Adults and Children in the Center

The age ranges of children served in the center-based option dictate the consideration of key design features. Program administrators and design team members will find important information that facilitates the delivery of program services of children enrolled in Head Start.

The following is an excerpt from the Head Start Center Design Guide.

3.1 Parents
3.2 Teachers
3.3 Administration
3.4 Service Personnel
3.5 Children
3.5.1 Early Head Start—Infants
3.5.2 Early Head Start—Young Toddlers
3.5.3 Early Head Start—Older Toddlers
3.5.4 Head Start—Pre-School Children

When designing a Head Start center, it is important to accommodate the needs of children, parents, teachers, visitors, administrators, and service personnel. This chapter describes how and why adults and children use Head Start centers and the needs of each group. The center environment should be comfortable, nurturing, and allow adults to care for children in settings designed primarily for use by children. Metric/English conversions are included in Appendix D. The activities of groups of children categorized by age are included in the chapter for design purposes.

3.1 Parents

The designers of Head Start centers should keep in mind the needs of busy parents and caregivers who bring children to Head Start centers. The design should provide a setting that supports a community of center users and serves the needs of the children and their families. Designers can respond to these needs by addressing the following:

  • Temporary parking arrangements for drop-off and pickup.
  • Ease of navigating corridors for people pushing strollers and buggies (angled corners are an aid).
  • Stroller storage.
  • A clearly visible bulletin board.
  • Mail boxes for parents.
  • A central, relaxed place for parents to meet and talk to other parents and staff.
  • Spaces that accommodate several children and adults who wish to remove or need assistance removing outer garments.
  • Private space for parents and teachers to conference.
  • Adequate refrigerator space to store formula and food.
  • The need for parents and caregivers to visit the center while dropping off children, spending time with them in classrooms, on the playground, and picking them up. Parents and caregivers also may eat lunch at the center with the children, meet with teachers and staff, socialize with other adults, and participate in center activities, organizations, and programs. Some adults enjoy the center because it offers friendly human contact that may not be available in their work environment .
  • Parents who bring children to Head Start may accompany them to the classroom and help the children remove and store outdoor clothing. They may bring infants in strollers. They also may leave messages for teachers and receive messages from them, usually at one location designed specifically for that purpose. They may linger to spend time with the child or to talk to the teacher before departing. The entry, reception, and classroom cubby areas should provide a social setting for the parents, without disrupting the flow of activity in the classrooms. Nursing mothers who visit the center to feed their infants need a private, quiet area for that purpose.
  • Information may be posted for the parents on a bulletin board, which typically will be located along the entrance path.
  • Finally, parents and other adult caregivers are encouraged to participate in volunteer activities at the center, such as serving on committees or boards, participating in fund-raising activities, assisting with field trips, and offering classroom assistance. Center design should offer space for their involvement and for meetings between adults with storage for their belongings.

3.2 Teachers

Teachers care for and supervise children. In a Head Start program, they promote learning and developmental activities through a curriculum designed for learning. Curriculum activities occur in classrooms, play yards, multiple-purpose spaces, and on excursions outside the center.

Teachers are responsible for children while at the center. They greet them and their families or caregivers when they arrive. Teachers prepare curriculum materials and projects for children and confer with parents and administrators. To help them prepare, teachers need time away from their classrooms. A lounge, which doubles as a workroom, can meet this need. Teachers also need adequate storage areas, not only for curriculum materials and supplies, but also to secure their personal possessions. The teacher has a demanding job that requires focus on the children. Because highly organized spaces are required, designing a center can be challenging. The design can facilitate the needs of teachers for organized space by providing the following:

  • Ample elevated wall hung storage (above children’s level but also located to avoid the possibility of adults striking their heads) designed to avoid the possibility of items inadvertently falling on children below.
  • Elevated electrical outlets for equipment such as audio devices. (There also should be CD and tape storage.) Locations should comply with local code and licensing agencies.
  • Planning and designing the center so that the location of outlets is convenient to elevated electronic equipment.
  • Conveniently located, accessible adult toilet(s), complying with ADAAG.
  • Convenient storage for teachers’ outer garments and locked space to store personal belongings.
  • A comfortable and private place to confer with parents.
  • A resource room for orderly visible storage of teaching materials and equipment.
  • A comfortable lounge that teachers can use for breaks, lunches, and to prepare teaching plans and materials.
  • Adequate shelving or counter space for teachers to display teaching materials.
  • An area for displaying children’s art projects at their eye level.

