Professional Development

Day Care

Infant and Toddler Room Requirements for Their Own Space

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The first three years of life are recognized as critically important to later development.  Infants and toddlers need more than just physical care.  They require meaningful interactions with caregivers, a full range of movement and sensorial experiences with the environment, and safe and quiet places in which to sleep.  Infants are awake at least 50% of the day and spend this time looking, listening, and responding as if “hungry” for stimulation.  Thus, they require varied and stimulating experiences outside their cribs.  The daily cycle of each child is apt to be unique.  Both infants and toddlers are highly sensitive to the appearance and organization  of their surroundings and can think in terms of physical landmarks and bodily cues.  Cognitive development is optimized when they are assisted to make predictions about events, objects and people around them.  Such predictability is clearly related to the characteristics, organization, and design of space.

Infants and toddlers require a separate environment, partially insulated, but not necessarily isolated, from one another and from preschoolers.  The environment should provide stimulating sensory input, contain a large variety of manipulable objects, and a variety of textured, crawling surfaces.  For easy supervision, all areas should be barrier free, flow easily from one to the other, and be visually interconnected.

The most important developmental goals for children under 3 years are the support of language, cognitive, gross motor, fine motor, and social development.  The ideal environment provides frequent opportunities to learn to move and to learn by moving, and stimulate a full range of movements for body control, object control, and control of self in space.  All surfaces and the entire ambience should be conceived as invitations to move in ways which give motoric capacities their fullest reign within safe and tolerable limits.

Typical activities to provide include:  playing with visual and sound-making objects, with staff, and with peers; singing and movement activities; exploring textures, odors, colors, sights, and sounds; crawling, reaching, pulling-to-stand, standing, walking and falling; playing with crib toys, mobiles, busy boxes; eating and trying to self-feed; cuddling; identifying body parts; playing with mirrors; observing and mimicking others.  Each child’s day flows from activity to activity according to his or her own timetable.  The schedule and environment should support the need of infants especially, to have direct contact with and become attached to one or two primary caregivers.  When awake, infants are stimulus “hungry” and require a wide variety of sensorial experiences with objects, surfaces, interior and outdoor space, to nourish sensory and aesthetic sensibilities

Areas for at least 5 types of play are necessary:  1) gross motor play (crawling, climbing, wheel toys); 2) structured play (manipulables, puzzles and toys, constructing); 3) quiet play (reading, hiding, resting, listening, cuddling); 4) discovery play (water, sand, paint, clay); and 5) dramatic play (dress-up, dolls, puppets, house).  The environment and equipment must be responsive to infants’ changing postures and scales: crawling with eye level at 6 inches above ground to standing at 20 inches.  Qualitatively different areas for active versus passive, noisy versus quiet, and messy versus clean activities make a space more manageable for caregivers and more interesting for children.


