When planning your indoor child care environment, your main concerns should be the health and safety of the children in your care. You will need to look for potential hazards in your child care space and take steps to prevent injury and unsafe conditions. You should also think about how your space will promote safe play and learning for the children in your care.
There is a lot to think about when creating your indoor child care environment! Your state’s child care licensing regulations will cover many of the topics below. Be sure to consult with a licensor as you set up your child care space to make sure that all areas meet state requirements for health and safety.
General Child Care Environment
Child care areas: You will need to designate which areas of your facility will be used for the child care and which will be off limits to children in care (such as rooms for staff to rest or eat lunch, cleaning closets, staff restrooms, etc.). Rooms that are used for child care must be well-lighted, have good air flow and be kept at a comfortable temperature and humidity.
Entrance/Exit: Consider the main entrance and exit to the child care program and/or each classroom. Ensure that there is a clear path for parents and children to enter the room. They will need a place to stop and hang up coats, remove boots and stow personal belongings. Decide where you’ll store children’s things to avoid a crowd by the door at drop-off and pick-up times.
Floors: Think about your play area floor and the children in your care. Consider what kind of flooring would be adequate for your space. Infants may be more comfortable on an area rug or foam tiles than on a hard floor surface. Floor coverings are also helpful for reducing noise. However, smooth floor surfaces may be better for certain kinds of play (cars, blocks, sensory activities, etc.) and for children with allergies. No matter what kind of flooring you choose, make sure that it is easy to clean!
Doors: Make sure that all closet and bathroom doors can be opened by a child from the inside. Doors with locks should allow the locked door to be opened from the outside in case of an emergency.
Setting Up Your Child Care Space
You’ll need areas for play, rest, eating, storage and changing diapers (if you’ll care for infants). Take the following information into account when planning out your child care space:
Play space: Your play space should be well-organized and have distinct areas. Children should know where things are and where to put them away. Consider creating “centers” for each kind of play, such as:
- Circle time, with a rug for sitting and a place to display children’s names and/or pictures of children and their families, a calendar, pictures illustrating their daily schedule, program rules, etc.
- A quiet reading area with comfortable pillows or armchairs and low shelving or baskets for access to age-appropriate books
- A block play area
- Sensory activities
- Dramatic play, with dress-up clothes, dolls and stuffed animals, and other props
- Arts and crafts area, with a variety of art supplies, easels, smocks, and a table and chairs
- Small muscle activities area, with age-appropriate lacing and sorting activities, puzzles, stacking and nesting toys, etc.
- Writing area, with writing materials, notepads and paper and a small table with a couple of chairs
- Large muscle activities area, with space for running, riding, climbing, balancing, etc. (this may also be your outdoor space)
- A small place for one or two children or a child and an adult to rest quietly, with comfortable seating, quiet music and favorite stuffed animals
Read more about using Learning Centers in Child Care from the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care. The centers listed above can be adjusted for toddlers, preschool-age children and school-age children. Infants can also enjoy a reading center, sensory play, manipulatives, and other centers with changes to make them appropriate for the infant age group.
Resting or sleeping areas: Depending on the age(s) of the children, resting or sleeping spaces may look different. Infants should each have their own crib or safe infant sleep space, such as a play yard or a bassinet. Safe infant sleep practices should be followed at all times to reduce the risk of SIDS. Ensure that cribs will not be placed near drapes or window blinds. The sleep space should be within sight and sound of a caregiver at all times. For older children, individual cots or mats may be appropriate.
Diaper-changing: If you’ll be caring for even one child in diapers, you’ll need a designated diaper-changing area. Plan to set up your changing table near a sink that is not used for food preparation for easy hand-washing. Your space should also have a place to store diaper-changing materials out of children’s reach. Your diaper-changing area should be set up away from the food preparation and eating areas.
Eating area: Consider where children will eat snacks and meals. You should have a designated area for children to eat comfortably. This may include high chairs for babies and child-sized table and chairs for older children. You’ll want this space to be on flooring that is easy to clean. Additionally, think about where the caregivers will sit. Is there a place for you to sit while you spoon-feed babies? Can you sit family-style at the table with the older children? Do you have rocking chairs or gliders where caregivers can bottle-feed infants?
