Classroom Design and Child Development

Enabling Environments and the Child-Centred Approach – Historical Research

One of our most popular blog posts is The Value of Child-Centred Learning for your Early Years Setting and this post is a continuation of that post.

Research into the child-centred approach and the impact of the learning environment on development has been going on for many years. Researchers, teachers and even the Department of Education agree that the research is correct so therefore getting the environment right is a good thing.

Let’s look at the research that has been carried out over the last sixty plus years:

1946: Reggio Emilia – Environment as the third teacher

Loris Malaguzzi starts working with 8 nursery schools in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy immediately after liberation at the end of the Second World War.

Education is often understood as the sole responsibility of parents and teachers. However, Reggio Emilia identifies a 3rd teacher in between child, teacher and parent: the environment. Organisation of this physical environment is crucial to the Reggio Emilia approach. Careful attention is given to not only the organisation of the spaces (niches, more intimate spaces) but also the surfaces (the materials used for floors, walls, ceilings), the perceptual aspects (sound, smell and touch as well as light and colour) and the furnishings and materials that can best respond to the needs for safety and the desire for autonomy expressed by children of this age.


Sybil Kritchevsky and Elizabeth Prescott’s classic analysis of child care settings in the 1960’s led to important observations of how classroom design influences the behaviour of both children and teachers. Based on these observations, Kritchevsky and Prescott showed that teachers can alter the learning environment to achieve new goals or solve existing problems. They also highlighted the importance of tailoring the child care setting to fit the needs and experiences of the children who spend time there.


Thomas G David and Carole Simon Weinstein (1987) pointed out that for infants the environment is the ‘primary medium for learning’.


Researchers continued to explore in detail, how the physical environment influences child development and learning. Their activities showed how classroom design can be used to achieve specific program goals. For example, Alton J. De Long’s team (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 (average age four years, 2 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 suggested 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.

January 2017 Research Report

Department of Education – Study of Early Education & Development

Good Practice in Early Education

The DFE concludes:

‘Underpinning good practice was an ethos that placed the child at the centre of setting practice. Systems and processes were developed with the wellbeing and development of the children in mind and this helped settings maintain focus and avoid distractions that might detract from this focus.’

To promote this child-centred approach to learning in the EYFS, the environment is key. A well organised space with open pathways that clearly lead to activities that offer enough to do enables children to 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.

Badly organised space creates problem areas. These include dead spaces that encourage wandering and unruly behaviour and pathways that lead nowhere or interfere with play already in progress. If a space is poorly organised, children will depend on the teacher for guidance and the teacher’s behaviour becomes directive. Teachers spending a great deal of time directing group behaviour, have less time to assist individual children and children have fewer opportunities to participate in free play.

Changes in classroom design may lead to the desired results. For example, after an appropriate change in the environment children may engage in more free play, exhibit greater self-reliance and develop longer attention spans.

Can We Help?

Are you interested in developing a child-centred approach in your setting? We can help if you’re unsure where to start. We have a passion for helping early years settings create learning environments that help children flourish. We’re happy to make suggestions as to how you can arrange your setting for optimum space and play potential, as well as advising on equipment choices to help maximise your budget and ensure your setting gets the resources it needs.

You can find out more about our complimentary room planning service by clicking HERE.

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