3.3 Administration

The Administrator also referred to as director, center director, executive director, CEO, coordinator, or site supervisor is responsible for managing the center, supervising the teaching staff, and communicating with parents, boards of directors and the ACF regional offices. In small centers, the administrator also may assume a teaching role for part of the day. In large centers, the director usually will have a secretary or assistant to help with the administrative workload.

The needs of the center administrator may be met by providing the following:

  • Optimal visibility of those approaching and entering the facility.
  • Locked space for personal belongings.
  • An office with room for a desk, an office chair, at least two visitor chairs, filing cabinets, space for equipment (unless it is placed elsewhere) including a personal computer, printer, copier and fax machine.
  • Center personnel, including the administrator, should be consulted during design for their input about workflow, filing, and equipment needs. This Guide will assist designers in making informed judgments about center staff requests.

3.4 Service Personnel

Centers require food, laundry, janitorial service, delivery, waste and refuse removal, and general maintenance services. The design must provide space and controlled access for those performing these services.

Some centers use catered food services while others have an in-house preparation kitchen with heavy-duty equipment and a cooking staff.

Infants and toddlers generally use disposable diapers provided by parents. All soiled diapers are to be contained and processed separately from other waste and linens. Facilities should provide space for these tasks.

The needs of the service personnel can be expedited by the following:

  • Adequate locked space in a well-located closet for cleaning materials.
  • Space for easy supply delivery.
  • Facilities that are efficiently designed for waste disposal.
  • Spaces and containers that accommodate recycling.
  • Adequate counter space and efficient kitchen arrangements that support easy transit of food to classrooms or other places designed for eating.
  • Adequate refrigerator space.
  • Generous, deep, three-compartment sinks, gooseneck faucets with spray attachments, and disposals in kitchens.
  • Finish materials and building design features that are easy to clean with minimal use of cleaning materials.
  • Design that offers protection from the potential health and indoor air quality impacts of cleaning and maintenance activities.

3.5 Children

Head Start and Early Head Start children who are in center based programs may spend up to of nine hours or more per day at the center. For most of their day, children remain at the facility. There are occasions when the children leave the center on field trips with teachers and center volunteers. Best practice suggests the center promote a child’s optimal development by providing safe, interesting, and appropriate environments that allow the children to engage in developmentally appropriate activities.

Children’s needs often correspond to their ages. Although each child develops according to his or her unique pattern, children can be characterized as belonging to general age categories of development,. Each age group has a different set of needs. To meet these needs, the space designed for each age group will have different characteristics.

The following three age groupings will be referenced throughout the Guide. In many centers, actual age ranges of groups overlap. In some centers, children may be grouped in mixed-age classrooms.

Age ranges follow:

  • Early Head Start Infants (birth to 18 months)
  • Early Head Start Toddlers (18 to 36 months)
  • Toddler subgroups:
  • EHS Younger toddlers (18 to 24 months)
  • EHS Older toddlers (24 to 36 months)
  • Head Start pre-school age children (3 to 5 years old)

3.5.1 Early Head Start—Infants

The infant classroom should be warm and nurturing in character. Ideally, the classroom environment should provide opportunities for infants to enjoy activities throughout the day. Typically, infant groups will be comprised of no more than eight infants cared for by two teachers, on a 4:1 ratio. In Head Start centers, infants are brought to their classroom by their parents or caregiver.

Storage is an important consideration in the infant area. Clothing and supplies, usually carried in a diaper bag, are stored in each infant’s cubby. Diapers and wipes are stored in separate compartments and within easy reach at the diapering area. Strollers or tote bags are stored on pegs or rods in storage areas. Formula and breast milk are kept refrigerated and clearly marked with the name of the infant and date.

Spaces designed for infants are used for a variety of activities. Sleeping areas should be separate from areas of greater activity. Each infant will have a unique sleeping schedule. As they mature, their sleep needs decrease from the frequent naps of young infancy to a few naps at regular times during the day. Besides sleeping, infants will be playing, eating, cuddling, and nursing.

