What is physical environment for children?

Physical development provides infants and toddlers with skills and abilities to explore and interact with the world around them. A supportive environment for infants and toddlers should be safe and interesting to encourage movement and exploration. This lesson will provide information on ways to create environments and experiences that support ongoing infant and toddler physical growth and development.

Early childhood is recognised as a critical time for improving the development and wellbeing of children through to their later life. Research shows that many societal outcomes in adulthood (e.g. physical and mental health, criminality and educational outcomes) are rooted in early childhood experiences. This provides a strong argument for investing in this period of childhood., Local government plays an important role in designing local physical environments to support early childhood development., This short article provides the best available evidence of the physical environmental factors that affect early childhood development. This can support local governments in their role in influencing urban design.

What physical environmental factors affect early childhood development?

There are varying types and quality of evidence on how physical environments affect early childhood development; from strong evidence such as systematic reviews to single studies and case studies. Current best available evidence suggests a number of physical environmental factors that influence early childhood development. In this short article, early childhood and young children are defined as under eight years of age in accordance with international standards.

The built environment

A large Australian evidence review suggests environmental toxins (e.g. traffic-related fine particles) have detrimental effects on neurological development in young children. Infants and young children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins than in later years and even low levels of exposure can have significant effects on their neurological development.

Reducing local traffic exposure provides a safer and more accessible environment for children to move around independently., This promotes opportunities for play, spontaneous social interactions and active modes of transport, which can positively influence early childhood development. Child-relevant destinations (e.g. health and social services, kindergartens and schools) close to home are considered to be beneficial to early childhood development for similar reasons., However, more research is required on the relationship between built-environmental features and childhood development.

Nature and open public spaces

Several systematic reviews have identified a positive relationship between green spaces and early childhood development, especially physical and mental wellbeing.,,,, Greater access to, or quantity of, nature and public open spaces (such as playgrounds, school grounds, club/pay facilities) can support early childhood development. Nature and public open spaces provide opportunities for creative and adventurous play, social interaction and physical activity., This may be even more important for children in lower socio-economic backgrounds, as more privileged children often have access to backyards that provide similar benefits.,

Climate and the physical environment

Warmer temperatures and extreme heat have been associated with poor childhood developmental outcomes. Young children are more vulnerable to changes in the climate due to their dependence on others to move to a warmer/cooler location, put on a coat or drink water. Emerging research suggests the impact of climate change and weather extremities on children’s development should not be overlooked, especially with the increasing health effects of climate change. Parks and nature spaces are proven to provide a cooler space during warmer weather, and street tree canopies can provide cooling for pedestrians.

Participation in urban planning

Case studies on urban planning for children emphasise the importance of including children and families in this planning; a strategy that has been promoted by UNICEF.,, Parents, pregnant women and young children have been under-represented in urban planning processes. Involving children and families in urban planning provides opportunities to create positive physical environments that promote creativity, play and feelings of ownership, which are important elements of early childhood development.

What can municipalities do to support early childhood development?

Local governments are responsible for local urban planning and have the capacity to regulate certain environments used by families with young children. According to the best-available research, there are several ways local governments can implement changes to help support early childhood development:

  • Promote young children’s ability to interact with the environment. This could be through providing safe, walkable neighbourhoods with low traffic exposure and improving access to and the availability of green, open spaces.
  • Protect young children from environmental harm. This could involve limiting exposure to environmental toxins by reducing high traffic exposure close to child-relevant destinations and providing ideal temperature control in indoor environments young children frequent (child care centres, libraries, swimming pools).
  • Involve families and children in neighbourhood planning. This is not always easy to do and there are guides available on how to implement this.

Local governments may also need to work with other child-oriented local organisations when creating environments that promote early childhood development.


Local physical environmental features (e.g. green spaces and open public spaces, traffic exposure, residential density and the climate) affect young children’s development. Local governments have a valuable role in designing urban environments to support early childhood development and can use this evidence in their decision making to assist in this process.


Featured image: GettyImages/SDI Productions

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What is physical environment for children?
The term physical environment refers to the overall design and layout of a given classroom and its learning centers. Teachers should design the environment by organizing its spaces, furnishings, and materials to maximize the learning opportunities and the engagement of every child. To effectively do so, teachers can apply a concept known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which stresses that the environment and its materials in it should be accessible to everyone. Creating this accessibility might involve providing books at different reading levels, placing materials within easy reach on a shelf, or creating ample space so that a child who uses a wheelchair can maneuver around the classroom.

