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Space and Overcrowding – Avoiding Stress and an Environment in Which Learning is Difficult for Children

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Kindy boy wearing gumboots and holding a big handful of bark chips looks up from his play.

Space and Overcrowding.
By Sarah Alexander.

When you walk into an early childhood centre or home-based education setting you are likely to feel either one of two things:

  • you want to leave as soon as possible because there are so many people (adults and children) within the space – and it may be noisy and have a feeling of confinement; or,
  • you feel at ease, relaxed, as if you could easily stay the day and still leave feeling good and without a head ache or ears ringing from the noise.

This article discusses:  how to judge if the amount of space is right for your children and setting,  the legal minimum ECE requirements, how this compares to workplaces such as offices, key research findings we should take note of. 

How to Judge if the Balance between the Number of People and the Amount of Space is Right

structural indicators of quality in early childhood education

The minimum legal requirement for space in early childhood centres in New Zealand makes it difficult to avoid an environment that is noisy, overcrowded and stressful for children.

An easy way to judge the quality of the physical environment of an early childhood setting is how you emotionally respond to staying in the environment.

In a home-based education setting or in a centre, there needs to be sufficient space, and space that is well-designed, so that:

  • children can play in small groups if they choose,
  • a child can have privacy if he/she chooses
  • a child can rest or play uninterrupted by others, and
  • the noise levels do not reach a level at which children cannot easily hear others nearby.

You might like to have the poster on the formula to produce quality ECE for children

Legal Requirements in ECE

In early childhood education centres, including childcare centres and kindergartens, the legal requirement for space is a minimum of 2.5 square metres per child indoors, and 5 square metres outdoors.

In home-based/family daycare homes the legal requirement is for 10 square metres of space in one area only (e.g. the living room) and there must be some outdoor space although the minimum amount is not specified. 

Some services exceed the space requirements and provide children with ample space to move around in, play, and not get in each others’ way.  But many other services fit in the maximum number of children to the space that is available in order to maximise revenue from fees and government funding. 

Compare Space per Child to that Recommended for Adults in Offices

“The space assigned per person is one of many factors that may affect an employee’s safety and sense of well-being at work, productivity, and absenteeism. As such it cannot be considered in isolation.

Employers should consider the following guidelines:

  • Ensure that employees are not grouped together so closely that they cannot work in a safe and healthy manner. This would include things like bumping into each other, telephone conversations intruding on others, movement in the area causing distractions, slipping or tripping, knocking themselves on the edges of desks, and not having safe emergency egress.  

For office work, space requirements are listed in terms of the (a) footprint and (b) the average floor area per occupant.

  • Footprint: A value of 5 – 7 square metres is recommended as a minimum for the footprint – the area available for a person’s workstation, chair, the need for movement, and freedom from intrusion from others. 
  • Average floor area per occupant: An absolute minimum is 12 square metres per person – and this assumes ideal circumstances in all other aspects. A Treasury target for Central Government spaces is 16 square metres per person.  Some Guidelines indicate a larger space may be acceptable in provincial locations. 

The circumstances to be taken into account include, but are not limited to, the nature of the work, the hardware used, the storage needed, privacy requirements, the extent to which facilities are shared, the layout of the office (close packed or broken up by meeting rooms), the presence of partitions, and noise levels (particularly from loud conversations).”   (Retrieved from the Dept of Labour website on 15 March 2012). 

Research Findings on Space and Overcrowding

The key points from research are as follows:

More space is better for toddler behaviour and learning

The effects of the early childhood centre environment on toddlers’ nonverbal social behaviour indicates that more rather than less space is better for toddlers. More confining room space resulted in more immature patterns of behaviour, whereas large play areas facilitated more social groupings and reduced the amount of direct interference from other toddlers. Larger play spaces enabled toddlers to have some control of social input and to cut-off from others thereby reducing “cognitive overload”. Large play spaces afforded toddlers greater opportunity to concentrate in one-to-one interactions with another child and with a teacher. (Burgess & Fordyce, 1989, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30(2), pages 261-276)  

Not enough space can be a barrier to physical activity

Fifty-four childcare providers in Ontario were asked about the factors that limited physical activity participation among pre-schoolers (i.e. children aged 2.5–5 years). The factors identified were: inadequate equipment, insufficient space, safety concerns, and weather. (van Zandvoorta, Tuckerab, Irwinb & Burkeb, 2010, published in the Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development, 30(2), pages 175-188).   


A study of the factors likely to affect the emotional and stress reactions of 113 children (18 to 40 months) at 8 early childhood centres group settings found that cortisol increases were significantly related to less available area per child in the playrooms (< 5 m2).  (Legendre, 2003, published in the Environment and Behavior journal, 35(4), pp. 523-549).

So what do teaching staff say about space, overcrowding, and stress?

See a survey report on teachers’ views on space and overcrowding and the quality of ECE for children.

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