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Child Care Centers

The focus of GSA child care facilities are to promote centers that are child-oriented, developmentally appropriate, beautiful, environmentally sensitive, health promoting and functional.

Addressing the environmental health in child care facilitates is particularly important because children's exposure may be higher relative to their size than adults. Children's normal activities, such as putting things in their mouths or playing on the floor, can also result in exposures that adults do not face. Additionally, some environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately because their bodies are still developing and growing organs can be more easily harmed.1

A child may be in a center up to 12,500 hours if he or she starts as an infant and continues until entering school, more than the amount of time he or she will spend in school from kindergarten through the end of high school. Because children spend such long hours at the center, the design of their spaces is especially critical. The design effort must allow for, and be sensitive to, the differences in space attributes for children and those for adults as well as the differences in space usage by the children in different age groups.2

Designing "through the eyes of a child" with a resulting sensitivity to children's scale, including how they will use the space, what they will see, and what kind of experience they will have, all play a major role in making the center a child-focused, safe and healthy place with a home-like quality.

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Child Care Centers Components

  • Whole Building
  • Classroom
  • Toilet Area
  • Kitchen
  • Laundry Room
  • Playground

Integrative Design Process

This design process brings key players to the table to think about and integrate all aspects of a child care facility:

Integrative Design Table
  • Owner: In the federal government, this is generally the General Services Administration or a delegated authority. Typically, the GSA team includes a Real Estate Specialist and a Contracting Officer as well as a Project Manager who approves and manages the child care project development.
  • Lessor/Tenant Liaison (e.g., Federal Agency): The liaison participates in determining the agency’s need and program for child care center: The liaison helps determine questions of size (number of children), available building space, special requirements, etc. together with the Child Care Specialist.
  • Provider (Child Care Director/Company): A representative from the provider is generally not included in design because the provider is under contract and can change over the life of the center. However, the provider is a major stakeholder in the operations and maintenance (O&M) of the facility.
  • Architect/Engineer (A/E) Consultants: Provide design services under the direction of the Owner or Lessor. They perform pre-design planning, project assessment and programming, design development and construction drawings. Some projects may employ a Design/Build process that pairs the General Contractor and architectural team together under a single umbrella to expedite integrative project delivery.
  • Designer: Designers for Child Care Centers must specialize in early childhood projects. They will usually be employed as part of the A/E team but may also be outside consultants. The Designer has working knowledge of the Design Guide and the particular requirements of a Child Care project and ensures that all the regulations, guidance, and licensing requirements are carried throughout the designed child care project.
  • Landscape Architect: Part of the A/E firm or separate consultant with specialized child care experience involved in the landscape and playground design. They design the features of the playground and equipment and select materials based on all applicable child care playground and safety regulations as well as sustainability concerns.
  • Kitchen Consultant: Part of the A/E firm or separate consultant with specialized child care experience involved when the child care center includes a full commercial kitchen.
  • Child Care Specialist: A specialized child care program manager who oversees the operations of the centers from the initial project start through order and delivery of furniture. The child care specialist provides oversight of the child care provider who operates the center. Typically, this is the regional child care coordinator (RCCC) at GSA.
  • Licensing Officials (state): Represent child care regulation bodies. They issue the license to operate the child care center. They inspect the project before licensing. Including them earlier may be beneficial to flag potential issues.
  • Security Personnel: Security Personnel conduct a risk assessment and advise on the level of protection needed for each specific center. They have a voice in preliminary decision making about the location, entries, windows, and other relevant components. In federal projects, this role is served by the Federal Protective Service (FPS).
  • Property Manager: Oversees day-to-day functioning of the child care center. They are the point of contact for all repairs, service and maintenance calls. Property Managers maintain centers and improve existing ones to meet Guide benchmarks. GSA Public Building Service fills this role in federal projects.
  • Custodial Personnel: Responsible for daily cleaning of the child care center. During the design process, custodial personnel can provide insight on the ease of keeping the facility clean. Note that GSA custodial contracts have special requirements for child care centers.

System Impacts

Resource Impacts

Design from a child's perspective. Indirect lighting lets children look up at the adults caring for them.

