Physical environment

Changing the design or quality of the physical learning environment, either by moving to a new building, or seeking to improve the design, decoration, air quality, noise, light or temperature of an existing learning space.

How effective is it?

Overall, changes to the physical environment of early years settings are unlikely to have a direct effect on learning, once an adequate building standard has been achieved. Moving to a new building or learning space could be an effective part of a process of change designed to alter behaviour or facilitate the use of new learning strategies, but there is no evidence that new buildings or particular aspects of architecture or design improve learning by themselves. 

It is clear that, for learning, the quality of interaction between early years professionals and children is more important than the quality of the physical space. As a result, it is unlikely that spending additional resources on redecoration or other changes to the physical environment of a setting would be an effective strategy.

Where a new building or learning space is used as a catalyst for change, there is some evidence supporting the impact of co-design, or involving potential beneficiaries, such as education professionals and the children themselves, in taking responsibility for learning spaces and changing their behaviours as they adapt to new settings. There is some evidence that outdoor learning environments can change behaviour, for example, by increasing group interaction, but it is not currently known whether this leads to improvements in learning.

Most individual factors in the physical environment show a relationship with learning only at the extremes, and environmental factors in most early years settings are generally already at appropriate levels. Two exceptions are air quality and high noise levels. The evidence suggests that low air quality does have a negative impact on learning (reducing word recognition by 15% in one study of primary school pupils), and that classrooms and other learning spaces often have poor air quality conditions, with higher CO2 concentrations than the average recommended levels. If the noise levels are very high (e.g. the setting is under the flight path of an airport), there can be a measurable detrimental effect on learning.

The evidence on playing music in a setting is inconclusive as it appears that people react differently to different kinds of music according to their preferences. The evidence on colour in the learning environment is similar: personal preference is probably more important than any general effect.

How secure is the evidence?

The research on the impact of the physical environment on learning is generally weak; it is mainly based on correlational studies or inferences from wider environmental research. Very few studies have been conducted with rigorous experimental designs, and this makes it hard to establish causal claims about the impact of any physical changes to the learning environment.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

It is difficult to estimate the costs of physical changes as they are usually part of capital spending, rather than a recurring part of a budget. A new purpose-built nursery school costs about £1-2 million for 100 children. However, several generations of children are likely to use the building. Improving air quality can be done relatively cheaply with better ventilation, filtration and the use of dehumidifiers where necessary. Overall, per child costs are estimated as low.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. How does the design and layout of your setting support quality learning interactions?

  2. If you are making changes to the physical environment, have you considered using this as an opportunity to improve the attitudes and expectations of children or families?

  3. Have you tested the air quality in your setting? In some cases improving air quality may be as simple as opening the windows!