Child Development Centers  

by WBDG Subcommittee
Updated by Judy Marks, NCEF Director



While their parents work, seven out of ten American children under the age of six participate in some form of care outside the home. Because many of them spend up to 12,500 hours in a child development center-most of their waking hours-the facility must be designed to provide safe, nurturing, and stimulating environments essential for the healthy development of our children.

Photo of a hallway with reading niche, Des Moines, IA

Hallway with reading niche at child development center in Des Moines, Iowa. Architects: Wells, Kastner, Schipper

WBDG accepts the majority view that all child development centers should stress quality care, and child growth and development. To this end, all child development centers are encouraged to provide well-illuminated, active and passive activity areas that accommodate a range of play and organized learning as well as serve the needs of adult staff and parents, and facilitate staff-child relationship building.

There are nationally recognized accreditation agencies, such as the Nation's Network of Child Care Resource & Referral (NACCRRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), that identify requirements for quality child development programs and facility conditions, including safety, sanitation, natural daylight, and classroom size.

Building Attributes

While child development centers can take many forms-they can be stand-alone or part of some larger structure; they can be urban or rural; they can be large or small.

A. Types of Spaces

Child Development Centers will contain a variety of space types depending on the hours they are used, the age of the children attending, the number of children attending, and the setting for the center. Fundamental space types may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Child-friendly classrooms
  • Meeting or community space for children and adults
  • Child-friendly and adult restrooms
  • Outdoor and indoor play areas
  • Office space for staff
  • Meeting space for adults
  • Clinic
  • Food service space
  • Storage space
  • See also WBDG Child Care Space Type

All child development centers should seek to:

B. Be Homelike

Like a home, a quality child development center is a place where children can:

  • Relax and be themselves
  • Have ample natural light in all spaces were children will spend time, especially the classrooms
  • Have a sense of arrival and welcome upon entering the center for both children and parents
  • Use indirect lighting as main ambient lighting to avoid a "commercial" flavor
  • Feel and be safe and secure
  • Find different places for different kinds of learning
  • Work and play using different furnishings and varied lighting
  • Avoid institutional, unnatural finishes and textures. Use natural finishes to the extent possible, emphasizing a "hand-made" appearance
  • Have no sharp edges: ½" bull-nose on all exterior corners at child-level gypsum and trim typical. Integral bull nose corner beads are recommended.
  • Provide Comfortable Environments

C. Be Child-Sized

Preferably, facilities designed for children should have:

  • Child-sized furniture appropriate to the specific age group served
  • Ceiling heights should be varied, low enough for intimacy, and high enough to avoid a monotonous spatial experience
  • Windows at children's level
  • Doors, sinks, toilets, and water fountains that are "child friendly" and mounted at appropriate heights
  • Functional / Operational

D. Encourage Autonomy

Child development centers should be designed to allow children to:

  • Independently address bodily needs such as hunger, thirst, using the toilet, and sleep
  • Set their own pace
  • Choose activities and toys
  • Choose their own friends and companions - or be alone
  • Be active or still
  • Create three-dimensional projects that are protected from destruction by everyday traffic through classroom space
  • Promote Health and Well-Being

E. Invite Self-Expression

Such facilities are characterized by:

  • Restraint in color and furnishings (e.g., neutral tones for backgrounds and ceilings, with warm colors for accents)
  • Space for children's art, located at the children's eye level together with a well-thought out and safe way of hanging art and displaying three-dimensional projects
  • Space for objects that children bring to share or that have special meaning
  • Changing displays more than permanent graphics

F. Provide Space, Indoor and Outdoor Physical Activities

Child development centers should have playground and multi-purpose play space for inclement weather. These areas should allow:

  • Running
  • Playing ball
  • Climbing, swinging, sliding, and balancing
  • Storage of play items such as tricycles
  • Access to nearby toilets
  • Controlled access for maintenance
Photo of a playground at a child development center in Honolulu, HIPhoto of a playground area at a child development center in Honolulu, HI

Playground areas at a child development center in Honolulu, Hawaii allow children to interact with their peers and explore their surroundings. Landscape & Playground Designers: Moore Iacofano Goltsman (MIG)

G. Have Outdoor and Indoor Spaces for Nature

When possible, they should contain places to:

  • Dig in dirt or sand
  • Play with water
  • Grow seeds, flowers, and vegetables
  • Investigate animal life
  • Collect rocks, leaves, or other specimens
  • Contain a variety and scale of natural elements such as trees, flowers, and shrubs
  • Have quiet time, away from the "crowd" while still being able to be supervised
  • Places for large motor activities such as climbing and riding wheeled toys
  • Storage shed(s) for storage of outdoor equipment
  • Have a (typically) 6'-0" fence completely surrounding the play area

H. Be Structured, Yet Flexible

This means that different spaces in a facility:

  • Can be recognized by children
  • Are for quiet and active play
  • Can be rearranged by children for their own activities
  • Contain adequate storage facilities to avoid a chaotic impression
  • Beyond Accessibility to Universal Design
Photo of entry desk at child development center

Staff can monitor and control access to the child development center from desks positioned at the entry such as the one shown in the photo. World Bank, Washington, DC.

I. Include Appropriate Space for Parents and Teachers

This includes places to:

J. Be Safe, Secure, and Healthy

This includes provisions and strategies to ensure that:

Relevant Codes and Standards

As the number of child development centers increases, more and more agencies, states, and municipalities are requiring that child development centers within their jurisdictions meet minimum facility and operating standards. However, in most states the facilities requirements are limited to relatively few and minimal health and safety issues such as the adequacy of bathrooms, egress, and lighting. The most comprehensive facilities standards available at present, sometimes cited in state and municipal codes, are those promulgated by federal agencies. Among the organizations that have led the way toward the definition of comprehensive child development centers criteria are the U.S. General Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Defense.


  • National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF)-Managed by the National Institute of Building Sciences, NCEF is the largest source of school facilities information in the world. NCEF provides information on planning, designing, funding, building, improving and maintaining safe, healthy, high performing pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools and higher education facilities.

Executive Order

Executive Order 13693 Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, mandates buying products that reduce environmental impact. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPG) lists designated products that federal agencies are required to purchase. Two specific product categories apply to the development of play yards: Park and Recreation Equipment and Playground Surfacing.

Federal Government

Department of Defense

Private Sector

Major Resources


Building / Space Types

Youth Centers, Educational Facilities, Child Care

Design Objectives

Functional / Operational, Productive, Secure / Safe, Sustainable

Project Management

Building Commissioning

Federal Agencies and Organizations


Points of Contact

  • Ania Shapiro: U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) Child Care Operations Center of Expertise. 1800 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20405.