Analysis: The essentials of nursery design

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Countries differ in the premium they put upon the spaces that children have to play and learn, with the UK lagging behind, argues Helen Penn.


Quality is a word that has almost lost its meaning in early childhood services. It has become a formula or a shortcut for saying everything is under control, or even a kind of cynical double-speak, a way of advertising or justifying a project or programme about which there may be grave doubts.

It may be a way of indicating that certain procedures have been followed, as in a quality assurance rating. American psychological research suggests that quality can be reduced to 'structural' variables - items which are easily measurable, such as staff-child ratios, or the number of lavatories or the amount of space per child - and 'process' variables, the more intangible but still measurable relationships which are created between adults and children.

In my new book, Quality in Early Childhood Services: An international perspective, I take a different view on quality. I try to show how governments across the world shape early childhood provision, how the policies they adopt and the standards they introduce make all the difference to young children's everyday experiences. As I put it in the book, by the time we consider an individual setting, '... the story of quality is more than half told. The nurseries are established within a policy and regulatory framework set by the government or local authority. Those who work in nurseries have mostly gone through some form of required training, which, however minimal and unsatisfactory, outlines the skills that are required of them. Their working spaces are shaped by others; unless they are unionised, their pay is non-negotiable (no bonus culture here!)

'In some countries, if not others, they will be working in a very hierarchical environment. There are rules, more or less specific and controlled, about what they can teach or how they can practise and what they are expected to achieve. The children who come to the nursery, their vulnerabilities, their circumstances, the length of their daily stay, how much or how little their parents must pay, these too are beyond the control of ordinary practitioners.'


The book explores the differences in policy and practice between countries. It also explains how international bodies such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Paris), the EU (European Union) and UNICEF have played a role in influencing governments by suggesting policy routes, providing targets and drawing up rating scales and comparative tables.

These international organisations have been very influential, although it is not always easy from the grassroots to understand their impact. But what is clear is that some countries offer young children a much better deal than do others. The UK usually comes near the bottom end of such international ratings, especially in the price that parents pay for childcare.

In this article I focus on just one aspect of quality - the ideas behind the use of space, and the way governments have enacted these ideas. The physical characteristics of a building and the space in which it is located matter to those who work inside them. Young children in nurseries and in other out-of-home settings are also in an important sense 'at work'. Arguably, buildings and spaces matter even more for the young children who must spend part or all of their day in them, perhaps for more hours than the staff.

Features such as the degree of natural light, the ventilation, sympathetic acoustics (no echoes), usable, cleanable and attractive surfaces, texture and colour, adequate storage, doors that can be held open - there is a long list. Even the absence of smell is a bonus (children's lavatories are usually smelly places and having them in a central position and not separated from the work space can be very unpleasant). Nowadays, environmental friendliness is also a major consideration.

But over and above these technical considerations, there is the question of fitness for purpose. What ideas and beliefs do we hold about children's physicality? What do we understand about how children inhabit the built environment, or about their use and appreciation of outside spaces? Across the world there are markedly different interpretations of how children use their bodies and their senses.


Current theories of learning and development incorporated into England's Early Years Foundation Stage give enormous priority to cognitive attributes. Instead of treating the body as a total organism, we have an extraordinary inflated view of the importance of the brain as the central organ. But there is also a strong case to be made that children's mobility and physicality is essential to their sense of themselves, to their very identity, not merely to their learning. So much more is involved in physical well-being than gross motor skills or hand-eye co-ordination.

There are widespread concerns today about children's immobility and obesity. Obesity is recognised as being partly caused by eating too much of the wrong things, in particular processed food. But it is also to do with children being turned into 'couch potatoes'.

Most young children are naturally very active; they run and bob about, they squirm and fidget, they stagger, they touch, they want to walk on the tops of walls and jump off into puddles. Look at any place where young children gather - in a playground, in a school yard, in the street with their parents - and it is no exaggeration to say that most small children are as frisky as young lambs.

To function properly, the body needs to learn how to adapt to all kinds of movement. Muscles develop through regular use. Children need to learn through experience about their physical strengths and limitations. Children need also to learn about how to regulate their bodily temperature, to stir up their circulation, to deal with dirt and physical adversity. Some of this learning may take place unconsciously, but it is real and important learning nevertheless. It is the bodily equivalent of learning how to listen and to speak.

The French sociologist Foucault came up with the insight that in order to control minds, we have first to control bodies. In the case of children, regulating bodily activity and motion is a way of disciplining their minds and shaping them into compliant adults.

Children who are made immobile or whose mobility is limited are easier to control. Despite their need to move being far greater than that of adults, children are often more restricted. Adults can go to the gym or to aerobics classes, or partake in other indoor or outdoor sport, but young children, at least in the UK, may be cooped up all day without a second thought.

Children are under constant surveillance, to make sure they do not abuse or harm the materials they play with, and are not harmed by them. This lack of trust in children - the hyper-risk culture - bodily and mentally restricts children and is the antithesis of approaches which emphasise children's rights.


Many countries have tried to think about young children's physicality and recognise their physical learning. In Finland, for example, it is a requirement of the curriculum that all young children spend at least two hours every day outside, whatever the weather - and most winters are snowy.

In the UK, in the early days of nurseries - indeed, of the nursery school movement in general - the outside space, the freedom to move and the fresh air were regarded as an essential aspect of education for young children. Most nurseries 50 or 60 years ago were built with verandas, a covered space to bridge the gap between inside and outside, especially in poor weather. Nurseries were designed to compensate children who lived in cramped quarters or in flats.

