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Classroom Design and How it Influences Behavior
By Judith Colbert

Early childhood classrooms serve as the physical environment for adults and young children for most of their waking hours. Although it is important for classrooms to be attractive to the eye, it is equally, if not more important, that they function effectively.

Your child care environment influences how you feel about yourself and your job, and how you as an early childhood professional relate to the children in your care. The children in your care experience the environment indirectly through interactions with you and directly through their own experience with the physical setting.

Play Units and Behavior
The roots of current beliefs about relationships between individuals and early childhood environments lie in the work of Sybil Kritchevsky and Elizabeth Prescott (1969), whose classic analysis of child care settings in the 1960s led to important observations of the influence of classroom design on the behavior of both children and teachers. Based on these observations, Kritchevsky and Prescott show how teachers can alter the environment to achieve new goals or solve existing problems. They also highlight the importance of tailoring the child care setting to fit the needs and experiences of the children who spend time there.


In their analysis, Kritchevsky and Prescott identify play units which they assess in relation to complexity, variety, and amount to do.


Complexity and variety provide measures of interest and help teachers determine how long children can be expected to play. Complexity relates to a play unit's potential for manipulation and change by the children. Variety refers to differences in the types of activity that a play unit permits (e.g., climbing, crawling). Amount to do relates to the number of choices that a particular play unit provides for children. With respect to complexity, Kritchevsky and Prescott describe three types of play units:


·        simple play units—with one obvious use and without subparts or juxtaposed materials: for example, a swing or tricycle.


·        complex play units —with subparts-two different play materials juxtaposed to enable a child to manipulate or improvise: for example, a housekeeping area with supplies. Single play materials that encourage substantial improvisation or have elements of unpredictability are also considered to be complex play units-for instance, a table with books.


·        super play units—a complex unit with one or more additional play materials – for example, a dough table with tools.


Although each type provides particular benefits, a play unit can also be a source of problems. Simple units may not hold the children's attention for long, leading to difficult behavior and the need for teacher intervention. Complex units may require more time than teachers can provide, causing children to become frustrated and disappointed.

A Well-Organized Space
When space is well-organized, with open pathways that clearly lead to activities that offer enough to do, children manage on their own. They can move freely from one activity to another, giving the teacher an opportunity to attend to individual children according to their needs.

Space that is not well-organized creates problem areas. These include dead spaces that encourage wandering and unruly behavior, and pathways that lead nowhere or interfere with play already in progress. When space is poorly organized, children depend on the teacher for guidance and the teacher's behavior becomes directive. When teachers spend a great deal of time directing group behavior, they have less time to assist individual children and children have fewer opportunities to participate in free play.

The setting can be a major barrier to the achievement of teacher goals, including the goals teachers set for the children in their care. When these goals seem out of reach, changes in classroom design may lead to the desired results. For example, after an appropriate change in the environment such as the addition of a complex or super play unit, children may engage in more free play, exhibit greater self-reliance, or develop longer attention spans.

Teacher Involvement
The setting can also cause teachers unknowingly to adopt inappropriate goals. A teacher may choose to behave in a directive manner that encourages the children to focus on the teacher, not because the children need to learn to pay attention, but because factors in the environment are preventing them from becoming self-reliant. In such circumstances, rather than adopting an inappropriate goal, the teacher should try changing the environment so that a preferred goal can be achieved. For example, when the classroom is rearranged to replace dead space with clearly accessible activities that hold the children's interest and provide enough for them to do, the children will be able to proceed without help from the teacher. The two figures featured in this article illustrate how a classroom can be reorganized to eliminate dead space.


Each situation is different and calls for the development of specific goals. Before you adopt your goals, assess your situation carefully and consider the following:


·        the needs and past experience of the children in your care

·        the design of your classroom

·        known relationships between those two factors.

Goals that are appropriate in one situation may be unsuitable in others. For example, when children need to learn to pay attention to adults, teachers may choose to behave in a directive manner. They may deliberately limit the number of play opportunities available to the children and organize the space so that it does not encourage children to go off on their own or detract attention from themselves in their role as teacher.

Similarly, in today's increasingly multicultural communities, children come to early childhood settings from diverse backgrounds, with a variety of cultural preferences in relation to their physical environment. Children who have experienced warm family cultures may be able to play without conflict-and indeed may prefer to play-in small spaces that are likely to produce a high level of conflict in children from other backgrounds.

