The care we receive from ages zero to five defines our health and happiness later in life, experts tell us.
Now, a growing global movement has recognised that our physical environment plays a big role too. Architects are helping to achieve those healthy environments.
From birth to the age of five, children build the neural pathways that support lifelong learning, says Olivia Harper-Rummens, director of the University of Western Australia Early Learning Centre.
Increasingly, education philosophies such as Reggio Emilia see the environment as the ‘third teacher’ after adults and other children.
Even at six weeks old a baby is learning through the awareness and stimulation of all five senses. Beauty, nature, light and texture set the stage.
When Harper-Rummens started in childcare 20 years ago, the building was simply a venue for all the other activities expected of a childcare centre. “People now recognise that the building and the rooms are just as important as the resources they put into them.”
Today, centre staff encourage risk. “More robust physical play and lots of free space to be able to explore” are developing healthier kids, she says.
Design for healthy kids
One in four children in Australia is overweight or obese. Increased physical activity is essential.
Moving, riding bikes, balancing, climbing and running are crucial to healthy children. Architects and landscape architects trigger this kind of play with the design elements they place outside.
“Put two really interesting pieces of play equipment on opposite ends of an outdoor area and children get a lot of activity from running from one side to the other,” says Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, University Melbourne.
“Studies using accelerometers – motion sensors on children – show a lot more activity depending on the placement of the play equipment,” she says.
Weight-bearing activities like running and jumping develop bone health, among other general health benefits. Preventing over-exposure to the sun is a design consideration, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of encouraging children’s physical activity.
“There is a lot of evidence that people’s exposure to nature is really important,” says Giles-Corti. “Hospital patients exposed to green space recover more quickly and need fewer drugs, for example.”
This idea that nature deprivation affects mental health is shaping childcare architecture. Design that brings green spaces inside or focuses on outdoor areas gets children interacting with nature.
Giles-Corti encourages design-thinking that impacts the neighbourhood too. She suggests planners avoid locating a childcare centre on a busy road. “Air pollution is damaging to health. People who live within 300 metres of busy roads are more likely to have respiratory problems like asthma. And pollution is a risk factor of cardiovascular disease.”
Develop parking facilities and buildings with health in mind, she says. “Don’t design for a child to be dropped off in a car. As children get older, people can drop them off by walking.”
Nature, colour and learning by design
“In the bad old days, painters didn’t know any better and used toxic lead paint in childcare centres,” says James Edwards, architect and director at Hames Sharley. These days there are many choices of construction materials that avoid health risks.
“We can use new products that don’t give off harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs),” Edwards says. “Low-VOC paint and floor finishes don’t have harmful agents and toxins in them – they produce a healthier environment for staff and children.”
The colours we choose help establish a healthy environment with an appropriate level of stimulus for activities. Access to natural lighting, views and fresh air also create a healthier environment for learning.
“Creating a diverse play area with real grass, real plants and some degree of natural but controlled risk is important to a child’s healthy development,” Edwards says. “Ensure there is lots of natural light in the building. Provide external spaces that incorporate changing gradients and challenges: a lot of little mounds, for example, will help children to develop motor skills.”
Balancing beams, and musical devices built into play equipment add to the learning experience.
Planters with edible plants, rainwater tanks and open-plan kitchens all help children understand the importance of custodianship, the cycle of food growth and preparation, and they encourage healthy and responsible habits.
Safe to explore
Childcare centres are increasingly on high safety alert. It’s tricky to create safe walls around play spaces without them looking like a fortress.
“We must provide a safe and secure environment but it must also be an appealing one for children and staff,” says Edwards. Secure walls can be used for outdoor painting, hanging musical devices on and training plants over. Innovations like ‘grown cubbies’ have proven very successful and can be used in conjunction with secure perimeter walls.
A ‘grown cubby’ is an open framework with climbing and trailing plants planted around it. It can be built next to a blank wall to create an imaginative play space. The plants quickly take over the framework, creating a green ‘igloo’ with a doorway that lets staff keep an eye on things. Edwards says: “You can achieve similar effects with planted bamboo. Bamboo grows quickly, is resilient and children can push into it and create their own little secret spaces within.”
Research shows that kids need nature, stimulation and safety to stay healthy. Today, designers are working ever more creatively with early learning experts. There are risks we need for healthy development in our kids, and there are risks we need to avoid.
Design thinking is putting the adventure back into children’s play.