Child's Play

“I remember one college day care center from the 1970s,’’ reminisces Sheridan DeWolf, child development center coordinator for Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College in El Cajon, Calif. “We kept finding arrows in the yard. It turns out that the children’s outdoor play area backed up to the archery field.” Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the story proves how far day care centers, particularly college campus-based day care centers, have come. What was once an afterthought, crammed into found space, has now become an integral part of a college’s offerings.

If you think that day care doesn’t belong on your college campus, think again. “Community colleges definitely need day care to support their students,” says Aaron Schwarz, AIA, a principal with Perkins Eastman Architects PC in New York. “And, as populations diversify, we are seeing more of a need at four-year colleges and universities as well.” He also points to graduate students and faculty and staff needs: “With more professors working on an adjunct basis, schools use amenities to attract the best. Day care is an important part of a school’s compensation package.”

The curriculum might also demand day care. If a college offers courses in early childhood development, child psychology or teaching, day care centers double as student labs. With the need for campus-based day care undeniable, what does it take to create a safe, successful and fun place, preferably out of range of flying arrows?

Location, Location, Location

The first task for any planner is deciding where to put the center. There are two schools of thought on the matter. “Some colleges site the day care center in the heart of the campus,” says Schwarz. “This allows parents to remain close throughout the day and affords convenience to students who use the center as a lab.”

The other option is to put the center on the perimeter, away from foot traffic and the general hubbub of campus life. This scenario works well for commuting parents who drop their kids off and then go to class. If your school features older, ivy-covered Georgian architecture, a smaller, residential-scaled day care center may not mix well in the heart of the campus, but will work fine on the perimeter.

No matter where the center is sited, all child-care facilities need dedicated outdoor space. This should be directly accessible from the building, without having to cross streets. The space must also be securely fenced on all sides.

If lack of space is an issue on your campus, take a cue from Horace Walker, RA, vice president, The RBA Group in Morristown, N.J. His architectural firm just completed a 30,000-sq.-ft. addition to Academic Hall, one third of which is a day care center, at Passaic County Community College in the heart of urban Patterson, N.J. To keep the children away from car and foot traffic, Walker went below grade, carving out a landscaped oasis complete with grass, play equipment and a gardening area. “You don’t even hear the traffic down there,” he says.

Meals should also play a part in deciding where to site a day care. If the building is to have its own kitchen, then it can be sited anywhere. However, if you want your school’s main kitchen to serve the day care as well, you may want to keep these two buildings close to each other.

Safety and Security First

Security is always on parents’ minds when they leave their babies in another’s care. Yet no one wants to sentence his or her child to an unfriendly fortress. In answer, the best day care centers use a combination of active and passive security measures. “The more passive the better,” says Schwarz.

Active security means cameras, identification cards, panic devices and locked doors with buzzers. “This is serious stuff,” says DeWolf. “I’ve experienced one or two ‘lockdowns’ in my career, usually during custody battles.”

Passive security remains a less intrusive affair. A large, welcoming front desk that is always staffed works as an effective gatekeeper. Internal windows looking from the front office to the front door also help staffers keep an eye on things. Limited access is also crucial. “There is no way for students in the Academic Hall to get to the day care center,” says Walker about his urban, mixed-use project.

Room to Run

While requirements and codes vary from state to state, there is a general consensus among child care professionals about class and room size. “Small groups are better,” says Louis Torelli, early childhood design consultant with Spaces for Children in Fairfax, Calif. “Not only does it facilitate learning and better care, a small group keeps the germ pool down, lessening the risk of upper respiratory infections.”

Acceptable class sizes vary by age. Six to eight infants per room is the limit, while eight to 12 toddlers are acceptable. For preschoolers, the number is 16 to 20. Torelli also suggests no less than 50 square feet of usable space per child. “That might be more than what your state regulates, but anything less will feel crowded.”

Toilets as Teaching Tools?

Even after meeting space requirements, don’t build an ordinary classroom and call it a day care center. Even a simple thing like plumbing is probably regulated in your state, and if it’s not, it should be. “We have one small-sized sink per 15 children, one by the changing table in the infant and toddler rooms and one for adult use only that doubles as a sink for sick children,” says DeWolf.

The same is true for toilets. Each classroom should have its own child-sized “potty.” “This promotes self learning,” explains Torelli. “A large, central bathroom located in the hallway means a teacher must accompany a child out of the classroom.” Not only does this mess up teacher-to-student ratios, it denies youngsters the chance to “do it themselves.”

In fact, the whole room should be designed to facilitate children “doing it themselves.” Child-height cubbies and coat hooks give children access to their things and the opportunity to put them away. Storing toys and project materials at child level again teaches organization skills.

Home Away From Home

Most designers agree that, when choosing a color scheme for day care centers, neutral is best. “What we think of as a fun and playful environment may not be what a child views as fun and playful,” says Alan Schlossberg, a senior associate with Perkins Eastman. “The interior should be neutral, almost like a museum, with the children and their work providing the color.”

Torelli stresses creating a homelike environment. “Some kids will spend 10 to 12 hours a day in your facility,” he says. “Try to use wood furniture, a mix of carpet and resilient flooring, incandescent bulbs and natural sunlight whenever possible.”

For an example of sunlight as a teaching tool, look to the Cyert Center for Early Education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “We used large windows and skylights throughout the center to bring the outside in,” says Schlossberg. “The changing light helps teach the children about the passage of time, in both hours and seasons.”

The Cyert Center uses other design elements to teach and inspire the children. Child-height mirrors help kids learn about themselves. Special animal sculpture tiles are embedded in the floor at various spots to promote discovery and wonder.

Take on City Hall

With all of the codes and complexities involved in designing a day care center, it’s best to hire an architect/design team with experience. But that doesn’t mean that you should leave the project entirely in their hands. “With a state school like mine, if your budget isn’t used within a certain time frame, the money disappears,” says DeWolf. “Your architect must be familiar with working with state funding.”

“It’s also important to come to the table knowing what you want and need,” says Torelli. “Be an active participant, but let the architect or designer turn your goals into concrete solutions.”

The final bit of advice comes from Schlossberg. “Challenge your state agencies. The codes usually fall far short of actual needs and, when a space is undersized, it promotes frustration,” he says.

With luck and planning your day care center will be just the right size.

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