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The Ultimate Early Ed Blueprint

Creating an ideal early childhood education space in your school district is a no-brainer, once you

Moreland Hills Elementary School in Pepper Pike, Ohio, and Anderson County Early Childhood Center in Lawrenceburg, Ky., are just 352 miles apart as interstates go. Their preschool facility projects, however, are worlds apart financially.

Thanks to a bond issue, Moreland Hills spent $14 million on a new two-story building in August 2001 to house all of its students, including those in Orange City Schools' pre-K program. Educators here enjoy a voice, video and data port phone at every teacher station, while the preschoolers in the suburban Cleveland district look forward to outdoor time on their own specially designed playground.

"It's not the school's or the teacher's room. It's a child's environment so the space needs to invite a three-year-old."
-Jennifer Sibbert Kappas, early childhood specialist, Wood Designs

Anderson's conversion from middle school to stand-alone preschool had a much smaller funding pot. "I didn't realize what I'd gotten myself into when the administrators said, 'Here's 200 keys for you--figure out where they go and have fun!' " recalls Principal Melissa Monts. The school board in the district, which is located in secluded horse country between Louisville and Lexington, was supportive. But keeping costs down was essential.

Rather than gutting the metal solders lining the walls in favor of new, appropriately sized cubbies, the school had plywood boards installed at knee height in the existing lockers. Still, the program has grown from 275 students to 550, with parents signing up their kids at birth for the privilege to attend.

Both schools offer viable learning spaces, thanks to administrators' attention to architectural design elements. And both find themselves deftly surfing the waves of change that are crashing down on the American school system, as districts move from K-12 to pre-K-12.

According to a 2003 National Center for Education Statistics report, 35 percent of public elementary schools offered pre-kindergarten classes during the 2000-2001 school year. Parents are more likely to find pre-K programs in city schools than in suburban or rural schools.

Yet, not all districts are jumping on the pre-K bandwagon. "Some administrators are wary, thinking they can hold off on adding [a] program," notes Jennifer Sibbert Kappas, early childhood specialist for Wood Designs in Monroe, N.C. Her pulse on the industry shows the fever for Head Start is slowly ebbing, however, to be replaced by--you guessed it--public preschool classes.

Although some pundits warn that districts eventually will need to adapt to include infants and toddlers as well, today's thrust remains on the three- and four-year-old munchkins. When NCES conducted its survey, 20 percent of pre-K students in public school programs were age three, 68 percent had celebrated their fourth birthdays and 9 percent were as old as five. Only a scant 3 percent fell into the "younger than three" category.

Variety reigns, however, when school boards debate how to build these early childhood centers. Architects insist it makes little difference whether they're asked to design a stand-alone facility, add to an existing elementary school or renovate an empty structure.

Still, there are building issues for administrators to weigh. For instance, stand-alone structures might translate to more expensive travel budgets for larger districts who have to bus from all over to reach these centralized facilities, points out John G. Willi, director of design research for Dublin, Ohio's Fanning/Howey Associates.

Integrated pre-K spaces also offer more flexibility. "School districts can't always predict what the population will be. When you choose a stand-alone center, you have to use it efficiently, [while] existing elementary schools sometimes can offer interchangeable classrooms," says Vcevy Strekalovsky, principal with Strekalovsky Hoit Raymond in Hingham, Mass. "Typically the stand-alone pre-K programs we see are not the ones required to take all residents. They can control their growth."

Moreland Hills can testify to the pre-K-for-all trap. "It was the Field of Dreams' 'build-it-and-they-will-come' syndrome," says Orange City superintendent Dan Lukich, who saw the population of the district's single elementary school explode by 100 kids in the last two years. Prior to the recent preschool building construction project, enrollment had been steady for seven years.

The school's 1,100-student capacity is no longer enough. "Enlarging Moreland Hills is out of the question. We're considering a separate pre-K building on the same campus," Lukich says.

Superintendent Michael Janelli of Wrentham (Mass.) Public Schools incorporated both of their pre-K programs into the Delaney Elementary School last September. One advantage of the set-up: Students and educators can take advantage of counseling and other specialties already on the town's 65-acre school campus. And, Janelli adds, "Many of the children have older siblings here, so it makes for an easy transition from home. They feel like part of one big educational family."