Since most infants have not begun toilet training, frequent diaper changes are needed. A teacher with an infant at the diaper-changing table needs to maintain visibility of all other infants. The design and location of changing tables should enable visible connection between teachers and other infants.

The design and scale of furnishings and equipment in the infant room should be appropriate for the infant’s activities. The design must allow teachers to see and hear all the infants at any given time and to quickly reach any one of them if the need arises. Infants must be able to see the teacher because they need the security of a teacher’s presence.

During the first year, the infant’s diet progresses from nursing and bottlefeeding to soft foods and finger foods. Eating is nurturing for the infant whether nursed by mothers or bottle fed by another adult. Teachers may start to feed infants soft foods at around 5-6 months. At around 9 months, infants, seated in low high chairs, begin to feed themselves and drink from cups. This process can be messy, since infants are exploring, and floor surfaces should accommodate this. Later, at or near 12 months of age, infants eat at low, round tables. At that point, the dining atmosphere changes from a quiet, intimate environment to an active, social event, and it is important to provide adequate easy-to-clean space for this activity.

Developmentally appropriate activities for infants include interaction with teachers, children, and other infants; experiencing the environment through all the senses; and physical movement through space. Infants need a safe, stimulating environment where they can explore, absorb, and organize information about their world. They exercise muscles by crawling and climbing on soft surfaces and over slight level changes. They also can pull to standing and practice walking by using low grab bars.

Stimulating toys and learning materials that can be manipulated and help infants learn about objects and increase development of motor coordination. Toys should be on low, open shelving where the infant can see and grasp them. In rooms with high ceilings, mobiles hung from the ceiling should be at least 6.6 feet above the floor.

The classroom should offer a series of intriguing attractions for crawling and standing infants, particularly at eye level (12 to 18 inches above the
floor). The environment, including toys, should aid the infants’ language development by including objects teachers can name and describe.

Infants, particularly those crawling and starting to walk, require outdoor opportunities to explore and move about the safe world of the infant play yard. They spend time in their outdoor play yard under the supervision of their teachers. This space should be apart from, but usually in view of, the older children.

Teachers may assist infants in their exploration of the world by taking them on strolls through the building and outdoors. Infants, riding in groups in multi-passenger strollers, benefit from both social interaction and sensory stimulation on these excursions. Therefore, hallways and play yards should be designed to accommodate the strollers.

Conditions that enhance the quality of care that teachers provide to infants include:

  • A gross motor area (away from the main area of circulation) with a continuous soft mat that can be easily cleaned. The area should be defined by a low (12 – 18 inches) padded bumper, which is built-in to contain the crawl area and provides adult seating near the infants.
  • Low padded risers for level change.
  • Visibility of the exterior of the gross motor area at infants’ eye-level.
  • Cribs that can be observed easily by teachers.
  • Cribs located under soft, preferably dimmer-controlled lighting.
  • Toys easily accessible to infants on open shelving.
  • Continuous impervious flooring in the feeding area.

    It is essential that the A/E verify dimensions and indicate the location (using dotted lines) of all major equipment on the architectural plans, particularly cribs and components of the feeding area. This will ensure the proper fit of equipment and adequate clearances above and between items.

3.5.2 Early Head Start—Young Toddlers

The toddler classroom hums with activity as toddlers quickly move through their space. They are usually anxious to be involved in all the activities available to them. This environment is stimulating and offers the child a safe, warm, and nurturing place to spend the day. This group typically includes 2 teachers and 8 young toddlers.

At the beginning of the day, toddlers arrive at the classroom with their parents, who may assist them in removing their outdoor clothing and in storing items in cubbies. Young toddlers usually will have diaper bags to store in their cubbies and supplies to be placed at the diapering area.

Toddlers are in the process of gaining independence, and are advancing in their feeding, toileting, and dressing skills. Furnishings and equipment should be scaled for this age group to encourage growth toward independence.

Younger toddlers nap often and need a crib in a quiet area. Most care functions take place in the classroom with the teacher’s assistance.