When they set out to design an effective physical environment, teachers should consider all of that environment’s various aspects. Once they have selected child-sized, age-appropriate furnishings, teachers should then think about each of the following. Click the items below to learn more.

A well-designed physical environment has different activity areas with clear, physical, and visual boundaries, defined by the furnishings and floor coverings. These furnishings and floor coverings should create spaces that are comfortable and that lend themselves to their intended purpose. For example, a block area might have bookshelves to set it off as a block center, and carpeting or foam flooring to muffle the sound when blocks fall on the floor. Also, the library area should have a soft, comfortable floor covering for young children and adults to sit on while they look at the books. When they arrange furnishings, teachers should:

  • Make sure that all children are visible to adults and that adults are visible to children, to ensure proper supervision.
  • Design areas with spaces for children to work and play independently or in small groups, and to gather as a community.
  • Establish clear boundaries to indicate where the center space begins and ends.
  • Consider the location of centers. Centers with high activity levels (e.g., block centers, dramatic play areas, music centers) should not be located close to centers with quieter activities (e.g., listening centers, computer areas).
  • Consider the number and size of centers. Make sure there is enough room that children can be engaged without being crowded.
  • Create cozy, private spaces. Create safe spaces where children can retreat to rest, observe, and recharge emotionally throughout the day.

Another aspect of the physical environment includes the selection and placement of materials. The selection of materials includes choosing toys and other physical objects that are age- and developmentally appropriate, as well as linguistically and culturally relevant, for the young children in the classroom. For example, the block area should include a variety of blocks to allow children with varying motor skills to manipulate them, and these materials should be placed so that they are easily accessed. Teachers should also take care when it comes to:

  • Organizing materials and keeping them in appropriate places (e.g., art materials in art center, sensory table near sink), taking into consideration children’s development of independence skills.
  • Providing enough materials within the centers so that children can be engaged and not arguing over limited resources.
  • Having centers organized and ready to go when children arrive.
  • Making sure the materials represent the diversity and the ability levels of the children.
  • Placing heavier items on lower shelves so that children do not get hurt when they take them down.
  • Providing safe play items that offer developmentally appropriate challenges to promote the growth of problem-solving skills.
  • Encouraging children to help make decisions about materials.
  • Rotating materials both to promote children’s interest and to keep the materials novel.

Another important aspect of the physical environment is the design and display of visual materials. Visual material— such as posters for displaying classroom rules, daily schedules, and steps to complete a routine (e.g., hand washing)—help young children to know what to do and to better understand their environments. For example, in the block area, the teacher can label the center and use visuals of the different blocks to indicate where they belong on the shelves. This can aid the children when the time comes to clean up the center. Other considerations include:

  • Displaying children’s work so that they can take pride in it and can feel a sense of ownership of the room. Doing this also offers opportunities for language development: When children talk about their work or comment on other children’s work, teachers can use these opportunities to build their language skills.
  • Posting visuals at the eye-level of children so that they can see them.
  • Using visuals to indicate when a center is closed (e.g., visual prompts such as sheets or blankets, circles with a slash through them).
  • Displaying materials that are representative of the environment’s diversity (e.g., culture, disability, language, family structures).
  • Labeling centers and frequently used materials in languages that represent the home languages of the children in the classroom.
  • Having children bring in pictures of their families for display in the classroom so that they feel comfortable and at home in their environment.

When they design the physical environment, teachers should also consider its lighting and sound. Teachers can use lighting and sound to create a comfortable environment that is conducive to the different activities that occur throughout the day. For example, so that children can engage in both quiet and more active play activities during center time, the block area can be carpeted to reduce noise. Teachers can also keep in mind:

  • Natural lighting, or light from windows, is best when available.
  • Lighting can be used to create moods (e.g., small lamps in home living areas to resemble a home environment).
  • Using flooring materials that muffles sound can reduce noise from active centers. Chairs with rubber leg bottoms or chairs with tennis balls over metal bottoms can also help to reduce sound, as can wall hangings, drapes, and soft furnishings.
  • Because some children are sensitive to loud sounds and bright lights, teachers might need to find ways to minimize noise and to create a dimly lit space for them.