Classroom Design and Child Development—Historical Research
In detailed studies of very specific interactions between young children and their child care environment, later researchers have confirmed Kritchevsky and Prescott's early observations. As a result, it is now generally accepted that space and its arrangement have a far-reaching influence on child development.

For young children, in particular, the influence of the physical setting may be profound. Thomas G. David and Carol Simon Weinstein (1987) point out that for infants, the environment is the "primary medium for learning." Further, they suggest that attachments to beloved places and objects are "central to the emotional life of the young child." They also agree with Elizabeth Prescott (1987) that childhood places provide memories that continue to be significant throughout adult life.

David and Weinstein (1987) introduce their collection of papers on what they call the "built environment" by expressing their firmly held beliefs that the developmental process can be influenced by characteristics of the physical setting; and systematic knowledge about children and their interaction with the built environment can be used to improve the design of children's settings. The extent to which the developmental process and the environment can be linked is apparent in Weinstein's chapter which provides a review of literature and design recommendations in relation to ten developmental goals. These goals include the following:

·         self-esteem

·         security and comfort

·         self-control

·         peer interaction and pro-social behavior

·         sex role identification

·         symbolic expression

·         logical thought: putting things into relation

·         creativity and problem-solving activity

·         attention span and task-involvement

·         motor development

Classroom Design and Learning—Current Research
In the 1990s researchers are continuing to explore in detail how the physical environment influences child development and learning. Their activities relate to the work that you do because they show how you can use classroom design to achieve specific program goals.

For example, Alton J. De Long et al. (1994) discovered that by changing children's sense of space they changed their sense of time. To carry out their experiment, the authors constructed, within a natural classroom, a scale-reduced structure that resembled a child-sized, portable, screened-in porch. They discovered that when children (mean age four years, two months) played in this scale-reduced structure, they entered complex play faster and spent more time in complex play than when they played in the natural classroom. Although the experimental sample was small, these findings suggest that you may be able to increase children's attention spans and help them process information more quickly by altering the scale of their learning environment.

Similarly, Petrakos and Howe (1996) report that the physical design of equipment and toys influences children's play. They cite research supporting the idea that the physical arrangement of the play setting can directly influence the types of children's play, and that the introduction of novel themes and equipment in dramatic play centers stimulates more sophisticated group and dramatic play interactions (for example, Howe et al., 1993).

To carry out their study, they observed four- and five-year-olds in a "traditional" housekeeping center and in two "extended" centers (super play units) on housekeeping and train station themes designed specifically for the experiment. The traditional housekeeping unit accommodated group play, while the four extended centers, two for each theme, were arranged in solitary (for example, one chair at a table, one seat on the train) and group designs (for example, two or more chairs around a table, two seats on the train).

At the end of their study, the researchers determined that the solitary centers facilitated more solitary play and the group centers facilitated more group play interactions. They also discovered that the children's play was more imaginative in the extended units and in a follow-up session in the traditional unit. They concluded that traditional thematic play centers and structured play materials may limit play choices, while less realistic materials are more likely to foster more creative and imaginative play.

For example, they suggest that teachers can encourage more imaginative play by providing "an all-purpose vehicle" like a box with a control panel, rather than a "specifically designated" bus or mail truck. By formulating specific goals (such as to encourage imaginative play), and designing the environment to achieve those goals (providing less realistic materials), teachers influence the content of children's play and children adopt a wider variety of roles. This research confirms that by reorganizing your early childhood environment, you can influence what happens there.

Classroom Design and Educational Philosophy
The idea that the physical environment influences what is learned is not new. Joseph Schwab (1973), a modern pioneer in curriculum studies, was firm in his belief that curriculum makers should consider four elements of equal rank: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu (i.e., the environment).

With respect to early childhood settings, Judith Seaver and Carol Cartwright (1986) provide examples of direct links between classroom design and activities based on curriculum plans that reflect specific educational philosophies. In their view, "the environmental setup should be determined from theoretical principles and connected to the daily schedule of activities." They discuss environmental design in relation to programs arising from three educational philosophies. These philosophies are:

·         maturationist-focusing on topics and experiences through "informal, incidental, and unstructured activities."


