Al- Mohaisen & Khattab, 2006). Electric lights consume energy and also produce waste heat energy. This is a problem in warm climates, causing an increase in the use of air conditioners (Al- Mohaisen & Khattab, 2006, p. 13).
However, it is typically not practical to rely totally on natural light. When natural light is not possible, full-spectrum lights are recommended (GSA, 2003; Olds, 2001). Some researchers indicate that full spectrum lights result in better physical health (Graves, 1985; Hathaway, Hargreaves, Thompson, & Novitsky, 1992; Graves, 1985). However, others claim that these benefits have not yet been proven (Gifford, 1994).
It is also recommended that classrooms have a variety of different types of lighting (track, pendant, recessed, dimmer controlled, lamps) to create “a distinctive atmosphere” in different areas of the room (Torelli, 2002). “A tapestry of light and dark areas in rooms and buildings adds to their comfort, interest, and spirit of place” (Olds, 2001, p. 192). “Pools of light facilitate special orientation, draw people together, and provide objects and people with definition and relationships. Pools of light affect people’s attention, behavior, and their impressions of spaciousness or enclosure” (Olds, 2001, p. 191).
Different types of lighting allow for different needs. For example, dimmer-controlled lighting for sleeping areas allows low light when children are napping while still allowing supervision. Different types of lighting also allow children to have some control over their environment. For example, a lamp with a three-way bulb in the reading area allows children to adjust the degree of lighting according to their needs.
To get the best advantage of your lighting, ceilings and walls should be painted with a high light reflectance value (LRV) paint. High LRV can lead to 25% reduction in needed lighting fixtures (Fielding, 2006). Mirrored ceiling tiles can also achieve this effect.
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