Building on Licensing Requirements to Create Positive Early Childhood
By Judith Colbert Ph. D.

Building on Licensing Requirements to Create Positive Early Childhood


By Judith Colbert, Ph.D.


First impressions are powerful. When you visit an early childhood setting for the first time, you know relatively quickly if it is a place you would like to work or leave your child. What is likely harder to decide is why you feel as you do, or – if you are a director or teacher – how you can create a positive child care environment. The early childhood environment shapes how adults and children experience your program. To understand why one environment has a more positive effect than another, it is important to identify the elements common to most early childhood settings.           

One way to identify those elements is to look closely at the items related to the environment that are included in the licensing requirements that all state-regulated programs must meet. Those requirements have been developed in consultation with key members of the early childhood community and with the knowledge of current research and quality standards. 


What are the Elements?

Most licensing requirements cover at least three broad elements related to the environment: the physical characteristics of the space; the toys, equipment and furnishings within the space; and the organization of the space and its contents. Each makes a contribution to your first impression of the early childhood environment and, in the longer term, influences the interactions and experiences that occur there. 


The Physical Space

Almost all – if not all – licensing rules regulate the size of the physical space. Size determines the number of children that can be accommodated which, in turn, establishes how many qualified staff must be on duty. The numbers of children and staff have a direct bearing on how much money is required to operate a program. They also determine the number and quality of possible interactions between individual children and staff.            

In licensing rules, size is usually described as the number of square feet of indoor and outdoor space an early childhood program must have for each child who is participating. Generally, as recommended in Caring for Our Children and elsewhere, licensing requirements state that an early childhood program must have 35 square feet of usable indoor activity space per child, and 75 square feet of accessible outdoor space or in certain cases, indoor space, for active gross motor play. These numbers may vary slightly according to the ages and abilities of the children, and the amount of furniture and equipment in the room. For example, 50 square feet per child can be reduced to 35 when the space is measured wall to wall, since the area taken up by items such as shelving and cabinets is not considered available activity space for the children.           

The size of the play space influences how children behave in a setting. Behavior is more positive when the environment includes enough space for children to participate in developmentally appropriate activities. Infectious diseases spread more quickly when children are crowded into small spaces and the risk of injury from accidents rises when children have insufficient play space. On the other hand, when the space is too large, children lose focus and engage in aimless activity that also leads to behavior problems.            

When determining the most satisfactory size for a child care setting, it is important to consider the characteristics of children who will be using it, including their abilities, cultural experiences and ages. Space requirements may increase when children with special needs are present. In contrast, a new child or a child who, for cultural reasons, is accustomed to relatively small spaces will feel more at home and behave more positively in child care spaces that are not overwhelming. When first introduced to the setting, such children may benefit from being encouraged to play in a smaller, contained activity area within the larger play space.            

When regulating physical space, licensing requirements do more than establish its size. They also address temperature, ventilation, and the level of light in the room – often requiring at least some natural light.



A Check-Up for Your Child Care Environment

How does your own child care environment measure up? Give your environment a check-up by answering the following questions. The results will help you decide how you are doing now and find out where you might make changes to create a more positive child care environment in the future. For a more objective view, team up with a friend from another setting and run a check on each other’s child care environment.



When all of the children are present, does the size of your child care setting seem to be

q       Too Large – the children run around without focus or wander aimlessly?   

q       Too Small – the children are crowded together and are frequently in conflict? or 

q       Just Right – the children seem to feel comfortable and have enough space to participate freely in planned activities? 


If you care for children of different ages and abilities, 

q       Do infants and children who are not mobile have a separate area where they are protected from walkways and areas used by older children?

q       Is the space appropriate for children with special needs?  

q       Is there a separate area for school-age children to do homework?




When all of the children are present, is the number of toys and equipment and furnishings 

q       Too Large – the children are distracted by having too many toys to choose from and the area is so crowded that they cannot focus on a single activity?

q       Too Small – the children do not have enough toys to engage their interest and behavior problems arise because of their inability to share? or 

q       Just Right – the children are happily engaged in activities that hold their interest and are able to make choices without conflicting with others?


Focusing on safety,

q       Is everything in the child care setting clean and free of disease-causing bacteria? 

q       Are toys, equipment, and furnishings free of hazards such as sharp edges that might injure children?

q       Are children protected by a shock-absorbing surface under indoor and outdoor climbers and other play equipment from which they might fall?


If you care for children of different ages and abilities, 

q       Is the play equipment accessible to children with special needs?

q       Is size and type of play equipment appropriate to the ages of the children?

q       Is the furniture child-sized? 

q       Are pictures and other displays child’s eye level?




Is the space organized so that the number of activity areas is 

q       Too Large – the setting is “too busy” and the children have too many choices? 

q       Too Small – the children do not have enough choices and conflict arises as they all try to crowd into one or two areas? or  

q       Just Right – the children have clear choices among a few, well-equipped activity areas that allow them to participate in a variety of activities that hold their interest and give them experiences that foster different aspects of their development?


Focusing on safety,

q       Are dividers separating activity areas firmly anchored

q       Are the boundaries of activity areas low enough so that staff can supervise the children at all times? 

q       Are their clear pathways between activity areas so that children can move about easily without injury or conflict?