A child care center essentially functions as a microcosm of a larger building. They are energy intense because they include their own systems and operate for longer hours than the typical office building. Child care centers include spaces for work (play), food preparation and eating, restrooms, cleaning and storage, staff areas, gross-motor room and outside playground. As such, careful consideration is given to mechanical, electrical, and lighting systems to balance the energy needs of the children and energy efficiency goals of the building or space.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Best Practices and Strategies

Implementing a whole-system approach to the design of new or replacement building systems in a child care center will maximize energy conservation while balancing the necessities of child safety and health. A child care center’s HVAC system is generally independent from the rest of the building, including separate controls. Include careful balancing and commissioning to accommodate the need for fresh air with specific ventilation requirements, especially in restrooms and food preparation areas. Supply air systems include automation controls that pull the system back to pre-determined set points when the spaces are not in regular use. Energy loads can be further reduced by using glass for windows and doors that has a high insulative value while maintaining a high visible light transmittance (VLT). Proper lighting design, including occupancy sensors, will limit the heat generated by electric lights, often left on in child care centers through the entire day, other than nap times.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Child Care Lighting
Multiple Lighting Sources in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) White Oak Child Care Center

Balancing appropriate light levels and energy conservation can be accomplished through lamping options and controls. LED light fixtures use roughly 1/10 the energy of a comparable fluorescent fixture, can be used for up to 10 years, and minimize maintenance time and efforts.

Daylight sensors can be used to control fixtures in close proximity to the exterior walls. If light fixtures near windows are dimmable the sensors allow for a consistent light level in spaces throughout the day, but ensure fixtures still allow lights to be turned off when not desired. Modulating light levels in classrooms is very important from darkening rooms during naptime to bright lighting during art projects. Typically each classroom includes two different types of fixtures, such as sconces or pendants in addition to ceiling lights. General lighting needs to be indirect to enable children to look up at the adults caring for them without being overwhelmed by bright light.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window


Water Activity

Employing water conserving fixtures is the most direct way to conserve water generally and especially in a child care center where water use is tremendously high. There tend to be many water-using devices in each classroom and at volumes much higher than offices and even schools. Children use the toilets more often than adults, have their diapers changed, brush their teeth, wash their hands, clean surfaces, play with water on water-tables and playgrounds, etc. The selection of fixtures is essential. Low-flow toilets, low-flow faucets, and aerators reduce water consumption.

Educating staff and children alike about water conservation will also assist in reducing water loads and may lead to better habits at home. Graphics and placards can remind users to turn off faucets when finished, as well as to only run full loads of laundry or dishes.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window


Best Practices and Strategies


Playground equipment should keep children safe — from both broken bones and toxins.

Harmful chemicals pose an increased threat in child care centers due to the proportions of contaminated air and surfaces to the weight and behavior of children. Recycled materials are used in all possible cases, and finishes with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) avoided.

Refer to the EPA's Chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)opens in new window as well as GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window (Section 8.1.1) to find harmful chemicals that are banned from child care centers altogether.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Best Practices and Strategies
Messy Floor
Hard floors are recommended for daily cleaning

Carpet is not a preferred flooring material as it traps allergens and asthmagens, and commercial vacuuming is often not completely effective for daily cleaning. Solid flooring such as linoleum, bio-based resilient flooring, and rubber are better options for their clean-ability and softness under foot. Wood or wood composite can also be used in these areas.

If area rugs are used or carpet must be used, such as in quiet or crawling areas, the material, backing, and adhesives must all bear a Green Label from the Carpet and Rug Institute indicating that VOC emissions are within the acceptable range. Ensure cleaning equipment is certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute. Test adhesives and sealants for VOC’s and ensure compliance with South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule #1168. Special cleaning of flooring is required in child care centers as children lick everything.

When using a hard flooring surface, acoustics become extremely important for a space. Pay attention to the reflectance of flooring materials and use flooring with sound-absorptive properties, such as cork or linoleum. Flooring reflectance makes the ceiling plane critical for maintaining good acoustics. Other areas to consider for acoustical balance include fabric-wrapped wall panels and tackable surfaces, full-height (slab to slab) walls with acoustical insulation inside, and acoustic baffles hung below the ceiling to mitigate reverberation and echo. For more information on acoustics, see GSA's Sound Mattersopens in new window.

