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September 2000

Designing learning environments for all children: Variety and richness

By Kate Bishop,
Design Consultant - Play for All

I design and build play equipment and play environments for children of all abilities. In this article I want to look at the influence of two principal characteristics that should be present in any play or learning environment for all children. They are variety and richness. Opportunities exist in all environments to use these features to create atmosphere, provide information, entertainment, education and reward at levels suitable for all children and all budgets.

The prospect of designing any environment for children can be intimidating for many people, as they are not sure where to start or how to go about it. It is a complex process, but for the person who just wants to improve their learning environment, simple changes can make a world of difference. Adding a variety of activities and physical spaces within your room, as well as a variety of sensory detail, adds richness to your environment. Adding these things in a way that they are able to change regularly ensures that your environment will have an enduring interest for your children across time.

A child's development is directly linked to its ability to interact with its environment. Children develop an understanding of themselves through their interactions with events and materials outside themselves (Piaget, 1951). All environments have the ability to contribute or retard this process. Anita Old states that " the motivation to interact with the environment exists in all children as an intrinsic property of life, but the quality of the interactions is dependent upon the possibilities for engagement that the environment provides" (Olds, 1979, p.91).

A first step in making changes is to acknowledge the role of the environment in children's lives. The environments that children experience in their early years of life are responsible for creating their understanding of many concepts, giving them spatial awareness, educating their senses, nourishing their curiosity, and encouraging their interaction. For some children with special needs this process does not happen so spontaneously. For these children you need to be aware of their skill level and preferences in order to piece together activities and sensory information in a way that will entice them to interact with their surroundings.

When running a practical workshop, I get the participants to name their favorite recreational environment as a child. Ninety nine percent of the time, they name an outdoor environment. I also get them to list their reasons for choosing this environment and these consistently include:

Child playing in ball pool.

As many of these elements as possible should be present in any children's environment in which learning takes place. There is no better world to witness wonderful examples of variety and richness of textures, colours, light effects, smells, sound and even tastes than the natural one.

"The textures, colours and forms applied to all the surfaces of the environment are the close-at-hand qualities of the environment with which occupants come most in contact, and what they "read" continually in experiencing a setting" (Olds, 1989). It is these features that leave the most lasting impression of an environment on children, as these are the features that are happening on the child's scale. For children with special needs, the detail of colour, texture, smell and lighting can have a much greater impact, depending on their disability. These things can be a source of discomfort and pleasure, as well as information, entertainment, education and reward.

Texture, colour, smell, lighting, sound. These are your best tools. It is through these features that you can soften an institutional space as well as add richness and constant variation.

Why the need for constant variation, even if only subtly?

Firstly, there is the argument for change and novelty being able to stimulate interest and alertness. Once you have achieved this, children may be much more attentive to other things you wish them to experience within an environment.

The second reason has to do with our biology. Our senses are designed to monitor changing sensory input, not constant input. If a sensation remains the same, after a very short period, depending on which sense we are dealing with, we stop perceiving it. Therefore for an environment to remain a constant and active feature in the learning process it needs to be able to continuously change in subtly ways.

How do you add variety and richness?

It is possible to begin adding these two things from the inception of the environment. In other words from the ground up, by including a variety of physical parameters in the design of your environment and being aware of the 'richness of place' as you formulate any design (Day, 1990). This means taking into consideration the special features of the particular site you are working with, and capitalising on them wherever possible.

In this instance I will assume that modification of an existing environment is all that is possible and I will concentrate on indoor environments.

To begin with, there needs to be an overall organisation of space - a layout. This allows you to place and sort the activities you wish to include and their detail. With these first two stages, the aim is not to inhibit children's behaviours but to work with them and channel their energies in a way that makes the environment more workable for all participants. You are trying to strike a balance between your functional needs and promoting to the fullest extent the use of all abilities a child has, however minimal these might be. Your real opportunity to add changeable variety and richness to your space occurs with the addition of all the detail.

Colour for example can play an enormous part in the initial attraction of an activity or atmosphere in a room. It can be used to describe the environment, delineate areas within the room, changes in surface levels of play equipment or as an activity in itself.