For Your Information

To help prevent problem behavior:

  • Minimize large open spaces in which children can run
  • Provide enough materials within the centers so that children do not have to compete for them
  • Use visual and environmental cues to help children know what to do

Including Families

Teachers can collaborate with families to create a physical environment that reflects the importance of those families and that promotes a sense of belonging. They can do this by:

  • Creating a parent communication board and welcome area in the room to share information
  • Requesting family pictures to be displayed throughout the classroom and the early childhood center
  • Asking families to provide resources that are representative of materials and objects their children use at home
  • Ensuring the diversity of families within the program, as well as other families throughout the world, through such things as artifacts, artwork, posters, toys, puzzles, and toy people sets

Including Children with Disabilities

Teachers need to ensure that young children with disabilities are able to fully access and participate in learning experiences. They can do this by making minor changes to the physical environment, such as:

  • What is physical environment for children?
    Changing or modifying the chairs to meet children’s needs (e.g., making sure the children’s feet touch the floor, using a sensory cushion- a cushion that stimulates kids who crave sensory or tactile input when sitting, having bean bag chairs available)
  • Putting squares or pictures on the floor to indicate where children should line up or sit
  • Modifying materials, such as markers, to make them easier for children with motor difficulties to hold (e.g., using pencil grips)
  • Providing specialized equipment (e.g., built-up handled spoons, adaptive scissors) as recommended by an occupational therapist or physical therapist to help children be more independent
  • Making room for specialized equipment (e.g., walker) or assistive technology (e.g., communication board)
  • Creating individualized visual materials to help children to take part in daily routines (e.g., flip book)


assistive technology

Any item, service, equipment, or product system—whether acquired commercially, specially designed, or created via changes to an existing product—that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities in the daily life of an individual with a disability; comes in two forms, devices and services.


communication board

A form of assistive technology, these displays consist of photographs, symbols, words/phrases, or any combination of these designed to make language visible and accessible for individuals with speech impairments.


flip book

A simple book that uses pictures or symbols to help children to participate and follow daily routines (e.g., bathroom procedures, wash hands, lunch).

When they make items like pencils grips or specialized scissors available for all children, teachers avoid making certain children stand out.

Listen as Abby Green talks about how she arranges the physical environmental to help the children understand classroom expectations. Then listen as Ilene Schwartz talks about the concept of Universal Design for Learning in an early childhood environment.

What is physical environment for children?

Abby Green-Taylor, MEd
Teacher III / KidTalk Coach
Susan Gray School
Vanderbilt University

(time: 1:24)

What is physical environment for children?

Ilene Schwartz, PhD
Professor, Special Education
Director, Haring Center for Research and Training in Inclusive Education
University of Washington

(time: 1:42)

Transcript: Abby Green-Taylor, MEd

I use environmental arrangement to show which toys are available or not available and make sure that anything visible is accessible and available upon appropriate requests. Everything else will be out of sight, so there’s nothing tempting or to promote problem behaviors. We let the children know through the environment what their expectations are. This is an activity where we’ll sit at a table, or we’ll put circles on the carpet where they’ll sit during story time. We’ll use the green squares on the floor to signify where they’ll stand to line up. That lets them know where to be, and therefore they’re successful in their environment.

The environment’s always set up where there is free play going on, as well as one to two other activities, so that children have the opportunity to choose within their environment where they can be the most successful at a given time. I don’t put any materials out that I’m not going to let them use, and so I don’t limit in that way. In the past, I’ve used a choice board where there’s four pieces of Velcro, and the children have their own owls, and that will tell them that four people can be at a given center. And that works well. In our new setup, I don’t have to limit because I always have enough choices open, and I make sure that there are enough activities going on.