Avoid all products made with added formaldehyde because it is a known irritant and probable carcinogen. The center cannot contain any potentially toxic materials or chemicals.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

NIST Playground
Playground Equipment at NIST

Playground equipment is meant to stimulate play and present challenges to children while minimizing risk and hazards. Play structures are purposefully designed to be both structurally and materially safe. Quality playground equipment is determined by its safety, durability, low maintenance, recycled content, functionality, challenge, and appeal. The EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPG)opens in new window state that playground equipment must be constructed of 100% recycled material including 90-100% post-consumer plastic or 50-75% post-consumer plastic composites.

Find safety guidelines regarding classroom and playground equipment:


Human Impacts

Human Behavior on Systems

Occupant buy-in and cooperation is essential to maintaining indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and the health, financial, and human impacts associated with it . Goals can only be identified and achieved if executed hand-in-hand with the occupants.

Children should feel at home in the child care center. Modeling healthy environments at the center can lead to similar behaviors carrying over to their homes.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

System Impact on Humans
Indoor plants can pull double duty — improving air quality and creating a more "home-like" atmosphere for children.

Studies show that a student’s learning environment can majorly influence their learning ability. Lower absenteeism and improved attention are some of the positive impacts that can result from improved environments. Many of the same benefits can be paralleled in early childhood care facilities. Children, from infants through pre-school, are developing physically and mentally at a rapid rate; spaces that are healthier indoor environments will provide for healthier biological system development. Cleaner indoor air, access to full-spectrum daylight and views of nature, developmentally appropriate furnishings and equipment and enhanced acoustics all provide a healthier indoor environment for development and learning to occur. Child care staff can also benefit from an improved work environment.3

There is educational value in children being able to see and experience aspects of sustainable design as well. Having children understand and participate in simple energy conservation habits, recycling, and water conservation habits makes these principles part of daily life and valued in the future.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Best Practices and Strategies


Windows in Child Care Center

Studies have shown that children who do not have access to full-spectrum daylight are less alert than those who do have access via windows and skylights.

The designer should strive to have natural lighting coming from at least two directions. Window seats also are an effective way to maximize the effects of natural light. The daylighting strategy used in the building design should be carefully studied, including analogue, physical modeling or digital modeling where appropriate, to achieve the best technical requirements

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Playground Planted Area
Playground Planted Area

GSA playgrounds typically incorporate planted areas where children can learn about planting vegetables and flowers. The incorporation of natural elements as well as recycled material in playground design and in play time for children is a way of assimilating nature-based play into their daily routine. Feelings of familiarity and fondness with the outdoors developed at an early age are likely to carry on through their maturation and promote sustainable practices in adolescence and adulthood.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Department of the Interior (DOI) Classroom

Child care centers must meet the majority of the environmental safety requirements mandated by national codes and standards. GSA child care centers must be in compliance with state licensing regulations, accreditation regulations by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)non government site opens in new window, and GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window. Before the building, renovation, new occupation, or after a national disaster, centers must undergo an environmental audit. Conducting an audit ensures that the building is safe for the children as well as adults, teachers or guardians that occupy the building throughout the day.

For more information on federal federal policies concerning children's health, see EO 13045: Protection of Children From Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risksopens in new window at GPO.gov.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Toxic Chemicals

All-existing interior and exterior surfaces of the center, including play yard equipment, must be tested for lead-based paint according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)opens in new window guidelines and GSA's Child Care Center Design Guide. Water sources must be tested prior to substantial project completion and occupancy of building against EPA's Lead and Copper Rule: A Quick Reference Guide for Schools and Child Care Facilitiesopens in new window. Site grounds for a building project will undergo a phase I environmental site assessment and, if potential contaminants are found, undergo a phase II assessment. If a phase II assessment is not needed, then soil must be tested for lead content. In the occurrence of excess contamination levels, ground remediation of the contaminated area is required before continuation of the project.

The precautionary principle is based on the idea that, in the absence of scientific consensus, if an action has a suspected risk of causing harm to humans or to the environment, that the action is harmful. Many substances commonly found in building materials and systems have been linked to health issues. Fortunately, recent advances in materials sciences and research have identified alternatives to many materials which allows the designer and builder to eliminate these potentially toxic substances.

