Making the Design of Childcare Services 'Universal'

Making the Design of Childcare Services 'Universal'

- the Universal Design Guidelines for Early Learning and Care Settings

The main principle of ‘Universal Design 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'

Here we highlight some key information about internal and external spaces, however, you can read about this & lots more in the full document, which is available at:

Key Internal and External Places

While Ireland has historically focused on indoor learning for Early Learning environments, it has now been recognised that the outdoor play space is of equal importance and, while it provides for a different type of learning opportunities, a balance of both indoor and outdoor learning spaces are the ideal for Young Children. 

The Universal Design Guidelines advise that the children’s spaces should be at the heart of the Early Years Setting and should be designed in conjunction with the outdoor play space allowing children to easily access outdoor play.

Linking the design to specific Siolta Standards can help with identification of quality supports under these standards as well as Standard 2: Environments.

A large multi-purpose central lobby area is a great addition to any Early Years’ Service it is suggested that this space can be used as a communal area for the children as well as family areas where adults can spend time with their children at drop off and collection, it also provides an opportunity for parents to meet up with each other.

Other design features advised in the Universal Design Guidelines are:

  • The inclusion of a comfortable family room which may be doubled as a waiting area or social space for parents and staff.
  • A communal dining area provides opportunities for children of mixed age ranges to interact with each other and allows for children to take their time eating and chatting at small intimate tables alongside an adult at each table. This communal eating space also allows for children to become involved in food preparation reflecting a traditional home environment and thus promoting emotional warmth and security to children who may spend long hours in full day care.    

In relation to the internal spaces for children the Universal Design Guidelines advise that:

  • The environment and equipment should promote play, movement, adventure and challenge as well as appealing to all of the senses without over stimulation or distraction. 
  • A variety of spaces for children possibly including split levels.
  • An abundance of natural light using blinds when necessary.
  • Calm visual space with pastel colours and an avoidance of clutter including too many visual displays.
  • Flexible and adaptable spaces allow for different age ranges of children to use the space appropriately throughout the day/week/ year as required.  

A Universal Design Guidance checklist is contained within the publication at the end of each section allowing the reader to consider the criteria against their own service designs.

The Guidelines provide guidance on design features for different age ranges including features for Children under 12 months, 1-2 years, 3-5 years and 6- 14 years.

Each of the age ranges include guidance criteria which may be used as a checklist for Early Years settings providing services for children within these age ranges.

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More on the Universal Design Guidelines:

These guidelines are an important step in making all Early Learning and Care services accessible to all children.  This publication offers guidance on the refurbishment, renovation and building of centres for Early Learning and Care in Ireland.

The work was undertaken by Early Childhood Ireland and Trinity Haus (Trinity College Dublin) on behalf of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design at the National Disability Authority.

These guidelines set out the key Universal Design considerations and guidance for Early Learning and Care (ELC) settings in Ireland.  The guidelines apply to both new-build and retrofit projects and provide a flexible Universal Design framework to ensure that settings are accessible, understandable and easy to use for all children, staff, families and visitors.

The guidelines are equally useful for small, medium and large settings and are flexible enough to apply to retrofit or minor work to existing settings, or to guide major redevelopments or new-build projects. 

Full guidelines available at:


Marianne Casey

KCCC Development Officer