Most of us grow up learning that rules are a list of “don’ts”. Don’t ride your bike without a helmet. Don’t touch the stove. Don’t do this, that or the other. These rules come from the natural inclination for adults to keep children safe. Not a bad thing, however, a list of don’ts can turn the world into a less imaginative place for a child.

This list of don’ts often extends to architecture—especially when designing early childhood educational environments and care facilities. For every project SHP Leading Design works on, there are a series of guidelines, zoning regulations and building codes we use to inform the design, as well as an additional layer of local licensure and quality certifications to consider.

But what if we flip it around, and think of licensure, certifications and guidelines not as a list of don’ts, but as a list of dos? What if we think of the organizations which propose such regulations not as governing bodies or powers-that-be, but as intentional partners in the design process?

When we change our mindset about the list of don’ts, we as designers afford ourselves the opportunity, with our partners, to provide the best possible environments for young children to learn, live, grow and become persons in.

This was at the heart of an assignment my colleague John Noble and I presented during our studio course with the University of Cincinnati in 2017. The course engaged students in the School of Education and School of Architecture in a cross-disciplinary examination of the spatial ramifications of early childhood pedagogies. One of our assignments was to use the NAEYC’s “Observable Criteria” tool to spur great design.

In one of the solutions, students suggested new methods for air ventilation and sanitation to control odors in inhabited areas and custodial closets (rule 5.C.01). A uniquely-pitched roof created air pressure patterns and directed air flow to a living wall that would use plants and activated charcoal to naturally diffuse odors and purify the air. In another, students designed a way for children to develop their fine-motor skills (rule 2.C.03) by using a series of pulleys and ropes to manipulate a curtain. Yet another group designed handwashing stations that mimic waterfalls, which added elements of playfulness to basic hygiene functions (rule 5.A.09).

John and I were delighted by the results. Students not only showcased their creativity but also demonstrated this: Codes and statues can be design parameters, rather than obstacles! Take a look at some of the studio designs in the gallery below.

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