  • Infant and toddler development is optimized when the ENTIRE physical space is ”sculpted” as a landscape to support child and caregiver activities.  The room’s shape and volume, its floors, ceilings, walls, and all its horizontal and vertical surfaces should be seen and designed as interactive surfaces to which children respond.
  • Infants require broad horizontal surfaces which accommodate them and adults comfortably without the need for boundaries or with boundaries that are quite distant.  These surfaces can be on the floor or they might be on enclosed levels that do not exceed 36” high.
  • Toddlers, on the other hand, need to roam freely over an expansive, undulating, horizontal surface with moderate changes in level that are larger than those for infants, to challenge balancing and walking skills.  This might be conceived as a “corralled open range”.
  • The best design strategy is to conceive of the whole room – floors, walls, ceilings, and  horizontal and vertical supports – as potential play and sitting surfaces.  Shape these to stimulate sensory-motor skills.  Assist infants to:  reach vertically and laterally with hands and feet from a variety of positions; lie, sit, and crawl on surfaces of different textures and degrees of responsivity, density, angles of inclination, and with varying degrees of enclosure; use head, neck, and trunk muscles in the pursuit of sounds, objects, events; bring objects to the mouth (all objects should be too large to swallow); gather, fill, dump, stack, and knock down loose parts.
  • To assist toddlers, also add a great deal of climbing up, over, and inside things, including up and down stairs, and supports to hold onto while learning to walk.  Swinging, rocking, and spinning are required by both age groups.
  • Walls can support play panels, vertically mounted toys, grab bars, textures, mirrors, and reflective surfaces at many different heights.  Play panels should be interchangeable, i.e. on brackets that make alternating and changing them easy.  They can themselves function as “walls” and low dividers.
  • Building off a wall horizontally creates seats, tables, counters, high and low platforms, and sloped work surfaces, depending upon the unit’s height and depth.
  • Where a large space must be divided for two groups of infants or to separate infants from toddlers, consider alternatives to a full-height standard wall.  For example, a dividing unit might be built that provides crawling, climbing, sliding, perching, and play spaces on both sides, making the “wall” a vital and functional part of the space.
  •  Floors and horizontal surfaces can be lowered or raised; hard or soft; textured or smooth; solid or slatted; flat, inclined, or wavy; and made of natural or manmade materials.  They can be decorated with pictures, art work, and a variety of textures.  Horizontal surfaces can include water mattresses, air mattresses, sacks of bean bag pellet or varying densities of foam; ramps; trampolines; horizontal net climbers; mats; mattresses; suspension bridges, and other resilient materials.  Carpeted risers can serve as boundaries, play and sitting surfaces for adults and children, objects to climb and crawl over, supports for pulling to stand, and for toddling.  Level changes can be part of a “kit” of modular components that are rearrangeable.
  • Make a special point of utilizing ceilings to support adjustable height grids for displaying wind chimes, mobiles, trapezes, and other devices.  Consider spanning the entire room, at 7-9 feet above the floor, with wooden slats, 6 to 8 inches apart, so suspension can happen anywhere.  Treat at least a portion of any room’s ceiling this way, over a floor space where the suspended items are most likely to be used alternatively, provide a single beam, spanning the room’s most narrow dimension, at 7-9 feet high, to support swings, jolly jumpers, and other suspended equipment.
  • Consider providing a water mattress, surrounded by low risers (5-12 inches high), with an optional cover, for rest and gentle motoric stimulation.  Research (Burns, Deddish, Burns & Hatcher, 1983) demonstrates that premature infants raised on water mattresses mature significantly faster than those raised on standard static crib mattresses.
  • Items particularly suited for developing gross motor skills at this age include:  air mattresses; water mattresses; foam- and air-filled wedges, bolsters, and seats; mats for rolling and tumbling; low balance beams; ladders adjusted to different angles; 3-12 inch high risers to climb and crawl over; bean bag chairs; rocking chairs; horizontal nets; foam boxes; swamps; cushions; soft net chairs and hammocks; swings; slides and ramps; swivel or rotating platforms for vestibular stimulation.
  • Floor surfaces must be warm,  soft, multi-textured to facilitate the child from crawling to walking.  A tiled floor is needed for pushing toys and wheeled vehicles, and for messy play.
  • The skin is the largest organ of the body and is the most critical sense for children up to age 3 and those with special needs (Montagu, Prescott and David (1976) found that  it was predictive of the quality of a child care program.  Thus, textured elements such as pillows, cozy furniture, wall hangings, carpets, and malleable and messy play materials should be plentiful.
  • Design the room’s center area as a free, open space which can function as a “hub” or changing  station set for spontaneous, playful activities  in which everyone participates.  Here, younger babies can receive special attention, and this equipment can feature different play experiences at different times.
  • When levels are built into a room, walls constrain the activity on two levels so built boundaries are required.  At least 20 sq. ft. per infant of useable floor space for crawling is desirable.
  • Provide some raised surfaces 2-5 feet above floor level.  These provide the child with an  eye view of the world that is vital to cognitive mapping.  Platforms at three feet high enable caregivers to handle infants and toddlers comfortably and relate to them at eye level, but do require safe and secure boundaries.  The surface underneath such platforms can be designed with varying degrees of enclosure as crawling, hiding, and dramatic play spaces.  The ceiling of this underneath area can be decorated with mirrors, Mylar paper, mobiles, graphics and textures.  When built into a corner as an L shape, several distinct zones, above and below, can expand the child’s awareness.
  • As floor level rises, the height and depth of boundaries must prevent children from climbing over or falling out.  Visibility across such boundaries is ensured if bars, cutouts, or Plexiglas panels are added as portholes.  In designing boundaries, height, mass, permeability, transparency, and rigidity need to be considered, so children are safe yet can watch others or be watched by caregivers.  Boundaries such as risers and play panels can be designed to stimulate gross and fine motor actions, and to function as seats, work, and play surfaces.  Children under 18 months do not like totally enclosed, womb-like spaces.
  • The bounding risers of ”play pits” make good pull-to-stand and holding-on-while toddling surfaces and should be no higher than 12 inches.
  • Small window seats, platforms, cubby-holes, soft enclosed seating, and spacious stair landings are valuable for rest, observational learning, and preparing children for new situations.
  • Slight changes in level challenge the crawling, climbing, and balancing skills of all children.  They also aid orthopedically disabled and motorically passive blind children, especially if textural cues (wood, carpet, rubber) at level changes are used for orientation.  Comfortable, soft furnishings encourage muscle relaxation.  Gross motor equipment which holds children securely but encourages them to propel their bodies multi-directionally in space (swings, tumblers, rockers, mini jogger, trampolines) can be invaluable therapeutically.
  • Because blind infants use echoes to identify features in the environment (Bower, 1977), not all surfaces in the room should absorb sound.  Surfaces that transmit vibrations, especially wooden stairs and platforms, increase a deaf child’s awareness of ambient movements and sounds.  Windows and doors with glass panels set low down near the floor enable children to see what they cannot hear coming towards them.
  • To conserve floor space, introduce variety, and increase safety, the number of tables should be minimized and those retained kept out of the way.  Different types and heights of tables are right for different kinds of play.  All-purpose surfaces such as counters, tables that stack or flip up or down, or platforms that double as work, sitting, and eating surfaces can be invented.  Covers placed over sand tables transform them for other uses.
  • Quiet  play is facilitated by bean bag chairs,  chairs, couches, risers, pillows and cushions, low mattresses, hammocks, and nets  which encourage cuddling and rest.  Large foam furniture that opens to form a bed is especially useful for disabled children and makes effective use of a small space.
  • Manipulative materials need to be available according to the level of the child.  However, the number of infants and toddlers to use the materials for gathering, filling, dumping, stacking, and knocking down as much as for the value inherent in them, often results in toys cluttering the floor.  Therefore, create bounded areas and platforms to:  “contain” the toys in traffic-free zones; hold babies safely and be large enough for adults; have supports by which to pull up and toddle; provide, store, and display toys and manipulables.
  • Toy boxes and milk crates ease the task of picking up loose items, but if too large can overwhelm a child or lead to broken materials and lost pieces.  Lumping items also confuses young children.  Toy boxes must be without lids or with a safety hinge, air holes, and finger spaces.
  • Provide storage at child height and storage above 4 feet for adult access to bulk supplies for replenishing and varying items at child level.
  • Give each area a mood of its own.  Tranquil activities occur best in warm, soft, textured spaces; expansive activities require spaces that area cooler, harder, and more vibrant in tone.  Provide some items of beauty and aesthetic value.
  • Moore recommends 20-35 sq. ft. per infant (300-525 sq. ft. per 15 infants) and no less than 100 sq. ft. regardless of how few infants are present; 20 sq. ft. minimum to 35 sq. ft. per toddler, with no less than 150 sq. ft.