Children's need for exercise and movement was also recognised as a necessary part of the day in ex-Soviet systems. Soviet nurseries routinely had their own swimming pools and dance halls. The new public nursery building programme announced by the mayor of Moscow just last year follows in this tradition - all the new nurseries are to have the same generous facilities.

Even in crowded city centres in China, in kindergartens with very restricted space, there are regular 20-minute intervals of exercise or callisthenics, even for the youngest children. Each child has a marked spot on the playground or roof terrace, where they can perform carefully thought-out exercise routines, designed to improve their circulation and stretch their muscles.

As an example of rather different expectations of children's prowess and stamina, the charity Children in Scotland has translated the booklet Adventures in Nature (Avventure in natura), an account of young children's experiences of abseiling, potholing and white river rafting. These activities are built into the curriculum in some northern Italian nurseries.

The booklet's illustrations show competent young children engaged in sophisticated activities to test their strength and agility. These activities would be almost impossible to arrange, unless there was a facilitative local authority with a lot of money, and the scenery to match! But they do indicate the degree of underestimation of children's physical ability in most circumstances.


Another aspect of working spaces for children is the naturalness of the environment. Richard Louv's evocatively titled book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, is a sentimental but moving account of childhoods spent in rural and wild environments.

He claims that such environments have a particular meaningfulness to children; indeed, their daily lives are impoverished without them. In Louv's view, having the freedom to potter around in the earth, fingering worms, woodlice, spiders, beetles and caterpillars, and foraging for herbs and berries, is infinitely more enriching than playing with manufactured plastic toys.

From seeing nature as being restorative, access to a natural environment is now being seen as a right for children, an endorsement of children's legitimate and heartfelt preferences and interests.

For instance, Brazilian-Italian writer and pedagogue Ginafranco Zavalloni has been pioneering young children's re-engagement with nature. In his book The Pedagogy of the Snail, he describes what he calls 'slow pedagogy', the idea that children can pace themselves outdoors and find many natural things to occupy themselves, at their own learning speed, and with minimal intervention from adults.

He has outlined ten 'natural' rights for children, which include the right to leisure, to get dirty, to appreciate smells, to make things for themselves, to experience night and day and changes in the light, and the right to experience wilderness.


Buildings for children can promote a celebratory view of early childhood and its status in society. Recently, Children in Scotland held an international competition for nursery design, Making Space 2010. Regulations for physical space for young children have been increasingly parsimonious in a number of countries, not just in the UK. So this competition was held to demonstrate what is still possible, even where money is short and space is tight.

The prizes were awarded to buildings and spaces that 'appealed to the senses, that acknowledged the natural world, that encouraged participation in the designing process, that included the children's wider community into the building or space, that paid close attention to the details that matter to children, for example coats storage and toilets, and that allowed for an integrative approach to children's services.'

The winner of the competition was a Japanese nursery, Bubbletecture. But of all the nurseries I have seen, my own favourite building is the Kiefernstrasse Kindergarten in Frankfurt. It is built in the shape of an ocean liner on a long narrow site sandwiched between a motorway and a railway line, in the middle of council housing estate serving a poor immigrant community. It is also a heart-stoppingly original work of art, a beautiful and playful building. It experiments with natural light entering the building at unexpected angles, slopes and levels, and shifting heights and widths to challenge how you see and feel the world. The children can and do go anywhere, at their own pace, even the director's office, and they also have special spaces where no adult can enter!

Kiefernstrasse is an exceptional visual demonstration of how, in a fair society, poverty need not be restrictive; the best can - and should - be available to everyone. (I've come across the opposite view, too: that the poor can't be expected to move too far out of their comfort zone, and a grand building in a poor neighbourhood is an invitation to vandals).

But typically, at least in those countries where there is a substantial private market, many premises in use for young children now are rented or converted, and were not originally intended for children at all. They are buildings from some other activity - shop fronts or industrial units or church halls or terrace houses.

The cramped, ill-lit inside space is frequently modelled on what the distinguished American writer Joseph Tobin has called 'the excesses of the shopping mall' - cheap, bright, standardised toys crowding the space, offering children too many choices between not very well differentiated goods. And for these premises, in the UK, there is no requirement for outside space. Shockingly, it is not a precondition for a nursery caring for young children.


I wrote my book on quality for students and practitioners, to try to give a wider perspective on early childhood provision. But these concerns about quality were brought home to me vividly this week. My daughter is going back to work after maternity leave, and I went with her to try to find a nursery place for ten-month-old Ben. (Ten months would be regarded as far too early in some countries, but the business secretary Vince Cable has just withdrawn the UK Government from a commitment to new and more generous EU guidelines on maternity leave).

We visited a local private nursery that had received an Outstanding Ofsted report. It was located in a small terraced house which fronted almost directly on to the street. There were 26 children crammed into the house, the older children downstairs and six under-threes in the small front room at the top of the house, accessed by a very narrow staircase.

The upstairs back room was subdivided into a bathroom and a tiny kitchen, and all the food for the children had to be hauled up and down that same narrow staircase. There was at least a small garden, and on the day we visited, some of the children were outside with some uninspiring toys. The cost was £60 per child per day. Is this really the best we can do in the UK? In some other countries this accommodation would not be allowed.


  • Helen Penn (2011) Quality in Early Childhood Services: An international perspective (Open University Press, £22.99)
  • Children in Scotland (2008) Adventures in Nature: Building Better Childhoods International Perspectives
  • Richard Louv (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving our childen from nature deficit disorder (Algonquin Press)
  • Gianfranco Zavalloni (2009) 'Children's Natural Rights', Children in Europe, 17/2009
  • 'Adventures in Italy', Nursery World, 30 October 2008
  • 'Making space', Nursery World, 3 November 2010
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