The Anderson County parent reaction was different. They balked when Monts asked if they wanted to move forward with the district's original plans to build an incorporated school. Keeping pre-K in one building seemed safer to parents, she says. "They define this as a family atmosphere."

Basic Needs

Whether a facility is within a school or it stands alone, one thing is certain: Space matters. Tinier tykes need more of it than their older siblings. While a typical elementary school room is about 900 square feet, kindergarten and pre-K rooms with the same number of students need 1,200 or more square feet, says Strekalovsky. "And they're not just large classrooms. They're more diverse in character from one corner to the other."

Maximizing the room structure and equipment wields enormous educational power. This means understanding that children learn through active exploration. Freedom to roam the classroom environment tickles the curiosity to learn.

Contrary to popular belief, primary colors don't make the ideal backdrop.

An infant's 3 trillion brain cells need to be connected through repeated experiences, says Elsbeth Brown, a research professor at University of South Carolina's Institute for Families in Society. Three years after first encountering a ball, for instance, a child still needs to throw, bounce and sit on it to understand what it is.

"It's not the school's or the teacher's room. It's a child's environment so the space needs to invite a three-year-old," Kappas says.

That welcome starts with the color splashed on the walls. Contrary to popular belief, primary colors don't make the ideal backdrop. Keeping in mind the psychological effect of colors, experts like Ginger Murphy, vice president of merchandising and product development at Childcraft, recommend using splashes of Crayola hues only on peripherals like storage crates or paper trays.

And don't shy from pastels' soothing message, Murphy and Kappas agree. Moreland Hills even painted its walls a neutral tone to allow the children's colorful paintings and photographs to pop.

Of course, an effective early childhood learning environment offers more stimuli than the routine paper and crayons. "It's a common mistake to assume the space should be beautiful, cute, with lots of angles and built-ins when the reverse is true," Murphy says.

'Tis more important to fill this classroom with:

Activity centers: Kappas advocates setting up separate areas for blocks, dramatic play, fine motor skill activities (think puzzles, pegs and beads), art, sand and water (a.k.a. a "wet" area), reading and music.

But administrators goof, says Murphy, by arranging these areas into permanent fixtures. Willi agrees that flexibility is the watchword--and it's easy to incorporate. He pulls in 12-foot demountable walls to divide classrooms and makes liberal use of mobile display and storage areas.

"I had a college professor who always said you don't need a shelf to hold up a wall," Kappas says. "When an adult is at the end of a big space, they see a big space. [Children see] shelving against the wall and they interpret it as a big racetrack where they can get crazy. Use your furniture to establish control."

Just be careful to split opposite stimulations. Instead, Kappas suggests layering your activities. Try putting the fine motor skills space between a quiet reading zone and a loud dramatic play area so that there's a buffer between the sound extremes.

Storage: Collecting possessions begins at birth, so each child needs a place to tuck his treasures.

Privacy niches: These areas can be as simple as three-sided boxes or beanbags for tots to crawl into for alone time, or as fancy as an audio center where a child may don headsets and listen to a recorded story. The key lies in permitting individual play.

Food and drink: A 36-month-old child's stomach gets hungry a lot quicker, more often and with more intensity than an adult's. Preschool teachers need a place to prepare snacks and store sippy cups for juice.

Elizabeth Public Schools in New Jersey is installing water fountains into its three stand-alone early childhood centers, reports superintendent Tom Dunn Jr. They'll also be installed in the incorporated pre-K programs planned for 30 new elementary buildings in the next 10 years.

Fine-Tuning the Perfect Design

The best-laid plans can't whitewash a world where children don't physically fit. Early childhood centers should go beyond merely miniaturizing, Willi advises clients. Consider scale as well.

For example, many districts buy into the philosophy of natural lighting--yet Kappas seldom sees windows placed two feet off the floor so that preschoolers can peer out them. Yes, chairs should allow children's feet to touch the floor, but six-inch legs aren't enough if the backs force kids to scoot back in their seats to get comfortable--and their feet fly up as a result (a common problem with stackable chairs).

Shelving should range from 30 to 36 inches off the floor to give differently sized children the option to choose materials at their eye level. Ditto for tables. Murphy suggests selecting several sizes.

