Early Childhood Centers
Craig Siepka, PK-12 Design Leader for Wight
Terminology in the education field can be tricky. Consider the two terms: “early childhood education” and “early childhood center”. You might logically deduce that an Early Childhood Center (ECC) is for all kids in their early childhood (ages three to five), in which “early childhood education” takes place. In a broad sense this is true. But if you think ECCs are a fancy name for “daycare,” you couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, early childhood education refers to the education of young children by people outside the family or in settings outside the home before the age at which they begin to attend compulsory schooling. But ECCs serve a purpose fare greater/more profound/complex than simply accommodating children for a few hours each day to get them ready for Elementary school.
Here are the facts: ECCs are facilities specifically designed to address the educational and related developmental needs of children who have physical, cognitive and/or emotional disabilities or challenges, or are experiencing developmental delays. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  requires the public school system to provide qualified preschool children with free specialized services to help them attain confidence and those skills necessary to achieve a certain measure of success as they move through upper grade levels. School districts subsequently localized their early childhood programs by school creating many small facilities per district; this misses out on the opportunity of strengthening their ecc program and maximizing physical and financial resources as could be done in a centralized facility.
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 are often 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—in a number of ways.
1) The student staff ratio is higher because children in the same classroom will be at varying levels of development and have different language, speech, physical, emotional and occupational challenges. 2) The programs embody the notion of personalized/customized learning/services to the extreme as each student has highly different needs. 3) Family engagement/involvement/ education is critical for intervention services to be successful.
In addition to daily classes in the mornings and afternoons, ECCs are often the home base for a variety of special education services and itinerant therapists that service students throughout the community. Parent/teacher play groups that help parents learn how to assist their children in applying what they’ve learned into their home lives are also an important part of the program.
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 and even life skills. The yin/yang goals of these programs are independence and socialization.
The design of an ECC should reflect its educational philosophy and curriculum. Classrooms are typically much larger to accommodate simultaneous individual and small-group activities. The “ideal” program is to have one teacher and two -educators in each classroom for about 15 students, evenly divided between at-risk and mainstream children. It also has smaller classrooms with more intensely individualized instruction from which students can easily access the blended classes to practice their skills.
An ECC should also facilitate collaboration between. An example of design facilitating this is, for example, “pass-thrus” These enable therapists to move quickly between classrooms, observe behaviors and provide guidance and support to teachers and students.
Age-appropriate scaling of spaces and equipment and sensitivity to developmental issues also are important ECC design considerations. Their environments need to be warm, welcoming and familiar, since this will be many children’s first experiences in a structured, institutional setting. At the Wight-designed Ann Reid ECC in Naperville, Ill., space is divided into a “learning village” of four educational neighborhoods to put children at ease and provide multiple opportunities for interaction and informal learning activities across the entire facility, e.g. rotating letter blocks on the structural columns in hallways. This maximizes the available square footage for instructional activities and minimizes instructional “down time” as a simple walk down the hallway becomes an opportunity to maintain student engagement. 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.
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.