Kindergarten Design: Buildings That Encourage Development

Pedagogical traditions seem to be very interested in the effects that environmental factors have on (small) people.  Over a century ago, some models like Montessori and Waldorf, which have influenced mainstream kindergarten practice as well, started promoting the idea that a great deal of attention should be put into the fabrics, the materials,  the colors and  the overall organization of spaces for children.


Fuji kindergarten exterior; photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia

Since I work in a kindergarten as a psychologist one day a week, I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the psychology of spaces for children. Our small kindergarten was about to get a budget-friendly makeover and we were all asked for opinions. I spent a lot of time looking for research-based guidelines for kindergarten design, as well as coordinating everyone’s personal preferences. Here I would like to share some of the findings, and  some inspiring examples and other resources I found.



Kindergarten interior; photo by Paebi

1. The quality of the physical environment is related to related to children’s perception of their competency (Maxwell, 2007)

Three- and four-year-olds’ self-perceptions of their competence were higher in classrooms with good adjacency features (e.g., compatible activity areas next to each other and good access by children to gross motor play areas and toileting facilities).


Kindergarten classroom design board; photo by Stephanie Richard

2. There is a decrease of children’s cortisol levels in response to certain organizational factors in kindergarten: children were less stressed in smaller groups and groups with less of an age difference, and when there were more caregivers per child (Legendre, 2003). It might be useful to note that when one wants to make the most of all the potential benefits of mixed-age kindergarten groups,  they may need to form smaller groups in order to compensate for the possible challenges of such an arrangement.

De Kleine Kikker

De Kleine Kikker (A small frog), Utrecht;  photo by Wojtek Gurak

3. Wall colors and ceiling height can be used to promote cooperation among children (Read, 1999). In this study children demonstrated more cooperative behavior in the space with one red wall or a lowered/differentiated  ceiling (related to the size of children) than in the space with all white walls and a standard height ceiling. However, author suggests to avoid using both strategies within a space used by preschool children, as the combination may be overwhelming and reduce cooperation. The author, Marilyn Read, also works as a consultant for children’s spaces at  Design for Children  where you can learn more about her research and its application.


Plaza Ecopolis, Madrid; photo by Mark Bentley

4. Spacial arrangement of furniture affects children’s behavior (Legendre,1999; Campos de Carvahlo, 2004.). Research on toddlers (Legendre, 1999.) revealed that it’s very important for children to see the caregiver, due to the attachment behavior typical of this age group. For older children, however, the number of  special activity play areas per child was important in order to encourage constructive play (as opposed to off-task behaviors such as staring off, watching without joining others’ play of disrupting others), and children preferred when those zones were circumscribed using shelves (Kantrowitz and Evans, 2004; Campos de Carvahlo, 2004).


Playroom in Oregon; photo by Nicholas Wang

 5. In these publications you can find a lot of design guidelines and ideas for children’s spaces based on research:

Landscape and Child Environment. A Design Guide for Early Years – Kindergarten Play – Learning Environments (2013) Evergreen.

Community-Based Child Care Settings. by Lorraine E. Maxwell and Gary W. Evans. Implications – A newsletter by InformeDesign

Design for Development: The Importance of Childern’s Environments Implications – A newsletter by InformeDesign

Cognitive Development of Children Implications – A newsletter by InformeDesign


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 Fuji Kinergarten interior; photo by scarletgreen and exterior; photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia

6. And here are some inspiring examples of Kindergarten design:

A Collection of Exemplary Design of Kindergarten Facilities (2010), a project commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Japan

The Architecture of Early Childhood –  a great site with many pictures of newly-build kindergartens and other childeren’s spaces and items from around the world

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 The Architecture of Early Childhood 


Legendre, A. (2009) Interindividual Relationships in Groups on Young Children and Susceptibility to an Environmental Constraint. Environment and Behavior, 31, 4, 463-486.

Legendre, A. (2003) Environmental Features Influencing Toddlers’ Bioemotional Reactions in Day Care Centers. Environment and Behavior, 39, 4, 523-549.

Maxwell, L.E. (2007) Competency in Child Care Settings: The Role of the Physical Environment. Environment and Behavior, 39, 2, 229-245.

Read, M.A., Sugawara, A.I. and Brandt, J.A. (1999) Impact of Space and Color in the Physical Environment on Preschool Children’s Cooperative Behavior. Environment and Behavior, 31, 3, 413-428.

Campos-de-Carvahlo, M. (2004) Use of Space by Children in Day Care Centers. Revista de Etologia, 6, 1, 41-48. (link)

Kantrowitz, E.J.,  Evans, G.W. (2004)  The Relation Between the Ratio of Children Per Activity Area and Off-Task Behavior and Type of Play in Day Care Centers. Environment and Behavior, 36, 4, 541-557.



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