The Impact of Density and the Definition and Ratio of Activity Centers on Children in Childcare Classrooms

by Randy White

Research has documented that the design of the classroom environment has a direct impact on children's behavior, play and learning in early childhood settings. This article will review what research has found concerning several important design factors.

Many studies have examined the impact of classroom density or crowding (number of square feet of available classroom space per child) in daycare settings and found that children in high density classrooms:

  • Are more susceptible to behavior problems and aggressive behavior (Maxwell 1996, Rohe & Patterson 1974)
  • Have more competitive interactions with other children (Legrendre 1995)
  • Have reduced levels of activity and face out (face the corner or wall of the rooms (Loo 1972)
  • Engage in less play (Loo 1972, Loo and Kennelly 1979)
  • Have less positive social interaction and more solitary play (Evans 2001, Legrendre 2003, Loo 1972)
  • Have higher stress levels (Loo 1972, Loo & Kennelly 1979, Legrendre 2003).

Based on the research, childhood education authorities agree that there should be between 45 square feet and 54 square feet of usable classroom space (excludes toilets, diaper changing, closets and similar spaces) per preschool-age child (for additional discussion of density and classroom size, including research references, see The Great 35 Square Foot Myth).

The effect of well-defined activity centers on children's play behaviors has also been researched. One study found that the most intensive level of engagement and the highest level of exploratory behavior and social interaction took place in well-defined activity areas (Moore 1986).

Several studies have also looked at the amount of resources, or play materials, per child and found that decreasing the amount of play equipment led to increases in aggressive behavior (Rohe & Patterson 1974, Smith 1974, Smith & Connolly 1986).

New research by Kantrowitz and Evans (2004) examined the impact of the ratio of children to the number of activity areas in preschool classrooms. The study found that the ratio of children per classroom activity area is an important factor in the amount of time children spend in play, as well as the quality of the play; specifically, the less children there were per activity area in the classroom, the more time they spent in constructive play.

In summary, research on the design of childcare classrooms shows that quality classrooms, among other design characteristics, have:

  • 45 SF to 54 SF of usable classroom space per child in size,
  • Well-defined activity areas with age-appropriate materials, and
  • Enough activity areas to keep the child/activity ratio small (less children per activity area).

Early childhood environments that meet these requirements promote the maximum amount of both quality and social play, the least aggressive behaviors and subject children to the least amount of stress.


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