For people with visual impairment colour can provide an enormous amount of spatial information. By highlighting walls from floors and ceilings, architraves and doors from walls for example, you not only make the space more 'readable' for them, you can use the same system to soften really institutional spaces.

From research we know that children who are vision impaired do not need any particular feature highlighted. The crucial surfaces are the walls and floor and the junctions between them should be especially clear. We are told that people with vision impairment scan the whole building area ahead of them rather than following one particular feature, so that the distinction between surfaces needs to be clear. The crucial distance is two metres out from their body for information to occur. The colour scheme chosen should contain colours of different tonal qualities and light reflective qualities to help describe space.

After this stage, coloured displays on shelves, coloured mats on floors, the children's art on the walls can go on softening spaces, providing constant change, and visual richness.

There is a limit to the amount of this sort of detail you can add. You can provide an over-stimulating environment which will work against you. Particularly if you have a student in the room who has a problem processing sensory information and can suffer from sensory overload.

Texture is equally important to colour. Everything has a texture but we overlook this. Children are extremely sensual beings and should be given texturally rich environments. I use texture as a source of interest, information, reward, entertainment and a tool for education. I am conscious of it from the moment I begin assembling a design. I use the greatest variety of materials I can, even in the most basic assembly. Texture is useful for denoting changes in areas and function of spaces and features, right down to denoting which is the right or wrong play piece.

Classrooms, for example, rarely make use of this element in their design. Nearly everything is hard and smooth surfaced and made of plastic. Opportunities exist to use different floor tiles in some sections, mats in others, different materials for shelves as against tables, as against chairs. Children who are in wheelchairs for example, have a much greater sense of movement if the floor surface beneath them changes as they are wheeled across the room. Children who are vision impaired need to develop tactile discrimination in anticipation of learning Braille and this is largely up to their environments in the early years.

Using softenings found in the home for example can do a lot to create a welcoming atmosphere. This can be very important for the comfort of younger children. If children do not feel comfortable in a space they will not concentrate as well as they might on whatever it is you wish them to learn. It is important that they feel relaxed and safe for them to truly become involved in what it is they are learning.

Smell is also an extremely influential sense in determining our impression of a space. This sense also provides our strongest memories. The smells in an environment contribute to atmosphere, welcome and comfort. One friend who is blind told me that smell could provide the most potent sensory information which either made her want to stay or leave. It is a transient element in a design and mostly it is only possible to build in the provision for it but it can really add to the richness of an environment. Cooking smells, smell banks housed in a collection of jars or bottles, and herb gardens in pots can transform spaces, atmosphere and mood. These can be added to any space at not much cost.

The last feature I will include in this is sound. Most environments are already full of sound. Some of this adds to the richness of the space and in an urban environment, much of it detracts from the atmosphere of the space. When you add sound to your environment do it wisely, bearing in mind the possible impact it may have. Poor design decisions here can lead to enormous discomfort. Consider children who are vision impaired. Sound is their greatest source of information yet it can also be their greatest source of distress, due to poorly placed features and activities that suddenly produce loud sounds or rooms that are too noisy all the time. Consider children with autism. These children may experience daily changes in their vision and hearing.

Some children with disabilities greatly enjoy experimenting with sound. Auditory response in a cause and effect activity is usually simple to implement and very rewarding for these children. I have found that activities involving sound have a more enduring interest for the children when the sound responses are more musical or have a greater range of tones than when a single noise or note is issued repeatedly from the activity.


I have given a very brief overview of some of the features within every environment which can be readily manipulated to add to its variety and richness. It is also possible to implement these sorts of suggestions on a low budget and without requiring a lot of skill. The workability of any environment can be greatly enhanced through simple changes, but it is important that they are introduced considering the implications for the total effect of the environment on all the potential participants within that environment.


Day, C. (1990). Places of the soul. London: Thorsons.

Olds, A.R.(1979). Designing developmentally optimal classrooms for children with Special needs. In S.J. Meisels, (Ed.). Special education and development. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Olds, A.R.(1989). Psychological and physiological harmony in child care centre design. Children's Environments Quarterly.6,4. 

Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imagination in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Kate Bishop, Design Consultant, Play For All
Phone +61 2 6545 4260
Web Site: 

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