Security in the Built Environment: Early Childhood Education & Daycare Facilities
Updated: May 2
By Raffi Arzoumanian
“A crucial consideration for secure design of schools is balancing design approach with function – because a design that protects, but also puts children at ease and helps them focus, socialize, and enjoy the learning process, will help minimize distraction from their core mission, which is to educate.”
Thinking about the design of secure early childhood facilities brings up considerations similar to those discussed in our previous blog post, Security in the Built Environment: Religious Spaces. As recent tragedies at local and national school facilities illustrate, until public policy changes are made, these abhorrent attacks will continue to remind and push architects and designers everywhere to think even harder about design strategies that can provide the best possible line of defense against unexpected violence.
In a daycare or early childhood setting, we have a number of building users to think about – the children, the teachers and staff, and the parents. An appropriate architectural response must consider the needs and risks involved with all these user groups to produce a secure environment that safeguards everyone.
The Threats We Prepare For
Security considerations in daycare facilities include the same risks we note for religious facilities: the threat of an active shooter, a vehicle used as a weapon, or an explosive device. But because of the different user types we must accommodate, the list of risk factors gets longer: disgruntled parents, kidnappers, theft and burglary, children with access to firearms (yes, even at the early childhood level), and the day-to-day security of dropping off children at school are all additional significant concerns.
To address these factors, as with religious spaces, our approach is informed by consultation with local authorities, law enforcement agencies, and the community to obtain the latest pertinent information. In our design process, we typically address issues including the following:
Access and exterior appearance:
Safe access from the exterior starts with well-lit entrance areas and strategies for control. This involves minimizing points of access for the public and incorporating multiple layers to slow the entry process as much as possible. A combination of policy and physical security features can accomplish this: for example, one approach we have seen is code-controlled access to selected areas of the building. Teachers are given exclusive access to the code and it changes regularly.
Children should be given direct access to the outdoors with appropriate perimeter measures to prevent public ingress. And for the exterior appearance of the building, design that makes the interior uses unidentifiable to people on the outside is best so potential intruders will have as little information about the floor plan as possible.
Floorplan layout and sight lines:
Administrators should be centrally located in the floor plan and have visual connection to the common areas. To aid in this, placement of glass should be strategic to enhance sight lines yet prevent the access of any potential attackers. Material choices may include tempered and laminated glass, similar to the windshield of a car, which can drastically diminish the speed of bullets from a firearm.
In an active shooter or other dangerous situation, teachers must have the ability to block access to their students and help isolate the attacker. Classroom entrances and all entrances to separate rooms must have quick locking features, allowing teachers and staff to either lock the attacker in or out. Training and drills for both teachers and students will be necessary to familiarize all parties with safety features.
For an early childhood facility we designed in Chicago, we needed to take extra precautions around traffic as the project is located at the corner of a busy intersection. The building features brick and block construction to provide a strong barrier against any potential traffic accidents at ground level. Further strategies can use planters and bollards to protect the exterior from vehicles. In general, early education and daycare facilities require extra attention to traffic circulation and access to pick-up areas to maintain order and safety for both parents and young children.
As public schools may be subject to budget limitations, material and construction strategies can be dialed up or down to stretch security features farther as needed. For example, something as simple as making interior walls more solid and resistant to breach can provide good overall protection throughout the building, if the budget does not accommodate more sophisticated features elsewhere.
Once all functional security requirements are accounted for in the design, architects face an additional challenge: to avoid creating a dystopian or fortress-like aesthetic! While functional features are used to create deterrents to threats, we must remember that aesthetics matter too: they affect a psychological response and comfort level with the facility in all who use it. Therefore, a final but crucial consideration for secure design of schools is balancing design approach with function – because a design that protects, but also puts children at ease and helps them focus, socialize, and enjoy the learning process, will help minimize distraction from the core mission of every one of these institutions, which is to educate.