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Key factors of an optimum environment

Raewyn explain the key factors for an optimum environment for infants & toddlers.
A wonderful infants room for learning a development. Floors are padded with coloured styrofoam jigsaw pieces and colourful toys and chairs up agaisnt the wall.

Key factors of an optimum environment for infants and toddlers in group care and education settings that provide an engaging environment and not overstimulating are:

  • Space
  • Calming colour scheme
  • Flooring
  • Lighting
  • Heating
  • Ventilation
  • Acoustics and sound

Space

Infants and toddlers need space to crawl, run and jump indoors, as well as out. A 16-month-old does not understand “We’ll go outside soon”. They need to crawl now, climb now, and move now.

The environment should support this. It should be, firstly, safe and healthy.

Safe settings ensure that infants and toddlers are free to explore. This supports their developing sense of self. If the environment is safe, teachers have more opportunities to interact with tamariki. If it is healthy, then there is less chance of spreading illness.

The golden triangle of structural factors: ratios, space and group size, jointly impact infant and toddler development. While tamariki benefit from social interactions, research has shown that larger groups of tamariki are associated with less positive interactions and poorer developmental outcomes. 1

When infants and toddlers are in smaller groups with a lower ratio of infants and toddlers to adults, there is greater one-to-one interaction, more sensitive caregiving and increased support for individual development.

The suitable group size for infants and toddlers under 36 months would be between 6 and 12 tamariki depending on the age make-up of the group. More younger infants than a lower group size are optimal. A ratio of one adult to three infants under 18 months or one to four for toddlers over 18 months is recommended.

The third aspect of the triangle, space, is pivotal. Infants and toddlers should have an indoor space of at least 5m2 per child and outdoor space of at least 10m2. This amount of space allows tamariki to move freely and to engage and interact positively with each other and the teachers providing education and care.

Calming Colour Scheme

Colour choice plays an important part in environment design.

Bright primary colour schemes can create an environment that feels overstimulating for children and adults. Neutral colour schemes with light backgrounds are recommended as calming colours that help tamariki focus and visually discriminate toys from the background.

Infant and toddler indoor environments should have as much natural light as possible. Child height windows help to provide connections between spaces.

Flooring

For infants and toddlers, the majority of the flooring should be low pile and anti-microbial carpeting. This provides comfort for immobile infants and a secure surface for crawlers and beginning walkers.

Areas that are used for experiences involving water, liquid substances and food should have smooth, impervious and easily cleaned surfaces that are not overly polished.

Lighting

Incandescent lights are preferable to fluorescent lights as these are more home-like and emit all visible colours of light. If using the more energy-efficient LED lights, it is best to have warm rather than bright colours.

Pendant lighting and track lighting provide pools of light to specific areas. With pendant lights, it is important to think about the light shade and what it looks like for immobile infants lying on their backs on the floor. Are they looking straight into a naked bulb, or is the shade protecting their eyes?

Heating

What does it feel like at floor level? 18oC is the recommended temperature for an infant and toddler indoor space.

In cooler climates, underfloor heating is a good option. As heat rises, with other forms of heating, the floor level is the last place to become warm.

It is also important to consider how the space is cooled. Is there enough airflow to facilitate cooling? On sunny days is there enough shade to maintain a comfortable temperature indoors?

Ventilation

Fresh air is best. This could be through open windows or mechanical systems that use fresh air rather than reticulating the air.

Acoustics and Sound

When designing an infant and toddler space, it is important to pay attention to the acoustic qualities of the spaces.

Materials such as acoustic tiles can be used to reduce noise levels. Soft furnishing also plays a role in the acoustic properties of the space.

Think about the background noises that are occurring and their impact on infants and toddlers. Constant background noise from radios or speakers may be detrimental to auditory development.

1American Academy of Pediatrics (2019), Caring for our children 4th Edition

© Te Rito Maioha ECNZ
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Infants & Toddlers care and education in an Aotearoa New Zealand context

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