Seven Home Design Elements To Help Children Learn Language
Children's language development can be enhanced through home design. Families can evaluate how their home supports speaking and listening for both children and adults. Many design solutions can be identified and economically implemented that enhance language development. Consider the following seven home design elements and solutions. The key is to consider each element and to try to allow for it to occur some of the time.
When children interact with others through conversations — listening and replying, asking questions, and initiating dialogue — they are learning language. In the home, children's interactions can occur throughout the day: awakening, toileting, washing, dressing, eating, playing, reading, working, bathing, and at bedtime.
To enhance these daily interactions consider a table with high-backed chairs enclosing an eating space to create a place for focused communication. Try opening the kitchen to other areas so that interactions can occur throughout food preparation and clean-up. Have a portable stool handy for a child to see and be part of what is going on.
Play is critical to language development. For young children, being able to freely move their bodies helps them interact with others. Children integrate what they see, hear, and feel into themselves, trying out new words and actions. Consider providing a space for free-form movement with minimal obstacles, non-slip flooring, and limited fragile objects.
2. Noise Level
Noise level impacts listening skills making it hard to understand what other people are saying when they speak, and can disrupt conversations, sleep, and concentration.
How can home design minimize noise while supporting wanted sounds? Methods for reducing noise penetration into a home are the same as those used for creating energy efficient homes: insulation in the walls and ceilings, and sealing cracks and openings to minimize air penetration.
Noise can be either lessened at its source, absorbed by objects before it reaches the listener, masked by preferred sounds, or cancelled by equipment which changes the sounds. Soft furniture, floor coverings, window treatments, and wall hangings, such as a decorative quilt, absorb noise and keep it from bouncing around. Nooks can be created for quiet concentration or conversations. Headphones or speakers in chairs can direct media sounds to only those who want to hear them.
3. Natural Elements
Wood, stone, sunlight, plants, water, and animals stimulate the senses of sight, sound, feel and smell. Vegetation, either in the home or visible from windows, is important to children’s well being. Natural elements enhance the development of speaking and listening by supporting creative play, social interaction, concentration, stress reduction, and sleep.
Consider creating access to the outdoors and window views of greenery. Cultivate indoor plants. Maximize natural light. Use stone and wood surfaces. Allow natural sounds to filter in — wind blowing, water trickling, birds chirping. Provide areas of warmth and coolness; hard and soft elements; and fresh and natural smells. Even pictures of natural elements can provide meaningful connections to nature.
To develop a sense of self, children need privacy — being out of the sight and hearing of others, and freedom from intrusion. People need a place to rest, store their possessions, invite people to join them, and feel safe. Privacy enhances speaking and listening because it provides a space to practice skills and try out new actions without outside judgment, listen and participate at will, express feelings, and daydream.
The need for privacy develops and changes during childhood. A home can be flexible by including alcoves and extra spaces, near public spaces, where children can listen to conversations in one’s own world. When play areas are located close to parts of the homes used by adults, young children enjoy being able to hear and see adults. Ideally, a home will balance the opportunity to interact with others and provide sufficient space for people to feel comfortable.
Controlling a space is a fundamental element of privacy. Furniture arrangement can create privacy, such as pulling a sofa away from a wall for a private play space. Draping a sheet over a table, turning a closet into a fort, cutting openings in a large cardboard box, and adding adjustable screens are flexible ways to create private spaces.
Good quality sleep is essential for learning and growth, and thus, language learning. The National Sleep Foundation analyzed sleep needs based on our five senses. To achieve good quality sleep, they recommend reducing caffeine and fatty food consumption several hours before bedtime, adding the aroma of lavender, weekly laundering of sheets, a clutter-free space with a made bed, temperature of 60 to 67° F, and all light eliminated or minimized by using room-darkening shades and placing night lights in bathrooms or hallways. For people over ten years old, loud noises are especially disturbing and can be masked with white noise machines, fans, and air purifiers.
