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Using wayfinding as a classroom design strategy

There are times when it is important to watch the view beneath your feet such as when walking on a muddy trail, rocky pathway, uneven sidewalk, or bumpy walkway. We are careful when traversing down steep stairs, climbing up and down a tall step ladder, or getting in and out of a wobbly canoe. When unfamiliar with the landscape or unsure of our footing, we watch our step because we don’t want to trip, stumble, or-worst case scenario-fall. What’s below our feet tells us how to act and move. An uneven walking surface sends a message to slow down and mind our step. Or, when coming down a steep hill, our brains send a message to our bodies to walk with care and our eyes help us to find the best way down. The view beneath our feet informs us how to navigate and move about the space. Likewise, the view beneath children’s feet sends important wayfinding messages about how to move about the classroom environment.

 

Improving children’s views through effective wayfinding

Wayfinding is the act of finding an intended destination within an environment. A good example of wayfinding is how airport architects have created visual and physical cues to help travellers navigate an unfamiliar airport. Finding one’s way through an unfamiliar airport can be extremely challenging. Experiencing numerous problems such as taking a lot of wrong turns while trying to find one’s way eventually leads to frustration, exasperation, stress, impatience, and even anger. The same is true for young children, especially those who are younger and just learning how to effectively navigate their bodies through space. When little ones cannot find their way through the classroom, they become frustrated because their bodies are confined and their minds are confused. Frustration takes over and results in pushing, shoving, crying, screaming, and of course biting. To avoid these problematic situations, just as with airport environments, children’s environments need wayfinding elements of design.

Wayfinding can be an effective design strategy for organizing the classroom environment around a universal language of visual and physical cues. Clear messages send suggestions to children about how to navigate the room. Effective wayfinding strategies should include ways for children to move through unobstructed pathways (or crawl ways) but also include simple challenges for young bodies. So, here are a few effective design elements for classroom wayfinding.

 

Wayfinding Design Elements

*Corrugated drainage pipe can be found at home improvement stores. Its officially called HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) and used for water drainage systems. The pipe comes in 4” up to 60” in diameter. Because the HDPE pipe comes in 20’ lengths, it is pretty expensive. However, it can be cut into many small pieces with a tool called a Saw Zaw (found on Amazon). The HDPE pipe is completely waterproof so it can also be used outside on the playground.

Area rugs as a wayfinding design strategy

Very young children have a tendency to wander about the classroom because their young brains are just learning how to conceptualise space or make mental representations needed to make their way through an environment. Educators can help young children navigate by designing a space that guides and draws their attention toward certain areas or destinations. For example, take a look at this intentionally designed two-year-old classroom. The area rugs have been strategically placed to create pathways throughout the space. These pathways are sending messages to children about which way to walk and how to move about the space. Also, notice the wayfinding strategies such as the tunnel in the back of the room, the archway in the middle of the room, and the stepping squares to the left of the large rug.

Gracious circulation

Everything (including furniture, furnishings, and materials) influence how and what children experience in the early childhood classroom. Everything either promotes—or doesn’t promote—children’s opportunities for effectively navigating the environment. Too often, however, educators become overzealous in their desire to provide the very best classroom environment resulting in overcrowded and cluttered spaces. Classrooms filled with too much furniture, too much equipment, and too many materials make for a rocky wayfinding journey especially for very young children.

When designing early childhood classrooms, remember that less is more. Create classrooms with what is known as “gracious circulation” or the ability for children to navigate the classroom without touching others. For children with trauma issues or sensory processing issues, this is especially important. Some children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences feel threatened by closeness so having enough physical space (or gracious circulation) gives them comfort. And, because these children are always monitoring for their safety and looking for places of refuge, classrooms overloaded with furniture causes congestion, which can be physically and emotionally demanding for them. Consider improving children’s wayfinding by reducing the amount of stuff (i.e., furniture, equipment, shelving units) for achieving gracious circulation.

Conclusion

Children are constantly moving. Improve children’s navigation about the classroom by using wayfinding design strategies and being sure there is enough room to move with gracious circulation.

About the author:

Sandra works to assure the miracle and magic of childhood through indoor and outdoor play space environments that are intentionally designed to connect young children to their early learning environments, communities, and neighbourhoods. Dr. Duncan is an international consultant, author of seven books focused on the environmental design of early childhood places, designer of two furniture collections called Sense of Place and Sense of Place for Wee Ones, and Adjunct Professor at Nova Southeastern University. Sandra has designed and taught university courses on built early learning environments, collaborating with architects, interior designers, and educators to create extraordinary places and possibilities for children and students of all ages. Books and articles include:

 

  1. Inspiring Spaces for Young Children
  2. Rating Observation Scale for Inspiring Spaces
  3. Rethinking the Classroom Landscape: Creating Environments that Connect Young Children, Families, and Communities
  4. Through A Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder
  5. Bringing the Outside In: Ideas for Creating Nature-Based Classroom Experiences for Young Children
  6. The Honeycomb Hypothesis: How Infants, Toddlers, and Two Year Olds Learn Through Nature Play (Available Spring, 2022)
  7. Designing Inspiring Environments for Infants, Toddlers, and Two Year Olds: Lessons from Nature (Available 2023)

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