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Universal Design Guidelines for Early Earning and Care Settings

Design for all

Máire Corbett
Tom Grey
Teresa Heeney
Prof Emer Ring
Dr Lisha O’Sullivan

Universal Design ensures access for all to buildings and premises and ensures those premises are easy to use and understand. These guidelines, funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, show how ELC settings can make their environments, inside and outside, easier to access, understand, and use.


In 2017, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) asked the Centre of Excellence for Universal Design (CEUD) at the National Disability Authority (NDA) to coordinate the development of Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care (ELC) settings. A consortium, led by Early Childhood Ireland and made up of Early Childhood Ireland, TrinityHaus, Mary Immaculate College, and Nathan Somers Design, was formed to develop materials in collaboration with the DCYA, CEUD, and NDA.

The Guidelines were launched by Minister Katherine Zappone in June 2019 and comprise a literature review, the Guidelines document (with ten case studies), and a self-audit tool. They form part of the suite of supports provided under the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM). This article outlines how the Guidelines were developed and summarises their content.

Universal Design (UD) is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. This includes public places in the built environment, such as buildings, streets, and spaces to which the public have access, products and services provided in those places, and systems that are available, including Information Communications Technology (CEUD/NDA, 2018) (

The brief was to use the principles of UD to help operators of ELC settings ensure that their environments, indoor and outdoor, are easy to access, understand, and use to the greatest extent possible. This includes existing settings, which, by using the self-audit tool, can get ideas on minor modifications that can be made as well as larger retrofit projects or new builds.

Case studies

A typology was developed to enable the identification of ten Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) member settings to take part, using location, size, building type, and other criteria. We were guided by the Pobal Early Years Sector Profile (2016–17). The ten settings were located all over Ireland and featured sessional and full day-care, private and community settings, in urban and rural locations.

The settings ranged in size from 14 to 105 children and included a variety of building types.

Before the visits, a comprehensive range of information materials were circulated to address ethical considerations and ensure informed consent from all involved. Willing participants read the materials, were given the opportunity to ask questions, and signed consent forms. Children’s assent was sought as we spoke with them and took photos. All requirements of the General Data Protection Regulations were complied with.

The visits were undertaken by Tom Grey of TrinityHaus and Máire Corbett of Early Childhood Ireland. Surveys were sent in advance to each setting for a sample of practitioners and parents to complete. On the visits, a smaller number of parents and staff were interviewed. We observed how the environment functioned for all users. Children took photos of the part of the environment they liked best. This data informed the content of the Guidelines. The children’s photos are included in the Guidelines.

The key findings from the case study were as follows:

  • There was a general lack of space, especially indoors, for children, staff, parents, and storage.
  • Narrow front doors made entering and exiting difficult for wider buggies or wheelchairs.
  • All settings had an outdoor area, but sometimes it was quite small and had few natural features. In some settings, children had limited opportunities to be challenged physically. This was highlighted by parents as well as practitioners.
  • A lack of directional signage, especially in larger settings, made finding specific rooms difficult for those unfamiliar with the layout.
  • Shelter and access were problematic in some cases.

A multidisciplinary advisory group, from the fields of architecture, planning, and early childhood, inspectors, government departments, and parents, met at key points in the process. Two stakeholder workshops were held, in Cork and Dublin. Nearly thirty settings contributed photos. Photos were also sourced from settings in Italy and Japan. Five settings submitted learning stories to show exemplars of practice in specific contexts.

Literature review

The literature review was undertaken by Prof. Emer Ring and Dr Lisha O’Sullivan, Mary Immaculate College, and Tom Grey, TrinityHaus. The international and national literature that was examined related to both environmental design and pedagogy. The review was framed by seven of Síolta’s sixteen standards.

Figure 1: Key Design Issues framed by Síolta

Each standard was examined in the pedagogical literature and related to the literature on UD. Here we sketch out some of the main spatial and design considerations for each standard.

Standard 1: Rights of the Child

  • Ensure that all children’s interests and voices are represented and that children are free to express themselves through various media, displays, and materials.
  • Provide environments where the children can freely circulate and communicate with adults and peers.

Standard 3: Parents and Families

  • Create accessible, welcoming spaces that reflect family diversity so they can build relationships with staff and each other. This includes space for staff–parent meetings and gatherings.
  • Make the curriculum visible through organisation of space and materials.

Standard 5: Interactions

  1. Provide large and smaller indoor and outdoor spaces for children to explore and navigate, including quiet spaces for children to be alone or in small groups.
  2. Create spaces to maximise communication, connections, and engagement.
  3. Modify stressful environmental stimuli, for example particular sounds, smells, or lights.

Standard 6: Play

  • Ensure accessible space for children to play, with constant access between indoor and outdoor, when possible.
  • Consider covered areas outside that facilitate play and support people with physical, sensory, or cognitive needs, who might need additional shelter outdoors.
  • Provide a range of spaces and materials to attract and stimulate children’s interests, promote communication, identity and belonging, and encourage problem-solving and critical thinking.

Standard 11: Professional Practice

  • Encourage a culture of reflection, by allocating space for practitioners to discuss and reflect.

Standard 16: Community Involvement

  • Promote visibility in the community through permeable boundaries, with displays and materials that capture local diversity.

Principles for a universally designed Early Learning and Care setting

The following four key principles for a UD ELC setting are outlined in the Guidelines.

  • Integrated into the neighbourhood

Urban or suburban settings that are centrally located and within easy reach of the community will make the setting more accessible for pedestrians, cyclists, and those using public transport. It will help embed the setting in the community and create connections and relationships between children, staff, families, and people in the local community.

  • Easy to approach, enter, and move about in

A setting with entrance footpaths that are at least 2 metres wide (preferably up to 2.4 m) will provide a safe, accessible entrance route for all users, be it a parent with a buggy, an older childminder or grandparent, or a staff member or visitor with sensory, physical, or cognitive challenges. Wide entrance doors or double doors allow ease of movement at peak times and comfortable access for wheelchairs and double buggies.

  • Easy to understand, and safe to use and manage

A calm, legible setting where the layout is easy to understand and use will provide a supportive environment for all users, particularly those with sensory, physical, or cognitive challenges. Fixtures and fittings that are clearly visible, accessible, and intuitive to use make the setting comfortable, safe, and easier to operate and manage.

  • Flexible, cost-effective, and adaptable over time

ELC settings must cater to a wide diversity of ages, abilities, and sizes and will benefit from moveable partitions, flexible furniture, and other features that allow spaces to be reconfigured. This will provide multipurpose spaces that can be used for play, dining, or special events. Such flexibility and adaptability will reduce costly and disruptive building modifications that may otherwise be required.

An ELC setting underpinned by these four principles will not only provide a more accessible and inclusive environment but will also confer an advantage for operators, as it offers a supportive and attractive environment to a wider section of the community.

The self-audit tool is designed to enable people to assess how UD principles are being used and to plan improvements. The key aspects are listed, and irrelevant criteria (such as sleep spaces in a sessional setting) can be excluded. The format mirrors the Guidelines. It encourages reflection and promotes planning to ensure that the environment is easy to access, understand, and use.


When settings are integrated and connected to the community, local context, and natural environment, this forges positive relationships between the children, educators, families, and the locality. There must be space for play, movement, adventure, and challenge through the creation of a flexible, interesting, and diverse setting, both indoors and outdoors. The environment should provoke and celebrate investigation, risk-taking, and critical thinking. It must promote engagement with all the senses and consider users with sensory, physical, or cognitive challenges.

The full suite of materials can be found at:

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