By Kevin Havens, Director of Design; Wight & Company
Terminology in the education field can be tricky. For example, you might logically deduce that an Early Childhood Center (ECC) is for all kids in their early childhood (ages three to five), which in a broad sense is true. But if you think ECCs are a fancy name for “preschool,” you couldn’t be more wrong.
Here are the facts. ECCs are facilities designed to address the educational and related developmental needs of children who have disabilities or are experiencing developmental delays. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] requires the public school system to provide qualified preschool children with free specialized services to help them succeed in school. Most districts provide these at various elementary schools and other facilities; ECCs offer a way to centralize services in one location.
The confusion about ECCs is understandable, and not just because of the name. For one thing, these centers are not only for at-risk children; in fact, they’re required by law to have blended programs that include mainstream children, who pay tuition to attend. Also, despite all the talk from the White House and in educational circles about the importance of early education, very few school districts have built true ECCs.
ECCs and their programs are far different from preschools—and other elementary schools—in a number of ways. Their census is dynamic because children can be enrolled throughout the year (they become eligible on their third birthday). The curriculum and teachers must be highly flexible, since children in the same classroom will be at varying levels of development and have different language, speech, physical, emotional and occupational challenges.
An effective ECC program finely calibrates for every child the proper mix between individualized instruction and “blended” activities where they can generalize their skills into everyday classroom routines. The yin/yang goals of these programs are independence and socialization.
Age-appropriate scaling of spaces and equipment and sensitivity to developmental issues are important ECC design considerations. Their environments need to be warm, welcoming and familiar; this will be many children’s first experiences in a structured, institutional setting. At the Wight-designed Ann Reid ECC in Naperville, Ill., the 16 classrooms are divided into “learning villages” in four educational neighborhoods. These neighborhoods offer a manageable scale for small children. Thematic medallions and interiors finishes create community identities and help with wayfinding.
At Ann Reid, design emphasis starts with elements below 3 feet to put children at ease and provide multiple opportunities for interaction and informal, do-it-yourself education, e.g., rotating letter blocks on the structural columns in hallways, moveable alphabet floor tiles. Education essentially occurs everywhere! Site and building features (permeable pavers, green roofs, rain gardens and bioswales) are teaching tools on sustainability. Signage highlighting factual tidbits supports education, and walking around the site is like taking a science class. The environment stimulates children’s curiosities and imaginations and awakens awareness of their surroundings, providing what Maria Montessori called “an education of the senses.”
Today, more than 65 percent of U.S. children under the age of six participate in some form of early intervention program. A well-designed ECC can accelerate their development and put them on a path to a lifetime of learning.
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Our team of Thought Leaders at Wight & Company is highly experienced and dedicated to designing educational facilities that exceed expectations. We hope that our research and white papers lead others to have aspirations and inspirations to design the best possible environments for early childhood education. In this blog we would like to share our projects, sketches and thoughts on where ECL has come and where it is going and receive inspiration from our readers.