Have you ever watched competitive ballroom dancing where there are ten or twelve couples who are all twirling and swirling around the floor at the same time? Have you ever wondered just how they move about the space without bumping into each other? Perhaps it’s a matter of years of experience and practice. Or, perhaps they have learned the skill of gracious circulation. Through countless hours of being on the dance floor, they understand how to circulate around the environment and graciously share the space.

Gracious circulation is a frequently used term in the world of architecture and home design. This term is used when talking about a home’s movement pattern - or how the floor plan is designed to connect spaces so people can easily move through the house. Circulation elements include entryways, hallways, corridors, or vestibules. These elements offer ways for people to graciously circulate about the home. You might be wondering: How does the idea of a home’s gracious circulation and ballroom dancing apply to designing young children’s learning environments?

Gracious circulation and classroom design

Anyone who has ever been with young children, if only for a brief moment in time, realises that they are always on the go and continuously moving. They rarely stop for more than a few seconds, unless sleeping or on their way to slumber. As they merrily and effortlessly revolve around the classroom layout, young children are much like ballroom dancers. Just like ballroom dancers doing the quickstep, children are fast on their feet as they actively engage with the environment. This active movement is what children are innately compelled to do. Because movement is an integral part of children’s physical being, it is important for educators to design learning environments where children can fulfil their innate urges and compulsions to move. A critical component of classroom design, therefore, is layout.

Classroom layout refers to the actual physical setup of the furniture such as chairs, tables, shelves, and play equipment within the space. For early childhood classrooms, gracious circulation means laying out the classroom so children can easily navigate about the classroom without bumping or touching each other. Here are several classroom design strategies for gracious circulation.

Gracious circulation is an especially helpful design strategy for children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) because they often feel threatened by closeness and touching others.

Design strategies for gracious circulation

Reduce number of shelves
Do you really need all those shelves in your classroom? Critically evaluate each piece of furniture to determine its purpose. If a specific purpose is unclear, it’s time to remove it from the classroom.

Because children require room for circulating without physical congestion, a good guideline for gracious circulation is to design a layout that has more room for children’s foot space and less square footage devoted to shelf space.

Reduce furniture footprints
Architects often use the term footprint. It means the area on a surface covered by something such as the home’s footprint. Calculate how much square footage is being taken up by large footprint furniture pieces in your classroom and consider replacing for smaller pieces.

Rather than a large cumbersome bookshelf, for example, try placing small book baskets in multiple areas of the classroom. A good guideline for gracious circulation is to select flexible, modular, or smaller sized furniture pieces.

Increase circulation pathways
When laying out the early childhood classroom, there is a tendency to use furniture to define learning spaces. For example, to make a “wall” between the science area and writing centre, teachers often use shelving units for creating a visual and physical barrier between the two spaces. Typically, this is accomplished by placing the short end of a shelving unit against the actual classroom wall on either side of the space and then placing a shelving unit in the front of the centre, which means there is only one way into and out of the area. Increase the number of pathways into an area by pulling the cabinet ends out from the wall (2 or 3 feet).

A good layout design guideline for gracious circulation is to have at least two ways to enter and leave a space.

Gracious circulation is a learned skill that ballroom dancers have practiced for many years. It is a skill that helps them twirl about the dance floor without bumping into others.

Because young children haven’t yet developed the skill of being able to move about the classroom in gracious ways, they need environments which are intentionally designed to promote this skill. Focus your attention on how children circulate throughout the classroom space and how they move from one area to another. Observe the number of times a route is repeated in any given period of time. ‘When planning classroom circulation routes, make sure there are plenty of pathways and lots of space to navigate these dance steps.

Remember that children are new to the dance and they need gracious spaces around them while dancing.

Notice how the design of this classroom layout promotes children’s movement and offers plenty of opportunities for gracious circulation. New Shoots Children’s Centre/New Zealand.

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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