See the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registryopens in new window for additional resources.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window

Indoor Air Quality

Plant in Child Care Classroom
Indoor Plant at GSA's Joyful Noise Child Care Center

Sufficient air quality is particularly important when regarding small children because their exposure may be higher than in adults due to their relative size. Environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately because their bodies are still developing and growing organs can be more easily harmed. Indoor air quality can be affected by inappropriate maintenance or operations – such as not cleaning filters or running fans – no matter how clean the air is meant to be. Reducing particulates in the air through filtration and choosing zero- or low-VOC materials that won’t off-gas are strategies that limit allergens indoors. Many known asthma triggers can be found in building materials and can be eliminated or minimized by careful product selection. Training provided to both building maintenance staff and child care providers helps to ensure systems operate efficiently and as designed.

Design for good indoor air quality using low- or non-toxic finishes and using acceptable ventilation levels and system design. Furthermore, studies suggest that the use of many types of indoor plants may improve indoor air quality by filtering pollutants out of the air. Certainly, indoor plants contribute to creating a more “home-like” atmosphere, and have been shown to positively affect the behavior and mental well-being of both adults and children, which is the subject of a LEED Commercial Interior credit item. Careful selection of plants is important; see GSA's Child Care Design Guideopens in new window (Appendix B) for toxicity information on specific indoor plants.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window (Chapters 9 and 10)


The center should not be located near noise sources such as major highways, street intersections, railroad lines, or airport flight paths without mitigation. If proximity to high levels of noise is unavoidable, acoustical measures are necessary.

Maximum acceptable noise levels are dependent upon the area of the center subjected to the noise and whether the sound is continuous or intermittent. Children, and especially infants, are sensitive to noise particularly unexpected or intermittent loud noise.

Controlling transfer of noise from active to quiet rooms must be accounted for in child care centers. Sleep is an integral part of proper development of children and limited or interrupted sleep can negatively affect a child. The following measures can be taken to minimize noise transfer: extend interior partitions to above ceiling height; partitions with single layer wallboard, cavity insulation, and caulk at attaching points; doors with solid cores; fabrics and baffles to absorb noise, careful selection of materials and finishes.

Source: GSA's Child Care Center Design Guideopens in new window (Chapter 10) and Sound Mattersopens in new window



Mandates/Rating Systems


GSA's Child Care Center Design Guide (P140)opens in new window

GSA's Child Care Center Design Guide contains criteria for planning and designing child care centers in GSA-owned or controlled spaces. The guide is environmentally sensitive and promotes sustainability as both a healthful and functional part of child care center design.

Learn more at GSA's P140 pageopens in new window.

GSA P100

High performance federal facility standards are established by the GSA P100 Facilities standards, with higher awards granted for following more stringent requirements. Requirements for Child Care Centers are Program-Specific Guides and Standards related to topics such as site design, emergency evacuation, food services, safety, and security.

Learn more at GSA's P100 pageopens in new window.

Local Child Care State License

Acquiring state child care licensure is dependent on requirements that vary from state to state. Learn more from your state government's website.

NAEYC Accreditation

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accredits child care centers of high quality, that benefit the lives of children through a safe, happy, and influential education with their stamp of approval. Child care centers that earn the stamp of approval from the NAEYC are considered centers of quality care and education.

Learn more at NAEYCnon government site opens in new window.


Rating Systems

LEED Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) (v4)

Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED): Interior Design and Construction addresses licensed child care centers under the use type and category of civic and community facilities.

Relation to Child Care:
Credit IDCredit Name
WEp1 Indoor Water Use Reduction
WEc1 Indoor Water Use Reduction
EAp2 Minimum Energy Performance
EAc2 Optimize Energy Performance
EQp1 Minimum Indoor Air Quality Performance
EQc2 Low-Emitting Materials
EQc6 Interior Lighting
EQc7 Daylight
EQc8 Quality Views
EQc9 Acoustic Performance
LEED Operations & Maintenance (O+M) (v4)

Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED): Operations & Maintenance addresses licensed child care centers under the use type and category of civic and community facilities.

