The summary below presents the research evidence on physical environment in the Australasian context.
The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of physical environment interventions on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.
This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on physical environment. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of physical environment interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.
CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) generated this evidence summary and it is current for July 2019.
Summary of Australasian Research
The physical environment of early childhood education and care settings (ECECS) incorporates indoor and outdoor structures and design elements (e.g. room size, outdoor space, layout, furniture, gardens, play equipment, colour), temperature, air quality, noise, and lighting.
Overall, Australasian research investigating links between the physical environment of ECECS and pre-schoolers’ health, learning and development is limited, with most studies being qualitative or cross-sectional in design, as opposed to intervention based. Nevertheless, there is emerging global evidence to suggest the physical environment of ECECS is an important influence on physical activity and active play, and has the potential to improve the overall health and development of young children in care (Hodges, Smith, Tidwell, & Berry, 2013; Timmons et al., 2012; Trost, Ward, & Senso, 2010).
Outdoor physical environment
There is evidence to suggest a positive association between time spent outdoors and children’s physical activity at ECECS (Tonge, Jones, & Okely, 2016). In addition, larger outdoor (and indoor) play spaces are associated with children being more physically active whilst attending ECEC (Tonge et al., 2016). There is some evidence that other attributes of the ECEC outdoor environment facilitate increased opportunities to be active. These include natural features (e.g., gardens), portable and fixed play equipment, path presence and design, and different surfaces and gradients (Tonge et al., 2016).
ECEC outdoor spaces offer important opportunities for learning and development. For example, green spaces and fixed features such as bridges and cubby houses provide opportunities for imaginative and creative play (Dyment & O'Connell, 2013; Merewether, 2015); whilst sandpits provide opportunities for constructive and symbolic play, especially when natural/green areas are limited (Dyment & O'Connell, 2013). Pathways help connect play areas and are good for functional play (e.g. bike loops, chasing games) (Dyment & O'Connell, 2013). Edible gardens encourage healthy eating, communication, self-help/care, respect for the environment, a sense of belonging and learnings about nature (Dawson, Richards, Collins, Reeder, & Gray, 2013). Results from a survey of 245 ECE centres across Australia identified that risk-taking (e.g. playing at height or speed, rough and tumble play, secluded play away from adults) was considered essential for developing a wide range of motor, perceptual, and cognitive abilities in young children (Little, 2017); and that outdoor environments which facilitate risk-taking include uneven ground, water play, large open spaces, climbing heights up to 1.5m and secluded spaces (Little & Sweller, 2015). ECECS located away from high-traffic roads have been shown to have reduced nitrogen dioxide levels both outdoors and indoors, compared to ECECS located in high traffic areas, which could have important implications for asthma related symptoms in children attending ECECS located in high versus low traffic areas (Clelland, Lyne, Salmond, Chelimo, & Dirks, 2015; Lyne, 2008).
Indoor physical environment
A study of two ECE centres on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland interviewed four parents and four educators. The educators and parents expressed that the structural qualities of ECECS were important for children’s learning, including high ceilings to dissipate noise, large spaces for play, extensive use of glass for connection to outdoors, and areas for exploration and imagination (Berris & Miller, 2011). Interiors that are fun, bright and soft with furnishings that allow modifying space for different activities were reported to provide more stimulation for children (Berris & Miller, 2011). Open-plan designs may result in difficulty listening and learning, and if used should include moveable walls to close-off areas for critical listening activities (Mealings, Buchholz, Demuth, & Dillon, 2015).
In summary, there is emerging evidence to suggest the physical environment is an important influence on physical activity and active play which has the potential to improve the overall health and development of young children in early childhood settings.
Berris, R., & Miller, E. (2011). How Design of the Physical Environment Impacts on Early Learning: Educators' and Parents' Perspectives. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36(4), 102-110.
Clelland, P., Lyne, M., Salmond, J., Chelimo, C., & Dirks, K. (2015). Nitrogen dioxide exposure at early childhood centres next to high- and low-traffic roads in Auckland, New Zealand. Air Quality and Climate Change, 49(1), 28-31.
Dawson, A., Richards, R., Collins, C., Reeder, A. I., & Gray, A. (2013). Edible gardens in early childhood education settings in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 24(3), 214-218.
Dyment, J., & O'Connell, T. (2013). The impact of playground design on play choices and behaviors of pre-school children. Children's Geographies, 11(3), 263-280.
Hodges, E. A., Smith, C., Tidwell, S., & Berry, D. (2013). Promoting physical activity in preschoolers to prevent obesity: a review of the literature. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 28(1), 3-19.
Little, H. (2017). Promoting risk-taking and physically challenging play in Australian early childhood settings in a changing regulatory environment. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 15(1), 83-98.
Little, H., & Sweller, N. (2015). Affordances for Risk-Taking and Physical Activity in Australian Early Childhood Education Settings. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(4), 337-345.
Lyne, M. (2008). Exposure assessment of traffic-related pm10 pollution in outdoor play areas of early childhood centres. (Master of Philosophy), Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://openrepository.aut.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10292/413/LyneM.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y
Mealings, K. T., Buchholz, J. M., Demuth, K., & Dillon, H. (2015). Investigating the acoustics of a sample of open plan and enclosed Kindergarten classrooms in Australia. Applied Acoustics, 100, 95-105.
Merewether, J. (2015). Young Children's Perspectives of Outdoor Learning Spaces: What Matters? Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(1), 99-108.
Timmons, B. W., LeBlanc, A. G., Carson, V., Connor Gorber, S., Dillman, C., Janssen, I., . . . Tremblay, M. S. (2012). Systematic review of physical activity and health in the early years (aged 0–4 years). Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 37(4), 773-792.
Tonge, K., Jones, R., & Okely, A. (2016). Correlates of children's objectively measured physical activity and sedentary behavior in early childhood education and care services: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine, 89, 129-139.
Trost, S. G., Ward, D. S., & Senso, M. (2010). Effects of child care policy and environment on physical activity. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 42(3), 520-525. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181cea3ef
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Physical environment; early learning; early childhood; physical setting; building; physical classroom environment; built environment; sound/noise; ventilation; air quality; lighting; open plan; outdoor teaching; school physical environment; furniture/furnishings; interior design; Australia; New Zealand, Australasia.