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Building a Better Preschool

Kids often get drab basements and sterile institutions. But what they really need are windows, outdoor areas, a home-like feeling and places to play, eat and take a nap.


CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Although Bruce Brook is an architect, he never thought about the design of child-care centers until he became a father three years ago. Then, as he and his wife, Laurel, looked for day care for their infant son, they made a sobering discovery: Most centers are not designed at all. Instead, he says, many are simply "thrown together out of whimsy."

Often they are relegated to leftover space in church basements, former schools and office buildings, occupying windowless rooms that give children little exposure to natural light and few opportunities to play outdoors.

So unsatisfactory were the options available to the Concord, N.H., couple that Laurel Brook, an attorney, left her job to care for their son. Bruce Brook began studying the issue and now designs child-care centers professionally.

"There's a critical social need to create environments that allow children to blossom in their early years, when they are learning in a lot of ways more rapidly than at any other point in their life," Brook says.

He serves as an instructor at the Child Care Design Institute, jointly sponsored by Tufts University and Harvard University. For six days recently, 42 child-care professionals, 17 architects and an interior designer gathered for the fifth annual institute seminar, reportedly the only such program in the world. In late July, responding to requests, the institute held its first seminar in the West in Eugene, Ore.

"The child-care center is really becoming the child-rearing habitat of future generations in this country," says Anita Olds, director of the design institute.

The average child in day care, she explains, spends 10 hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. That amounts to something like 12,500 hours by the time a child reaches 5.

"No other country or culture is treating its children the way we are," Olds says. "If you look at other industrialized countries--Germany, France--child care is supported by the government. A lot more money is put in for furniture, or the facility itself or for paying staff."

Olds calls day care "a new building type in search of a model." Budgets are often so limited, she adds, that centers end up as "boxes of space, very bland and predictable. The assumption is that if you just give child-care professionals a clean, well-lighted place, they'll take it from there."

That assumption places an unfair burden on caregivers, says Nancy Adams-Leonard, a consultant for the Child Care Resource Center in Elirya, Ohio. "They may be wonderful, but they can't always make up for what's lacking in the space or the equipment they've been given."

Central to any good design, experts say, is giving children a home-like setting. "Home is their world," Brook says. "But that's lost when the institutional prevails because of lack of resources and minimal design."

Corporate centers, he finds, are often built with the same materials and building standards used elsewhere in the building, resulting in spaces that are "incredibly sterile."

He calls child-care centers "very complicated" to design because of children's varying ages and interests. Rooms must accommodate group activities ("a lot of wet and messy play") plus individual activities, meals and naps.

As one exercise in collaboration, architects and child-care professionals at the design institute divide into teams and design their own ideal centers.

Brook encourages "breaking what are assumed to be the rules, doing that in a way where you can still get a license, but providing the best environment for children you can."

Again and again, the teams emphasize the importance of natural light, especially for infants, who spend more time indoors. One group also includes what it describes as "a lot of interior windows, giving kids the ability to look into other classes." Another designs an infant room that is "acoustically isolated" from other spaces.

One team adds a porch. Brook calls porches "intermediate spaces to outside. You're giving children a different kind of play space. They can even sit there and watch it rain."

Robert Riffel, technical representative for the U.S. Army's child development centers, offers other ideas. Army centers, he says, feature maximum visibility throughout the space so caregivers can monitor children. "And we design parking lots so children don't have to cross traffic lanes."

Yet even professionals can err. "Sometimes architects will over-design a center," says Jonathan Dotson, facility development manager for Bright Horizons in Chicago, which operates 130 employer-based centers. "You don't need to build a lot of color into a facility permanently. Color can come from the children's art."

Adams-Leonard agrees. "Child-care centers tend to be designed for adults, not children," she says. "When parents come in, they can say, 'This looks wonderful.' How easily we can be deceived by 'stuff' and expensive things. Children don't need that stuff. They need dirt and water and contact with real things, such as plants and animals."

Also working against a home-like feeling is the increasing size of centers. The average facility, Brook says, serves nearly 90 children. "You end up inevitably with long corridors," he says.

Olds finds that in centers with more than 65 or 75 children, "the whole program changes. There's a lot less attention given to children." If a center has to accommodate more than 75, she suggests "a campus-style design, with linked facilities under one roof."

Summing up the long-term challenge, Olds says: "It's no longer the case that child-care people can just make do. They have to begin to lobby and exert their professional expertise to insist on quality and better support from society as a whole for the needs of children. When you make do, you stop dreaming. They need to dream and get somebody to respond to that vision and help make it manifest."

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