Built environment

Changing the physical conditions or built environment of settings, either by moving to a new building, or making physical changes to improve the structure, air quality, noise, light or temperature of an existing learning space.

How effective is it?

Overall, changes to the built physical environment of early years settings are unlikely to have a direct effect on learning, once an adequate building standard has been achieved. Moving to a new building or learning space can be an effective part of a process designed to change behaviour or facilitate the use of new learning approaches. There is some evidence that involving early years professionals and children in the design of new spaces can improve learning. However, it is not clear whether this is because the resulting design is actually better for learning or whether involvement in design encourages participants to adopt new behaviours and take more responsibility for outcomes. There is no evidence that new buildings or particular aspects of their architecture or design improve learning by themselves.

It is clear that, for learning, the quality of interaction between early years professionals and children is more important than the quality of the physical space. As a result, it is unlikely that spending additional resources on redecoration or other changes to the physical environment of a setting would be a cost-effective way to improve learning.

There is some evidence that outdoor learning environments can change behaviour, for example, by increasing group interaction, but it is not currently known whether this leads to improvements in learning.

Some aspects of the built environment do show a relationship with learning at the extremes, but most of these are already at appropriate levels in most early years settings. Two exceptions are air quality and high noise levels. The evidence suggests that low air quality does have a negative impact on learning (reducing word recognition by 15% in one study of primary school pupils), and that learning spaces often have poor air quality, with carbon dioxide concentrations higher than the recommended levels. If the noise levels are very high (for example, if the setting is under a flight path), there can also be a measurable detrimental effect on learning.

The evidence on playing music in a setting is inconclusive as it appears that people react differently to different kinds of music according to their preferences. The evidence on colour in the learning environment is similar: personal preference is probably more important than any general effect.

How secure is the evidence?

The research on the impact of the physical environment on learning is generally weak; it is mainly based on correlational studies or inferences from wider environmental research. Very few studies have been conducted with rigorous experimental designs, and this makes it hard to establish causal claims about the impact of any physical changes to the learning environment.

What are the costs?

It is difficult to estimate the costs of changes to the built environment precisely, as they are usually part of capital spending, rather than annual budgets. For example, a new purpose-built nursery school for 100 children costs about £1-2 million up front, but is likely to be used by several generations of children. Improving air quality can be done relatively cheaply with better ventilation, filtration and the use of dehumidifiers where necessary. Overall, per child costs are estimated as low.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. How does the design and layout of your setting support quality learning interactions?

  2. If you are making changes to the built environment, have you considered how you can use this opportunity to encourage new expectations and behaviours from your professionals, the children and their families?

  3. Have you tested the air quality in your setting? In some cases improving air quality may be as simple as opening the windows!