·         behaviorist-focusing on topics and skills through "formal, planned, and structured activities."


·         cognitive-focusing on skills and experiences through "informal, structured, and unstructured activities."

In maturationist programs physical arrangements are designed "to enhance children's sense of freedom and mobility." As a result, all materials are displayed and are easily accessible. Children have opportunities to be in contact with a spacious environment that includes clearly marked activity areas that are easily seen and connected by pathways.

In contrast, in behaviorist programs "the setting is clean, orderly, uncluttered, and suitable for focused work." Teachers regulate what materials are available and materials are not usually accessible to the children. The classroom is arranged to "focus attention and avoid conflicts and distractions." The structure is closed and pathways direct children to specific activities. These activities are separated from each other by dividers that provide for privacy and both group and individual work as well as time-out.

In cognitive programs, activity areas are "a blend of the open maturation areas and the more formal restricted work areas of a behaviorist program." These areas are defined carefully to demonstrate orderly relationships, and are changed gradually, to give children opportunities for coping with change. To avoid confusion and competition teachers select materials, although storage is nearby and children may choose from the items the teacher has selected. Pathways permit children to move about "with a sense of purpose," although access to some activities is controlled and teachers are present to provide guidance and stimulation.

By linking classroom design to educational philosophies, Seaver and Cartwright (1986) challenge teachers to incorporate environmental considerations into their most fundamental thinking about what happens in their classroom. They illustrate, in a practical way, how Schwab's (1973) four elements—the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu—can be integrated to provide an effective early childhood curriculum.

Links between design and philosophy provide a theoretical framework for understanding the more specific interactions that continue to be a focus for research activity, including interactions between the environment, child behavior and development, and teacher goals. Such links also serve as clues to ways of extending your knowledge of environmental influences into other aspects of your programs.

For example, you may broaden an association between the organization of your classroom and your own directive teacher behavior by linking it to behaviorist educational philosophy. With that link, you acquire a context for assessing other aspects of your program, including your teacher goals and the needs of the children in your care. If you discover that a behaviorist approach to classroom design is helpful for encouraging children to pay attention to you in a particular environment, a similar approach may be effective when you help a child to perform a specific task.

On the other hand, links between design and philosophy may arise more from theory than an objective consideration of what is required in the circumstances. Your decision to adopt directive or nondirective behavior may stem from your philosophical belief that one behavior is preferable to another, rather than from needs observed in the children in your care or elements in your environment. When your classroom design seems problematic, check to see whether it is more a reflection of your own educational philosophy than a true response to the situation.

Working With Professionals
When building a new space, you will have to work with a builder or architect (if the space is being designed professionally). Sara Elizabeth Caples (1996), an architect with experience in the design of early childhood settings, advises all teachers to consult frequently during the design process to ensure that the architect fully understands the center's philosophy, goals, and operations. Like Kritchevsky and Prescott (1969), Caples (1996) suggests that you try out different layout ideas by creating a "paper doll kit," either by yourself or with the help of others such as a high-school drafting class.

Louis Torelli and Charles Durrett (1996), principals in a child care facility design firm, note that in addition to drawing a layout, it is helpful to create "a formal and deliberate written program for the space" that can be used as a basis for later evaluation as well as during the design and construction process.

Seaver and Cartwright focus on the ongoing reorganization of classroom space. They advise you to make multiple copies of room layouts as well as lists of the activities you have planned. They suggest that you use these layouts to plot room arrangements for each activity. They recommend that you use these layouts on a daily basis to determine how to arrange the room at any given time, taking into account all of the activities scheduled for all of the children for that particular time.

Ultimately, ideas about classroom design must be translated into concrete reality. Knowledge and advance planning will help you explore possibilities, avoid costly and time-consuming errors, and provide an objective basis for future evaluation.

Ten Steps to More Effective Classroom Design

1.       Think about your philosophy of education and teacher goals.


2.       Consider how your philosophy and goals relate to the space that is available and the activities that take place there.


3.       Assess the children in your care and identify their particular developmental needs. Find out as much as you can about the nature of the space that is familiar to them in other settings and the kind of interactions they are accustomed to.


