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Infants and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers require tons of gear and a lot of work by parents. CECs need to make this as easy as possible by providing appropriate places for child paraphernalia like car seats, strollers and diaper bags; restrooms for both sexes that include quality designed diaper changing areas (not just fold down tables); areas where a mother can nurse in private and plenty of high chairs and booster seats. For safety reasons, infants and toddlers need a segregated play area designed to meet their unique developmental needs.
Include child-sized fixtures and specially designed private family restrooms that one parent can use with children of different gender.
McDonald's learned early that parents won't take their children anywhere that isn't clean and sanitary. The CEC needs to be designed to make it easy to keep clean, which means materials that are easily cleaned, sanitized and very durable.
Duality of Design
Although children's play areas must be designed for children's needs and preferences, their parents have needs of their own that must also be considered. Studies have shown that 70% of the attendance decision is made by the parent, usually the mother, not the child. Adults see the environment as background for the activities and judge it on its aesthetics. Children perceive the environment as part of their experience and try to interact with it in every possible way. Children's idea of beauty is informal and wild rather than the formal and ordered design preference of adults. This duality of often-conflicting needs, wants and aesthetics requires creative design solutions that work for both of the two different perspectives.
Children's imaginations are virtual reality machines if you give them the right environment and materials. Play equipment and areas should not be too defined, structured and themed. Except for the youngest of children, the play should be as open-ended and simple as possible so children can use self-initiated discovery and their incredibly active imaginations. Learning through play comes into focus at this point.
Parents need clear visibility of their older children without having to interfere with the children's play. Younger children must be able to see and hear their parents during play, and parents feel more secure if they are nearby.
Sense of Place
A holistic and integrated design that is relevant to both children and adults will provide a strong sense of place and identity. This is partially achieved through good space planning and appropriate theming that is relevant to both children and adults.
Children, especially toddlers and pre-school children, need a way to 'understand' the environment without reading words. They must be able to easily find their way, ‘understand’, figure out what the area or event is for, how to use it, any rules that apply, the location of exits and entrances and the boundaries of each play activity.
The environment's design has a huge impact on children's behavior. Children read environments completely differently than do adults. Children are dwarfed by adult-sized environments, where they feel intimidated, incompetent, and unable to master the environment. Children prefer child-scaled environments where they feel competent, so play areas should provide some sense of enclosure and intimacy. Children play longer with greater attention spans and less behavior problems in small-scale environments, and they have more fun.
Research clearly shows that people, and especially children, consistently prefer natural landscapes to built environments. Natural outdoor environments reduce stress and are pleasing to adults. Children's play outdoors is higher quality than indoor play—the sensory experiences are different, and different standards of play apply. Children can do things outdoors that would be frowned on indoors. They can run, shout, be messy and also experience, interact with and manipulate the environment. Naturalized outdoor play areas are the ideal environments for children's play, and they cost less to build than indoor areas. Our company has been designing such areas for most of our clients' CECs, which we call children's adventure play gardens.
If the CEC is going to be used for child-care by children unchaperoned by their parents, the facility may need to be designed and operated in compliance with the state's child-care laws and regulations. These standards, if they apply, are only minimum standards, and compliance does not necessarily mean that the CEC will be a quality facility.
The facility needs to be accessible by children of all abilities, following the principals of universal design. There are special ADA regulations and guidelines that apply to the design of children’s environments and children’s play equipment.
While designing for safe play is essential (see sidebar at end of article), there is a difference between hazards and risk. Safety concerns should not compromise play value. The play environment needs to offer children both challenges and safe risks. Play environments that are too safe are not just boring, but children will often find ways to take risks and find challenges, often in ways that are hazardous. A quality play environment is both safe and challenging.
The commitment to providing high-quality entertainment and learning through play for children is the strength of CECs. That commitment, when connected with an understanding of how to design and operate a CEC that will delight children and their parents, can make the addition of a CEC to an existing club or center an asset for existing customers and users, an attraction to broaden the facility's market and an additional source of revenue.
Safety First for Children’s Environments
About the Author
Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, firm that specializes in market feasibility, design, production and consulting for family and children's leisure and learning venues worldwide.
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