Sleeping patterns have changed over time and vary culturally. Often many people would share the same sleeping area, and children, especially infants, slept with their mothers. Co-sleeping is becoming more accepted in the United States and is typical in many cultures. A sleeping space does not necessarily mean a separate, private space.
6. Caregiver Support
Designing a living environment for a child’s learning is most effective when it meets the needs of the child's caregiver, too. This includes the ability to supervise children while doing other activities, ease of maintenance, time and space to rest, refresh, and interact with other adults, accessibility and self-sufficiency, and safety features. Everyone benefits from the home design elements listed above. Talking or interacting is how adults play, relax, develop ideas, and connect. If the noise level is too high, these things are difficult to do. Adults also replenish and recharge through natural elements, privacy and sleep. Caregivers help children grow and thrive, and to do this fully, they need to be able to grow and thrive, too.
In addition to caring for children, caregivers are also often the ones responsible for maintaining the home, preparing the meals, and other important tasks. How can home design support caregivers?
We seem to acquire quite a bit of stuff. Ideally, it would be great to keep stuff from coming into our homes. Once inside, the key is to dispose of, recycle, or store it in an accessible place. The more things we have, the more places we need to put them. So before we even think about design, it is helpful to think about our stuff: why we have it, what would it be like if we did not have it, what do we truly need.
It is enlightening to see the variety of ways a child plays with an empty, large cardboard box: getting inside it, pretending it’s a house, a vehicle, hiding in it, hiding things in it, drawing on it, turning it into an oven, etc. How many toys do children need? How many things do adults need? Reducing stuff helps in many ways. It means that a home can be designed for people and not for storing stuff, so that a home can be smaller while being less crowded. It means that it is easier to clean and keep organized.
If the cooking area or work area overlooks an eating area and a play area, then the caregiver can supervise while preparing food or doing other tasks. An open floor plan helps caregivers supervise activities.
Since we are all "temporarily able," a home should allow for residents and visitors of differing abilities. This includes children who are much shorter than adults and may not comprehend all of the hazards in a home. What would a home look like that is truly accessible to everyone? Have our modern conveniences made our houses safer or not?
Accessibility enables self-sufficiency. Children have an innate drive to learn to do things on their own: dress themselves, use the toilet, feed themselves, obtain objects, and more. A home designed to facilitate this also supports the caregiver. People in many countries use squat toilets, which children can use on their own.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has safety tips for each room of a home. Some safety issues to consider: securing stairs and windows, covering electrical outlets, locking away hazardous materials. Some common, air-cleansing, and safe indoor plants are the Gerber daisy and a spider plant. Exercising, yoga, and meditation can be done with and near children, allowing the caregiver to replenish and recharge while supervising.
Language and culture intertwine. Culture supports all literacy skills and is essential for the development of language. Culture will prioritize the use and importance of these individual home design elements specific to each group. For example, privacy norms are culturally determined. A nomadic Mongolian tent dwelling, though visually open, has a hierarchy of who can use which spaces. Homes within the same culture will differ and change over time. In some cultures, eating is done in silence, mindfully appreciating each bite, and then after consuming the meal, families talk with each other. Eating provides an opportunity to come together, during or after a meal, depending on your culture. The kinds of spaces created for gatherings and celebrations are culturally based, too.
We each hold someone, some thing, some being, some belief as sacred, deserving of respect. It often helps to create a separate space to honor and contemplate this, which may be used by one or all members of the family. A sacred space could be in an alcove, on a table, on a wall, in a corner, or a special rocking chair, allowing children and adults an opportunity to pause and reflect.
Families can enhance their children’s learning through simple, do-it-yourself modifications in home design. Those little everyday interactions between parents and children that promote conversation are the foundations of their language development and future success.
Beth Mahar is a licensed architect in Massachusetts with over 25 years experience, as well as 15 years experience as a preschool teacher in Brookline. Susan Eliason teaches early childhood courses at Bridgewater State University, having taught at both the college and preschool level for 12 years, plus 16 years of administration experience. For guided checklists and additional resources on home design elements, visit the Living for Learning blog at https://seliason.wordpress.com.