Relation to Child Care:
Credit IDCredit Name
WEp1 Indoor Water Use Reduction
WEc2 Indoor Water Use Reduction
EAp2 Minimum Energy Performance
EAc4 Optimize Energy Performance
MRc3 Purchasing - Facility Maintenance and Renovation
EQp1 Minimum Indoor Air Performance
EQp3 Green Cleaning Policy
EQc2 Enhanced Indoor Air Quality Strategies
EQc4 Interior Lighting
EQc5 Daylight and Quality Views
EQc7 Green Cleaning - Products and Materials
EQc8 Green Cleaning - Equipment
Green Globes New Construction (NC)

Green Globes for NC focuses on sustainable design of new and proposed projects and covers a wide range of issues that can be applied to the maintenance and operation of whole buildings, as well as their smaller components such as Child Care Centers. GPC New Construction guiding principles follow a streamlined process that applies to new construction projects and focuses on improving building performance and sustainability.

Example Survey Questions
Has there been a vehicle “idling-reduction” directive?
Is there a requirement for best-practices to maintain good indoor air quality?
Are large trees, clusters of trees, and undergrowth integrated into the landscape plan?
Are there critical HVAC controls?
Green Globes Continual Improvement of Existing Buildings (CIEB)

Green Globes for EB caters to managerial and operational challenges found in existing buildings by serving as reference buildings teams can use to look up possible capital improvements and best practices. Provided guiding principles are used to achieve sustainability compliance, and can be done by applying best practices in maintenance and operation of whole buildings, as well as their smaller components.

Example Survey Questions
What percentage of all lighting in the facility is “high efficiency lighting”?
Does the building have access to public transport within .3 miles?
Is there service at least every 15 minutes during rush hour?
Are there separate storage/handling facilities for used paper products, glass, metal and plastic?
Are there collection points (bins) for sorting paper, glass, metal and plastic near the areas where waste is generated?
Is the building site free of contamination?
Has the building had an IAQ audit in the past year?
Are there procedures for maintaining good IAQ that include HVAC operations, housekeeping procedures, preventive maintenance, etc.?
Is there a list of preferred products used in housekeeping and building maintenance?
Does the purchase policy include the requirement for purchasing energy saving equipment?
Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS)

The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) seeks to improve student performance and the entire educational experience by building the best possible schools. CHPS provides several different assessment tools for high performance school projects. Projects using those assessment tools can be recognized as achieving high performance status. For new construction, new buildings and major modernizations, CHPS provides two recognition programs: CHPS Designed and CHPS Verified.

See the CHPS websitenon government site opens in new window for more information.

Resources/Case Studies


Case Studies

Toxic Materials and Chemicals

Potentially toxic materials and chemicals include:4

  • Acid Anhydrides
  • Acrylates (MMA, PMMA, Acrylic Acid, TMPTA)
  • Ammonia hydroxide
  • Asbestos
  • Bisphenol A Diglycidyl Ether (BADGE)
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethelene
  • Chlorofluorocarbons
  • Choloprene (Neoprene)
  • Ethanolamines
  • Formaldehyde
  • Halogenated Flame Retardants
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Isocyanates
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Petrochemical Fertilizers and Pesticides
  • Phthalates
  • Polyfunctional Aziridine (PFA)
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Styrene
  • Wood Treatments containing Creosote, Arsenic or Pentachlorophenol


1 U.S. EPA, America's Children and the Environment, 3rd Ed. (ACE3)opens in new window

2 U.S. GSA, Child Care Center Design Guide (P140)opens in new window

3 USGBC Center for Green Schoolsnon government site opens in new window

4 Perkins+Will, Transparencynon government site opens in new window


GSA Child Care is committed to providing healthy environments for children and their caregivers. Through sustainable practices, we reduce children's exposure to environmental health hazards of common practices and materials found in child care facilities. Research shows that the first years of a child's life are critical to shaping their future health and development. Child care architects, facility managers, and providers can make small changes that have a big impact on the children in their care. By reducing toxins in design and practice, we help prevent illnesses or health problems like asthma, learning disabilities and even some forms of cancer. All GSA Child Care Centers participate in the Eco-Healthy Child Care Program to create child care settings that are as environmentally healthy as possible.

Related Topics

Child Care Centers

Because children spend such long hours at child care centers, the design of their spaces is especially critical. The design effort must allow for, and be sensitive to, the differences in space attributes for children and those for adults as well as the differences in space usage by the children in different age groups.

Learn more about Child Care Centers.


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