4.       If you are working with an existing setting, observe children and staff in that setting. Make notes about what appears to work well and what does not work well there. Look for checklists, like the ones provided by Kritchevsky and Prescott (1969, 49-50), that may help you evaluate what you see.


5.       Take advantage of as many available resources as possible. Read what you can; become familiar with recommendations for the best possible use of space as well as regulatory requirements; visit other centers; and discuss proposed changes with others, including fellow staff and your builder or architect (if appropriate).


6.       Make a "paper doll kit" and move the pieces around, keeping in mind what you have learned, the goals you have set for yourself, and what you expect to happen there. Write down your thoughts about how your classroom should be designed and the effects your changes should have.


7.       Reorganize your room and change your teacher behavior accordingly.


8.       Observe the effects of the changes you have made and decide whether your goals have been achieved.


9.       Make further changes based on your observations.


10.   Begin the cycle again by considering whether your educational philosophy and goals are still appropriate in view of your current situation.


There is definitely more to classroom design than meets the eye. A pleasing appearance is of secondary importance to how a design functions in a given situation. Since the 1960s, researchers have identified links between the physical environment and the behavior of both children and teachers. In the 1990s, research continues into how changes in the environment influence child development and what is learned in classroom settings. When observations of what happens in a particular environment are combined with knowledge of educational philosophy, the physical environment takes its place with other program elements as a full participant in early childhood curriculum. Although some alterations are more permanent than others, classroom design is ultimately a tool whose flexibility can be enhanced through planning and modeling before actual change occurs.

Judith Colbert, Ph.D., is a child care consultant and training specialist with a particular interest in regulatory, administrative, and curriculum issues. She is the author of the training program Better Care for Children: Regulations and Standards.

Caples, S.E. (1996). Some guidelines for preschool design. Young Children, 51(4), 14-21.


David, T.G. & Weinstein, C.S. (1987). The built environment and children's development. In

Weinstein, C.S. & David, T.G. (Eds.), Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum Press.


DeLong, A.J.; Tegano, D.W.; Moran, J.D. III; Brickey, J.; Morrow, D.; & Houser, T.L. (1994). Effects of spacial scale on cognitive play in preschool children. Early Education and Development, 5, 237-246.


Howe, N.; Moller, L; Chambers, B.; & Petrakos, H. (1993). The ecology of dramatic play centers and children's social and cognitive play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 8, 235-251.


Kritchevsky, S. & Prescott, E. with Walling, L. (1969). Physical Space: Planning Environments for Young Children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Petrakos, H. & Howe, N. (1996). The influence of the physical design of the dramatic play center on children's play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 11, 63-77.


Prescott, E. (1987). The environment as organizer of intent in child-care settings. In Weinstein, C.S. & David, T.G. (Eds.), Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum Press.


Schwab, J.J. (1973). The practical 3: Translation into curriculum. School Review, 508-509.


Seaver, J.W. & Cartwright, C.A. (1986). Child Care Administration. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.


Torelli, L. & Durrett, C. (1996). Landscape for learning: The impact of classroom design on infants and toddlers. Earlychildhood NEWS, 8(2), 12-17.


Weinstein, C.S. (1987). Designing preschool classrooms to support development: Research and reflection. In Weinstein, C.S. & David, T.G. (Eds.), Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum Press.

Other Resources
Kritchevsky, S. & Prescott, E. with Walling, L. (1969). Physical Space: Planning Environments for Young Children. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
This book is still in print and provides a good beginning for learning more about indoor and outdoor environments. Other researchers have used the concepts explained here as a basis for their work, while Lee Walling's case study provides a model for classroom teachers. The style is friendly and accessible.

Vergeront, J. (1987). Places and Spaces for Preschool and Primary (Indoors). Washington, DC: NAEYC.
This book, which is also still in print, provides practical advice, with illustrations, for improving classroom design. Once again, the style is friendly and accessible. A companion book is available on the outdoor environment.

Weinstein, C.S. & David, T.G. (Eds.). (1987). Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum Press.
This collection of papers provides a good survey of ideas about several aspects of the early childhood environment.

Seaver, J.W. & Cartwright, C.A. (1986).Child Care Administration. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
Chapter 4, "Environmental Design," includes detailed information about the relationship between environmental design and three educational philosophies. Illustrations focus on the setup of the facility, the management of groups and individuals, and time schedules for activity blocks.