Most administrators know to put bathrooms in the pre-K classroom; communal lavatories in the hallway require more staff to escort and oversee their small fry. It's also a no-brainer to choose smaller toilets to get closer to the ground. The stalls themselves, however, should be wider since youngsters often need an adult's assistance with the complexities of lavatory tasks. Sinks, too, need to sink--children shouldn't have to use a step to reach the water.

In addition, some children in this age group are still in diapers. The average infant changing table in this space won't cut it for their bigger bodies, Willi says.

Lighting should be softer, more diffused, than in elementary classrooms, Brown chimes in. A good designer tones down the average acoustics as well. The sound of chairs scraping across a hard surface irritates and distracts a preschooler more than an elementary student, so controlled reverberation time is needed within these classrooms.

"Anything you can do to reduce tension and make it a relaxing, home-like environment [helps] enhance learning," Willi says. That's why Frances Smith Early Childhood Center in Elizabeth even installed radiant heating on the floor.

Technology touches, like a wireless system built into the speakers and ceiling, allows a teacher to grab instant control of chaos through a small microphone ... or read to 15 little kids wrapped up on the floor and ensure that even the farthest ones can hear the story. "This age group's vocabulary is very limited so when the teacher communicates, she has to articulate every word much more clearly than if she were talking with older kids," Willi explains.

And few administrators would build a pre-K space without computer access--four-year-olds may not have control of their tempers, but they can work a mean mouse.

Finally, don't overlook outdoor play. Dedicated early childhood equipment--such as Moreland Hills' choice of a rubberized play area instead of mulch to soften the blow should kids fall off the swings or slide--addresses safety issues.

Playgrounds can also cater to this age group's individualistic tendencies. "Preschoolers don't engage in team play. They are still self-centered enough to get interested in a blade of grass or flower and sit there looking at it for 20 minutes," says David Soleau, president and CEO of the Boston architectural firm Flansburgh Associates.

No Scrimping Allowed

When it comes to classroom design for older grades, there are lots of options, and different configurations can save money, Janelli says. "But with children just starting in the schooling experience, you can't scrimp. There is no magic--you either do it or you don't."

So a majority of school districts need to fund their pre-K programs through the ubiquitous bond issue. In many places, administrators will let design of a project lead to the amount of the bond issue, says Lukich.

His district tried something different. Rather than appealing to taxpayers to pony up the cost for the Moreland Hills design, Orange City secured the bonds first to give the architects their boundaries. It was the more efficient route, Lukich says.

Educational efficiency is also an aspect of the early childhood education model. "It's money well spent," Dunn says. "The money you invest in programming for kids at ages three and four will clearly pay for itself in better academic achievement, productivity and socialization during the next 13 years. It's actually better than investing in the stock market, if you look at that return."

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind.

Related Information

Side by Side

How does a preschool classroom differ from a kindergarten space? In terms of design, not much, admits architect Vcevy Strekalovsky. But when it comes to materials, start counting the ways:

1. Flooring. Because the preschool crowd feels comfortable parked on their bottoms, they'll need more cushions and area rugs than chairs for reading time or other group activities.

2. Scribble space. Younger kids prefer to scribble more than those sophisticated kindergartners, so early childhood specialist Elsbeth Brown recommends posting marker boards around the perimeter of the pre-K space.

3. Heights. Most preschoolers will need shelving at 30 inches off the floor, as opposed to the 36 inches kindergarteners can typically handle.

4. Nooks and crannies. Preschool teachers must be able to see their charges at all times, so don't expect to find the angles, tunnels and walls that so delight the kindergartner's curiosity present in the pre-K, points out product development expert Ginger Murphy.

Read the Label

You're about to shell out a large chunk of money to secure an expert consult on your pre-K building design--but can you trust the credentials across the table? Yes, if you make sure potential consultants' education has equipped them with theories to back up the practices they push.

Elsbeth Brown of the Institute for Families in Society says to start by being cautious of those who claim a degree in early childhood. This commonly translates to "I've been certified to teach K-4th grade," not that the person has specific training with children under the age of five. A degree in child development, on the other hand, usually certifies the candidate as an expert from birth to six years old.