Physical Environment

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1991) lists the criteria devised by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs for evaluating an appropriate physical environment for early childhood programs:

"Goal: The indoor and outdoor physical environment fosters optimal growth and development through opportunities for exploration and learning.
Rationale: The physical environment affects the behavior and development of the people, both children and adults, who live and work in it. The quality of the physical space and materials provided affects the level of involvement of the children and the quality of interaction between adults and children. The amount, arrangement, and use of space, both indoors and outdoors, are to be evaluated.
G-1. The indoor and outdoor environments are safe, clean, attractive, and spacious. There is a minimum of 35 square feet of usable playroom floor space indoors per child and a minimum of 75 square feet of play space outdoors per child. Program staff have access to the designated space in sufficient time to prepare the environment before children arrive.
Limited indoor space may be offset by sheltered outdoor space where climate permits reliance on outdoor space for activities often conducted indoors. Limited outdoor space may be offset by a greater amount of indoor space (such as a gym) that permits an equivalent activity program. Space requirements are stated as minimums. More space than the minimum is preferred, although too much space can be a problem if not properly arranged. The key word is usable--space that is used for permanent storage should not be measured when assessing the amount of space. The required amount of outdoor space is indicated by the number of children using the space at one time. Use of outdoor space should be scheduled to allow for enough space and also to prevent competition among age groups. Very young children should have separate time or space outdoors. Observation of interactions between children and involvement of children in activity are good indicators of whether sufficient space is available. When space is shared with other programs or organizations, prior access for staff preparation is critical. The environment should be attractive, colorful, and have children's work and other pictures displayed at children's eye level....
G-2. Activity areas are defined clearly by spatial arrangement. Space is arranged so that children can work individually, together in small groups, or in a large group. Space is arranged to provide clear pathways for children to move from one area to another and to minimize distractions.
The arrangement of space is as important as the amount. Children should be able to move freely from one activity to another without unduly disturbing others. Activity areas should be divided so that children in one area are not distracted by those in other areas. Well-organized space invites desired behaviors and facilitates positive interaction between people and active involvement with materials.
G-3. The space for toddlers and preschool children is arranged to facilitate a variety of small group and/or individual activities, including block building, sociodramatic play, art, music, science, math, manipulatives, and quiet book reading. Other activities such as sand/water play and woodworking also are available on occasion. Carpeted space as well as hard surfaces such as wood floors and ample crawling/toddling areas are provided for infants and nonwalkers. Sturdy furniture is provided so nonwalkers can pull themselves up or balance themselves while walking. School-age children are provided separate space arranged to facilitate a variety of age-appropriate activities and permit sustained work on projects.
This criterion refers to activities rather than areas of the room. For example, science and math are activities; they are not limited to parts of the room, although the room should be arranged so that they do occur. Block building, sociodramatic play, and book reading are facilitated by separate areas. Art and cooking projects that are messy should be near a source of water. School-age children must have a separate space.
G-4. Age-appropriate materials and equipment of sufficient quantity, variety, and durability are readily accessible to children and arranged on low, open shelves to promote independent use by children. Materials are rotated and adapted to maintain children's interest.
Materials and equipment are evaluated on several levels. A variety of equipment is needed as well as appropriate kinds. All age groups need active play equipment, materials that stimulate the senses, construction materials, manipulative toys, dramatic play equipment, art materials, and books and records.... Children are more likely to use materials constructively and creatively if materials are accessible to them, organized to promote independent use, and periodically changed to provide variety.
G-5. Individual spaces for children to hang their clothing and store their personal belongings are provided.
Personal storage space may be provided in a variety of ways, but children and adults should have individual spaces for storing personal belongings that are easily identified.
G-6. Private areas are available indoors and outdoors for children to have solitude.
Children who spend long periods of time in group settings need opportunities for privacy and solitude. Such provision can be made by environmental arrangement and planning, both indoors and outdoors. These areas should be easily supervised by adults. Privacy can be provided by using equipment such as tunnels and playhouses, or small enclosed spaces in room arrangements.
G-7. The environment includes soft elements such as rugs, cushions, or rocking chairs.
Softness can be provided in many ways--cozy furniture such as rockers and pillows; carpeting; grass outdoors; adults who cuddle children on their laps; and soft materials such as play dough, water, sand, and finger paints.
G-8. Sound-absorbing materials are used to cut down on excessive noise.
Noise is to be expected and even desired in environments for children. The purpose of this criterion is not to eliminate nose. Acoustical building materials, strategically placed carpets, and other similar sound-absorbing materials can be very effective in minimizing excessive noise and enhancing the quality of the living environment for both children and adults. Excessive environmental noise can be fatiguing and cause stress.
G-9. The outdoor area includes a variety of surfaces, such as soil, sand, grass, hills, flat sections, and hard areas for wheel toys. The outdoor area includes shade; open space; digging space; and a variety of equipment for riding, climbing, balancing, and individual play. The outdoor area is protected by fences or natural barriers from access to streets or other dangers.
Outdoor areas will vary depending on geographic location. This criterion emphasizes that a variety of types of surface and equipment be provided. While hills and shade are not always available, the environment can sometimes be supplemented with other materials such as awnings, inclines, or ramps. The outdoor area must be fenced or protected by natural barriers from streets and other dangerous areas. The criterion implies that an outdoor play space must be provided or arranged, such as pre-arranged use of a neighboring community or school playground." (pp. 43-46)

Reprinted with permission from Accreditation Criteria and Procedures of the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1991, Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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