The most important developments for toddlers are continued motor development; beginning socialization; exploration of simple objects, tasks, and roles; language acquisition; and beginning creative activities such as drawing, block building, pretend play.  Unlike the infant, the toddler is exploring the world actively and without bounds, and beginning to move away from attachment figures, yet not as adept as the preschooler.  He toddles between independent and moments of needing security.

The above suggestions for gross motor, structured, and quiet play apply equally to infants and toddlers.  In addition, for toddlers it is helpful to have a central gross motor/multi-activity space surrounded by activity areas to support:  block play; dramatic play; simple cooking activities; messy play with water, sand, paint, clay; nature study; music and movement.  Add also a few private places.  These areas are best designed to accommodate no more than 4 toddlers at a time.

Follow the general guidelines for designing activity areas including:  location, work and sitting surfaces (which for toddlers will be the floor or low surfaces less than 15 inches off the floor), boundaries, material storage and display, and mood.

  • Discovery play with malleable materials such as water, sand, paint, or clay are essential tools of experience at this age.  The area for their use should be washable, well-ventilated, and drained.
  • Consider creating a fully enclosed tiled “wet” room with sloping drains in the floor that allows children to apply water, paints, etc. to walls, floors, and even their own bodies.
  • Much custodial work is eliminated if the water play trough, 16” high, is mounted onto its own drain, under a plumbed faucet.  The trough itself can be portable or permanently installed.  All water troughs must be cleaned, sanitized, and refilled with fresh water daily.
  • Troughs built near the floor, 6-12 inches high, in which the children may sit or lie, function as both water play and bathing facilities.  Carpeted covers will convert troughs to platforms for crawling and quiet play.  Alternatively, large bathtubs can be used for both bathing and play.  Since children can drown in even 2 inches of water, use of all troughs must always be properly supervised.  In addition, keyed or locked water turn-offs, covers, and total emptying of the troughs after any use are required to absolutely prevent access to children immediately after use.
  • The best work surface for crayons and clay is a table 10 inches high at which children squat, stand, or kneel without chairs.
  • Create an easel by using a wall-mounted or vertically support sheet of fire-rated paper,  4 feet high and 4-8 feet wide.  (To meet all fire and safety standards, use fire-rated  homasote).  Sealed with semi gloss paint and polyurethane, the homasote is completely washable.
  • Arrange house play equipment to form a small, enclosed space simulating the 4 walls of a room; a “roof” reinforces the house mood.  Provide real pots, pans, dishes, brooms, and recycled containers, and simple props such as scarves, purses, and shoes.  Personal items such as hats are also desirable but need to be thoroughly cleaned periodically in order to reduce the spread of infection, especially lice.
  • Provide ways for toddlers to go safely up and down stairs.
  • Toddlers enjoy opening and closing doors and climbing in and out of enclosures.  Select or design house play equipment which distinguishes two types of enclosures:  those with operable doors but intentionally too small or high to climb into, and those definitely large enough for a child to climb in or through safely without weakening the structure or hardware.  Doors should be sufficiently light weight to prevent injuries due to slamming on fingers.
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