Effects of Physical Environment on Child Development

There is a growing awareness internationally of the importance of early learning, its impact on the individual child, and the wider implications of early learning on the social and economic capacity of communities and nations. Alongside teacher and program quality, the physical environment is seen as a critical partner in a child’s cognitive, social and physical development. The quality of the physical environment has been linked to positive learning outcomes, with a small body of research illustrating how the design of interior (e.g., room size, layout, furniture, lighting, noise) and external (e.g., outdoor spaces, nature, play equipment) space in an early learning childcare environment may enhance children’s learning and development (Evans, 2006).

Both educators and parents agree that, along with staff and program quality, the physical environment of learning centres contribute significantly to children’s development and learning outcomes. In terms of ideal architectural and design characteristics, it is believed that early learning centres should be homely, inviting, and bright, linked to the outdoors and designed so the space welcomes the child, makes them feel safe and encourage learning.

Consistent with past research (e.g., Moore & Sugiyama, 2007;Read, 2007; Weinstein, 1987), specific characteristics of the physical environment such as space, light, colour, and materials are seen by both educators and parents as contributing to the child’s enjoyment and learning in the centre. This highlights the importance of designers adopting a human-centred, collaborative and jargon-free approach to designing space, with the tangible examples of ideal space enhancing understanding and communication between architects and educators about how best to design and reconfigure space to enhance learning outcomes.

Design implications for the idea space – Design with size, nooks, light, airiness and technology. Parents’ and educators’ description of the ideal learning environment provides designers with significant insight into design priorities for the physical environment of childhood education centres. Descriptions about the key spatial qualities emphasise volume (high ceilings), area (large spaces), natural light (expansive use of glass), with their words implying pockets creating areas for exploration and imagination (e.g., tents, lower or higher ceilings, private refuge spaces), rather than an open, unobstructed space.

The design implications for this include a much higher value placed on aspect and orientation when first positioning a centre to maximise natural day lighting and cross ventilation, as well as increased relationship between the inside and outside, maximising openings to the transition zone. The creation of such spaces would require an evolution in both the planning of a space to ensure optimum flexibility and size – as well as the materials employed within the space materials that are responsive to the touch, hard wearing and imaginative.

The use of glass and the introduction of as much natural light as possible is a key theme for the indoor spaces, while lush, beautiful gardens which employed tools to engage all the children’s senses is a key theme for the outdoor spaces. Educators have also spoken about the importance of flexibility within the space in order to keep up with children’s developmental needs, specifically the rearrangement of space to suit what the children are learning as well as fantasy play areas that could change theme, such as from home to shop to hairdresser to garage.

To facilitate such ideas, future design regulation could include an emphasis on the design of large open foyers for encouraging general gathering and communication. For example hallways and the space around the entry and exit from individual rooms, could become wider to encourage greater interaction.



Berris, R & Miller, E. (2011). How design of physical environment impacts early learning: Educators and parents’ perspectives. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36(4)

Evans, G. (2006). Child development and the physical environment.

Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 423-451

Moore, G. (1987).The Physical Environment and Cognitive Development in Child-Care Centres. In C.Weinstein & T. David (Eds.),

Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development (pp.41-72).New York: Plenum Press

Read, M. (2007). Sense of place in child care environments. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(6), 387-392

Akshay Ashok Salunkhe



IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute

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