Transcript: Ilene Schwartz, PhD

When we think about Universal Design for Learning, one of the most simple ways to think about that is that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, multiple ways to address a problem, multiple ways to get to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish. And that’s so important when we think about environments. The best example for this is when we think about how our society now uses curb cuts. Curb cuts and rounds were developed and are mandated for people who use wheelchairs or have other kinds of mobility challenges. But anyone with a stroller or a rolling suitcase can appreciate how much they benefit from those rounds or curb cuts. The same happens in an early childhood environment. We may put carpet squares out at circle time to help some children understand where their body needs to be, but those carpet squares can benefit all children. We may label every cubby in the classroom where everything needs to go. Those labels help children who are learning to read, those who are learning English. They can have benefits for all kinds of children. So one of the things when we think about Universal Design for Learning is that supports that we put in place for some children may benefit all children and may even benefit them in ways that we don’t understand..

Additional Considerations for Infants and Young Toddlers

What is physical environment for children?
Teachers have a great deal of control over what infants and young toddlers (i.e., birth24 months) experience in the physical environment. This is at least in part to the fact that infants and young toddlers depend on adults for their mobility. Because of this, arranging a classroom for infants and toddlers requires some specific considerations in addition to those described above. These include:

  • Keeping all appropriate materials in the environment accessible to infants and toddlers so that they can explore on their own and therefore develop independence and initiative.
  • Creating spaces where children can crawl and walk. Self-initiated movement is essential to a young child’s emotional development. Crawling to a desired toy and picking it up helps a young child to develop feelings of self-confidence and achievement.
  • Providing safe lofts and climbing structures to support the development of motor skills.

Listen as Rob Corso explains why it is so important for teachers to create a nurturing and responsive environment for infants and toddlers (time: 1:40).

Transcript: Rob Corso, PhD

For infants and young toddlers, teachers really control pretty much everything they experience. So what they see, what they smell, what they touch. The key for effective environments for infants and young toddlers is really to embrace the concept of nurturing and responsive caregiving, which is a combination of relationships in the environment. The adult behaviors lay the foundation for healthy development of infants and young children. The environment and the curriculum are really blended together for how well caregivers can be responsive for the daily routines of mealtime, naptime, diaper changing. So how conducive the environment is for caregivers to be able to respond quickly and appropriately to the needs of infants and young children is really the core of what makes something a high-quality environment. In addition, for infants and young children high-quality environments have to have spaces for them to explore freely and safely in ways that are interesting and engaging, calm, and can promote interactions between adults and children, as well as children and other children. The environment for infants and young children is all about how to make sure caregivers can form close and secure relationships with the children. When adults are caring and responsive and consistent, infants and young children learn that they’re valued and that the world is satisfying and predictable, so this is really all part of the environment for infants and young children.

  • Environments that have been carefully and effectively arranged and maintained can significantly increase positive peer-to-peer interactions.
  • Using toys or activities that support social interaction (e.g., wagons, painting a mural) and grouping children with social delays with their more social peers can dramatically affect the frequency and duration of positive peer interactions.
    (Bovey, T., & Strain, P. 2005)

What is physical environment for children?
What is physical environment for children?

In this high-quality environment:

  • The bookshelves, easels, and other furniture are used to break the room into small centers.
  • A variety of materials are available and accessible to children.
  • Visuals are placed at eye-level to support children in understanding the day’s schedules and routines.
  • Window shades are fully open to take advantage of natural light. A lamp and string of lights help to further offset the fluorescent light in the room.

In this less-supportive environment:

  • The wide-open space* and uniform carpet color are not supportive in helping children to know what to do.
  • The areas are not separated.
  • The cubbies are poorly organized.
  • The visuals are placed well above the children’s eye-level.

* Note: This teacher may need more open space if one of her children uses a wheelchair. If this is the case, decisions regarding space must be carefully considered taking into account the children in the classroom.

Review the picture of the preschool classroom below and discuss the strengths of the physical arrangement, as well as some possible changes you could make to improve it.

What is physical environment for children?


  • Sufficient number of centers
  • Utilizes the bookshelves, easels, and other furniture to break the room into small centers
  • A large variety and quantity of materials are available and accessible to children allowing them to play independently or work in small groups
  • Visuals placed at eye-level

Needs improvement:

  • Centers could be better defined to limit open spaces
  • Create a quiet area with soft materials (e.g., rug, pillows, bean bag chairs)
  • Post family pictures on the walls at eye-level
  • Make sure space allows for full participation and access for all children
  • Add labels to identify centers
  • Increase natural lighting (if possible)

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What is physical environment for children?
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