Considering that child care settings are very busy places where children and adults perform many routine functions

q       Is there a designated area for meals and snacks? 

q       Is there space for changing diapers? 

q       If you care for infants, is there a separate area for cribs? 

q       Is there adequate storage space? 

q       Is there an office area for program administration? 

q       Is there a place for staff to relax?



The Toys, Equipment and Furnishings

Licensing requirements also provide an indication of the type and number of toys, equipment and furnishings that contribute to the creation of a positive child care environment. Most licensing rules require at least an “adequate” amount of age-appropriate toys, equipment, and furnishings, and some provide specific numbers and detailed lists.           

In addition to establishing the quantity of toys and equipment, licensing requirements also address safety issues. They require that toys and equipment be in good condition, clean and as free as possible from disease-causing bacteria. Drawing on research and recommendations from organizations like the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), they prohibit known hazards, such as sharp edges, loose bolts and splintered wood, and require shock-absorbing surfaces under indoor and outdoor climbing equipment to protect children at critical fall heights. They may also look to the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) to ensure that play equipment is accessible to children with special needs.           

Moving beyond licensing requirements, you will find further help for choosing appropriate toys, equipment and furnishings in quality measures such as the Environmental Rating Scales developed by Thelma Harms, Richard Clifford and others at the University of North Carolina. These scales will help you assess your space and its contents and will prompt you to ask questions about your setting – Do you have child-sized furniture? Have you hung the children’s artwork at a level where they can see it or is it high up so you can see it?           

The right quantity and type of safe, appropriate toys and equipment, added to a hospitable space, provide children the materials they need to engage their interest in an environment where they can play and grow.



To ensure that the environment makes the best possible contribution to quality care, it is also important to consider how its contents are organized. Almost all licensing requirements state that programs must provide developmentally appropriate activities that support the physical, social, emotional, linguistic, and cognitive well being of the children. To provide such activities, programs not only need a quantity of toys and equipment, but they must also organize them in such a way that children have experiences that foster different aspects of their development. Some licensing requirements specify that programs have a particular number of activity or learning areas; others simply require that the space be divided into specific areas.           

Programs can build on licensing requirements to create environments that help them carry out their daily program plans and achieve specific curriculum goals. At a minimum, they need to provide areas for quiet individual pastimes, such as looking at books, and space for more active group participation, including gross motor activities.           

Most requirements state that dividers separating such areas must be firmly anchored and allow for continuous supervision of the children. To meet these requirements, you might choose to separate two activity areas with a low set of shelves that is either fixed to the floor or rests on a base that is wider and heavier than the upper shelves so that it will not tip over. Areas can also be defined by variations in flooring and wall color, which allow children to learn from their experience with different textures and materials.          

The organization of the space influences both child safety and behavior. Toys and equipment should not be placed too close together. When space is organized to ensure clear pathways and encourage effective traffic patterns, children are able to move about easily without bumping into each other, and there is less likelihood of conflict and frustration. As an added benefit, teachers spend less time sorting out problems and are more available to attend to the needs of individual children.           

Licensing requirements also ensure that space is organized to provide designated areas for routines such as diaper changing, eating, and napping. For example, when caring for infants, you may need a permanently designated area for cribs. Cots for older children are more likely to be arranged within the general play space and stored safely away at other times. Further, beyond the children’s activity space, regulations may require facilities to organize the available space to provide areas for storage, administrative activities, and relaxation.



To create a child care environment that makes a positive impression and leads to high-quality care, it is not enough to have space alone. It is also necessary to have an appropriate amount of space that has characteristics that increase the likelihood that the children and adults occupying it will be safe and feel comfortable being there. Licensing requirements provide a foundation for creating such an environment. They identify elements of the early childhood environment that shape high-quality experiences in early childhood settings and point to areas for further investigation.



Judith Colbert, Ph.D., is a consultant who specializes in early care and education, especially the regulation of child-care settings. She is the author of several articles, including “Classroom Design and How It Influences Behavior,” which appeared in Earlychildhood NEWS (May/June 1997, Vol. 9, Issue 3).



Licensing Resources

State licensing requirements are available from your state licensing agency. But even if your program is not regulated, your state licensing requirements can still be a good source of information about your early childhood environment. All programs benefit from exploring requirements in other states as well. You can easily access licensing requirements in all 50 states at the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Childcare website at           

Further, since licensing requirements are generally regarded as a foundation for quality, you will find that they serve as a basis for reaching out to other resources that will help you in your ongoing efforts to create a more positive early childhood environment. Major resources include the accreditation criteria of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC),, and the Head Start Program Performance Standards available at


Other Resources to Build With

Caring for Our Children: National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-Of-Home Child Care: Second Edition lists over 600 health and safety practices. Key standards appear in the much briefer Stepping Stones to Using Caring for Our Children. Both Caring for Our Children and Stepping Stones are accessible online from the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care at           

For additional guidance in assessing your child care setting, review the early childhood environment rating scale that is appropriate for the ages of the children you serve. For example, if you provide care for preschoolers, you should consult the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Revised Edition (ECERS-R), by Thelma Harms, Richard M. Clifford and Debby Cryer (1998) available from Teachers College Press.            

When in doubt about the meaning of a specific licensing requirement, or for additional resources and suggestions, consult your state licensing agency.