The best children’s institutions are not all the same

According to environmental psychologist Mille Sylvest (PhD), it is important that the architecture in childcare institutions is as varied as the cultures and activities they have to support.

User involvement is an important building block for good institutions.

For municipal investments in new institutions to provide the greatest possible benefit locally, and for children and childcare workers to enjoy ideal conditions for their daily activities, the design should not be based on a universal architectural template.

“It’s important to understand there is no universal – or even national – model for what a good childcare institution should look like. You have to understand the cultures in play in the specific location and design the institution accordingly. Factors like the mix of children, staff culture and degree of affiliation with the local community are important,” says Mille Sylvest, who holds a PhD in environmental psychology and is a partner in the Human Studio consultancy firm.

“There can be major differences in the activities organised for the children in different institutions, and in how much parents are involved. Both these factors can affect how much space is needed. There might be a particular need to have plenty of room for parental involvement in institutions where staff have problems getting parents involved,” she adds.

Find good local solutions

In Human Studio, Mille Sylvest helps organisations create an optimal relationship between people and the buildings they inhabit. She believes that user involvement is crucial to ensuring that synergies can arise. She therefore recommends that architects involved in the design of new institutions should allow plenty of time for interviews and field studies early in the process.

“User involvement is not something you can just ‘tick off’ after hosting a quick workshop. You have to gain a thorough understanding of the institution, the culture, the people and the activities the building is being designed for. It may prolong the development phase, but the end result is better buildings and economics in the long term,” says Mille Sylvest, offering an example:

“There was a time when it was common in Denmark to have glass corridors running along the facades of institutions so as to shield them from wind and noise. Unfortunately, the result was that young children ended up sleeping in their prams and cribs in greenhouse-like temperatures. Not good. If energy optimisation is seen as more important than understanding the activities that take place in an institution, you risk ending up having to make costly modifications later on.

Balanced flexibility

When children aged one to five are looked after under one roof, the building has to embrace a wide range of activities. A flexible interior design is essential to accommodating the children’s highly varied abilities and needs. 

“A delicate balance must be struck to allow the staff sufficient flexibility in how they use the various rooms, without the young children becoming disoriented. One solution can be flexible setups which are recognisable, so that everybody understands which activity is going to take place when things are set up in a certain way,” suggests Mille Sylvest.

“You can also work with activity-based programming when designing the institution’s interior. This focuses on using architecture, materials and layout to establish spaces where children can go to be very active and noisy as well as spaces for quiet contemplation. The development of the institution must be a communication exercise involving the prospective users to ensure that you understand what sort of architecture they need and will thrive in.

Don’t forget the indoor climate

Another important factor for well-being is good indoor climate solutions. Air quality is compromised by damp outerwear and dirt on the floor. Too little space and intense physical activity increase the concentration of CO2. Large windows let in daylight, but can make temperatures soar. And many children’s voices, speaking at the same time, can turn sound into noise. 

“It’s very important to be aware of noise when building new kindergartens. Noise affects stress levels for both children and staff. No-one can take spending long periods of time in a noisy environment. Of course people can function in large institutions with concrete surfaces and double-height ceilings, but not nearly as well as they would with good acoustic solutions. Reduced energy levels, more sick leave and poor learning outcomes are direct results of noise,” says Mille Sylvest.

“Unfortunately, I quite often find that indoor climate issues are due to people not switching on the ventilation system. Choose ventilation solutions that are simple and user-friendly.  And the more sustainable materials you use in an institution, the better it is for children and adults – and everyone else on the planet,” she emphasises.

Mille Sylvest,
PhD in environmental psychology and partner in the Human Studio consultancy firm.

THEME: Build better childcare institutions