Toddlers gather at child-scaled tables for snacks and lunch. They can feed themselves with some assistance. Young toddlers need diapering areas as well as child sized toilet facilities.

3.5.3 Early Head Start—Older Toddlers

Older toddlers are busy experiencing their environment and developing essential motor skills as they take part in active play. They are mastering walking and are beginning to develop running, jumping, and climbing skills. The toddler’s room should provide stimulating opportunities for active crawling, pushing wheeled toys, climbing in and out of play components, cruising, (movement through space to view and select from a variety of activities), and beginning to walk and climb up and down stairs. They may nap only once each day. Adequate space for storage if cots and mats must be part of design phase planning.

Older toddlers may bring lunches or toys from home in satchels or backpacks that can be used to carry papers and artwork home at the end of the day. These items may be stored in cubbies or in the classroom on hooks.

Toddlers tend to move about very quickly, often in groups rather than individually, and the design must allow for this group activity. Features, such as wide access to lofts and generous, clear pathways that avoid sharp corners, should be provided. These pathways should accommodate multipassenger strollers.

Toddlers thrive on exploration and creativity; enjoying fantasy activities, playing with props, and making choices. Manipulative toys, blocks, pictures, puzzles, music, and other materials should be located on low, open shelving where the toddler can see and reach them easily.

Teachers in the toddler classroom assist and interact with the toddler, encouraging the development of greater independence. Though space should be scaled to a child’s size, the classroom design also must permit teacher access to all spaces. Experience has shown that a diaper-changing table should be provided in older toddler classrooms to help teachers of toddlers not yet toilet trained. The space also should contain a child-scaled toilet.

While toddlers are beginning to develop, they need easy visual access to their teachers for security and comfort. One highly recommended functional and nurturing feature is a simple series of three to four low risers (not necessarily built-in) that several toddlers at a time can occupy. This arrangement also provides excellent seating for adults while they interact with several children when reading them a story, for example.

Toddlers accompanied by their teachers will spend time in their outdoor play space. This should be apart from but not visually or acoustically separated from play spaces for older children. The outdoor space offers many opportunities for activities, such as cruising, climbing, and manipulative play involving materials such as sand and water. Toddlers may take part in activities in a multiple-purpose area.

Toddlers and their teachers, may go on excursions for more exploration and interaction. Older toddlers may walk hand-in-hand with their teachers.

3.5.4 Head Start—Pre-School Children

Head Start or pre-school children are expanding their vocabulary, developing language, enhancing small and large muscle coordination, and learning complex
cognitive/social skills. This group may consist of as many as 18 to 20 children (with a teacher, an aide and a parent volunteer) busily pursuing all recommended activities available for their age group. Their environment should be safe, durable, and interesting without being over-stimulating.

The children arrive at the classroom with their parents or caregivers or on the school bus. After storing their outdoor clothing and personal items, they begin their day. The Head Start classroom should include large, bright, unrestricted spaces, as well as intimate, quiet areas outfitted with soft materials.

Head Start children usually need a nap or quiet time. This normally occurs in the classroom on cots or mats that are stored appropriately when not in use. The design and sizes of classrooms to accommodate stored items such as cots and mats should be carefully considered.

Children at this age are actively exploring their environment; exercising large muscles by running, jumping, galloping, riding wheeled toys, and engaging in dramatic play. Because they have become more independent, the children tend to initiate their own activity by accessing appropriate materials and are interested in displaying their own work. Other activities for this age group include music, painting, puzzles, block play, and storytelling. Children are involved in art projects, manipulative play, simple food preparation, elementary math, problem solving, science, and gardening.

The ideal Head Start classroom will include large architecturally unrestricted available space that teachers and children can divide into smaller learning environments. The number of children in the group and the type of activities in which they are involved will affect the requirements of this space.

Head Start children will enjoy time in an outdoor play space and in a multiple-purpose space. They will participate in many of the same activities in the play space as they pursue in the classroom.

Children also go on field trips outside the center, either walking with their teachers or using transport.

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     Adults and Children in the Center [PDF, 41MB]

"Adults and Children in the Center." Head Start Center Design Guide. Second Edition. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2005. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2008

Last Updated: October 1, 2014