Design of Early Learning Facilities

Why Quality Matters in Early Learning Facility Design

A child who attends an early learning facility full time for the first five years of life will spend more than 10,000 hours in that environment. A facility’s physical environment can support or detract from a child’s social, physical, intellectual, creative, cultural, and emotional development. A well-designed early learning environment is safe, healthy, stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing. The skills and knowledge of the adults who nurture and educate young children are maximized by a well-designed environment.

Design Considerations

Licensed early learning facilities must understand the differences between standards, guidelines, and regulations when making design decisions, while also meeting building codes and licensing requirements. The following definitions are provided by Caring for Our Children, National Health and Safety Performance Standards Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs, 4th edition, 2019.

A standard is a statement that defines a goal of practice. It differs from a recommendation or a guideline in that it carries greater incentive for universal compliance. It differs from a regulation in that compliance is not necessarily required for legal operation. It usually is legitimized or validated based on scientific or epidemiological data, or when this evidence is lacking, it represents the widely agreed upon, state-of-the-art, high-quality level of practice. The agency, program, or health practitioner that does not meet the standard may incur disapproval or sanction from within or without the organization. Thus, a standard is the strongest criterion for practice set by a health organization or association. For example, many manufacturers advertise that their products meet ASTM standards as evidence to the consumer of safety, while those products that cannot meet the standards are sold without such labeling to undiscerning purchasers.

A guideline is a statement of advice or instruction pertaining to practice. It originates in an organization with acknowledged professional standing. Although it may be unsolicited, a guideline often is developed in response to a stated request or perceived need for such advice or instruction. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a guideline for the elements necessary to make the diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

A regulation takes a previous standard or guideline and makes it a requirement for legal operation. A regulation originates in an agency with either governmental or official authority and has the power of law. Such authority is usually accompanied by an enforcement activity. Examples of regulations are: State regulations pertaining to staff to child ratios in a licensed child care center, and immunizations required to enter an early care and education program. The components of the regulation will vary by topic addressed as well as by area of jurisdiction (e.g., municipality or state). Because a regulation prescribes a practice that every agency or program must comply with, it usually is the minimum or the floor below which no agency or program should operate.

Design Regulations

Licensed early learning facilities must follow DCYF regulations when designing their physical space. This includes:

DCYF Feasibility Checklists

DCYF's Feasibility Checklists can be used to consider whether a building will be able to comply with licensing regulations relating to the physical space but does not include every requirement. 

Choosing and Hiring a Licensed Architect

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a great resource which details why you should hire an architect, how to find the right architect, how to interview an architect, and six steps toward building your dream.

Any firm or business that practices, or offers to practice architecture in Washington State, must be licensed. Licensed architects in Washington State are required to have college education in an architecture program, architectural work experience under the supervision of a licensed architect, and pass the Architect Registration Exam. It is important to use an architect or an architectural firm licensed in Washington State for your project. There are some out of state architects, with specialized experience in the design of early learning facilities, that may work in partnership with licensed Washington architects with local expertise.

Contact AIA and use their Firm Directory to find an architect near you.

Suggestions for Finding the Right Architect

  • Ask other child care and early learning providers who have undertaken renovation and construction projects for their recommendations.
  • Visit the facilities of other child care and early learning providers who have undertaken renovation and construction projects. Ask questions about their design and construction team and processes.
  • Ask other similar businesses, including educational, health, and community facilities, for their recommendations of architects to use.
  • If you see a recently renovated or newly constructed building in your community that you admire, ask who designed the building and ask for a description of the design experience.

Important Considerations for Selecting an Architect

  • Confirm that the architect is licensed in Washington and that they carry required insurance.
  • Ask about projects the architect has done that are similar to your project in size and scope. Visit projects if possible. Ask to see portfolio pictures of these projects.
  • Ask for and check references.
  • Ask to see photos of spaces and buildings the architect has designed to see if their vision matches yours. Make sure the architect understands your vision and that you are comfortable during your conversations with the architect.
  • Determine the architect is someone you can work with.
  • Make sure the architect understands your budget and goals. Make sure they are comfortable designing within your budgetary and timeline limitations.


The following materials provide information about planning, permitting, financing, and designing early learning facilities. It is important to note, these are for reference, none of these were written for Washington State regulations. You must refer to WAC for regulations affecting the design and development of an early learning facility in Washington State.