Early Childhood Education: How To Design With Nature in Mind

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If you’ve ever seen a child playing in and exploring the great outdoors, it won’t surprise you to learn that those experiences are essential to their physical, mental, and emotional development and wellbeing. That’s not our opinion—it’s a well-established fact. And it aligns with what common sense tells you as you watch a child ponder nature’s wonders.

That vital connection is why we work hard to incorporate natural elements into our designs for early childhood educational settings.

Keen Awareness of Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is a critical consideration in architectural design and a concept that takes up at least a chapter in any sustainability certification. Air quality is affected by the mechanical systems used to bring and circulate fresh air into spaces as well as the quality of the materials chosen for the structure, envelope, finishes, and furnishings of these spaces.

Key spaces at Wesleyan Neighborhood Preschool, Greenwich Academy’s Pre-Connecting Building and Friends Center for Children.

We like to expose the mechanical ducting in the schools we design, as this helps teach students (and their parents) about the way we bring properly conditioned, filtered fresh air into spaces. This approach also allows for higher ceilings and more sunlight.

Using natural, nontoxic materials in our designs helps us create healthy spaces that don’t cause or contribute to illnesses or medical conditions. Glue-laminated wood beams and columns, wood windows, and cork floors are good examples.

When choosing materials, we like to keep the palette simple and close to nature, allowing the children’s artwork and playthings to provide the color. Painted hues may sometimes be used on an accent wall, which helps children recognize and relate to their space.

Letting the Light Shine In

Daylighting is the practice of maximizing the availability of sunlight in spaces. More than just making decisions about general building orientations, it’s a complex process that requires sophisticated tools for understanding how the sun tracks at different times of year and assessing window sizes and positions—not to mention the skills and experience to use the tools correctly.

Creating nooks at Wesleyan Neighborhood Preschool, Greenwich Academy’s Pre-Connecting Building and Friends Center for Children.

Bringing natural light into rooms (ideally using floor-to-ceiling, highly-insulated windows) creates a connection to the sun and its movement through the days and seasons. It also allows children to gaze out at nature as their lessons and activities allow. In addition, children often learn—as we saw in our Greenwich Academy design project—that good daylighting means you often don’t always have to turn on artificial lights and can instead rely on sunlight much of the time.

Enhancing the Synergy of Knowledge and Nature

The layout of exterior spaces in early education settings is vital to the overall success of a project. Well-designed outdoor areas generate interest in nature-based activities like gardening. They also make it readily apparent to children how they can engage with nature on their own, from building sandcastles to making music with sticks and other natural “instruments.”

Outdoor play spaces at Wesleyan Neighborhood Preschool, Greenwich Academy’s Pre-Connecting Building and Friends Center for Children.

The most engaging playgrounds and areas within them encourage open-ended play—meaning they allow various types of activities, not just one. They also support individual and group activities that involve everything from vigorous movement to calm introspection.

Our Unique Approach for Embracing Nature in Early Childhood Education Settings

Creating designs that interest and engage young learners is both an art and a science. The science involves materials selection, construction specifications, etc. The art is an ability to see the world from a child’s perspective and understand how to get their attention and pique their curiosity in ways that support an organization’s educational philosophy. That comes only from having completed many early childhood education projects and observing the results firsthand.

Learn More About Patriquin Architects

Check out more of our work in educational settings in project portfolios for Wesleyan Neighborhood Preschool and Friends Center for Children. We’ve also blogged previously about sustainability in an early childhood center, practices for creating sustainable designs, and good classroom design.

If you have questions about our award-winning architectural design services or our firm in general, please contact us at your convenience.