Furniture placement: Whether you’re in a Family Child Care Home or Child Care Center, you can arrange your furniture in a way that promotes play and learning and prevents injuries. Think about how you can use low- to medium-height furniture to divide your sleeping and play spaces. Consider also how you can place your furniture to allow freedom of movement while preventing unsafe activities like running or climbing. Ensure that a caregiver can easily see all children from any position in the room.
Storage: Designate certain areas for storage. Decide where you’ll store cleaning materials, medications and other hazardous materials. Make sure children are not able to access the area and that it is locked for safety. Store children and staff records somewhere that is easy for you to access but out of the reach of children. You’ll also want a place to store staff and children’s belongings. Consider cubbies, well-spaced hooks or individual bins for children’s items like coats and extra diapers and clothes. Staff belongings, like purses and backpacks should be kept out of reach of the children.
Family communication: A place to post announcements, events, menus and schedules can be a great way to communicate with families. A bulletin board in a visible location may be helpful. In addition, think about using a table or shelving to display children’s work or a basket for parent hand-outs. Be sure to keep the information current and to put it in a place where families can stop to read without blocking the flow of traffic at drop-off or pick-up.
Avoiding Health and Safety Hazards
One of the best steps you can take to create a safe environment for children is to see your space from a child’s point of view. Get down on your hands and knees and look around. Think about the children you’ll have in care. Will you care for crawling babies, unsteady new walkers, running toddlers or rough-housing preschoolers? What aspects of your environment could be dangerous for those children? Some common child care hazards and their fixes can include:
- Hanging cords and curtains – Tie up all hanging cords and curtains so they are out of children’s reach.
- Hinges or drawer/cupboard openings – Install finger-pinch protection devices or dampers to doors, cupboards, cabinets and gates that could pinch a child’s fingers.
- Electrical outlets – Securely cover all outlets not in use. Make sure that children cannot reach cords and outlets that are being used.
- Hazardous substances and objects – Store all hazardous materials in a locked cabinet out of children’s reach. This includes cleaning materials, aerosol cans, medications, toiletries, room sprays, and other potentially toxic materials. Dangerous items such as sharp objects and plastic bags should also be secured out of reach.
- Tip-over hazards – Identify furniture pieces that could pose a risk of injury from tipping. Secure these items to the wall. This may include chests, bookshelves and televisions.
- Clear glass doors – Mark glass doors to make them more visible. Tape, window decals, washable glass paint and vision strips are ideas to safely mark a glass door to prevent accidental impact.
- Second-floor windows – Ensure that any windows above the first floor cannot be opened fully. It is possible to install barriers or locking devices that allow the window to be opened only partially.
- Heat sources – Heating equipment such as radiators, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and others should be properly screened to prevent fires and to protect children from burns while they are in use. Some heat sources (ex. space heaters) may not be allowed by your state’s licensing requirements. Ensure that any heaters used in the child care program meet your state’s standards.
Be sure to evaluate your child care areas for these and other safety hazards. Talk with a child care licensor as well to ensure your space meets state regulations for safe and healthy child care.
- Tips for Keeping Children Safe: A Developmental Guide from the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness
- Caring for Our Children Basics: Health and Safety Foundations for Early Care and Education from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Caring for Our Children Searchable Database from the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education (search using a keyword, such as “indoor” or “play”)
- Health and Safety in Child Care from the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care
Choosing Age-Appropriate Toys, Books and Equipment
Materials and play equipment should be appropriate to the age(s) of the children in care. All materials and equipment should be sturdy and in good shape. Avoid toys with rough edges, peeling paint, sharp corners and broken parts. It is also wise to avoid toys with button batteries; these pose a danger to children when swallowed. Always check the recommended age range on each toy before deciding if it should be included in your rotation. When choosing toys for your group, consider whether or not they will be easy to clean. Can you clean and disinfect it by hand? Can it be cleaned in the dishwasher or the washing machine? See below for resources that can help you choose age-appropriate toys for the children in your care.
- Why This Toy? from NAEYC
- The Development of Play Skills from Birth to 3 from Zero to Three
- Age-Appropriate Toy Ideas for Child Care from the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care
- Consumer Product Safety Commission
Age-appropriate books should be available to children of all ages for the majority of each day. See below for links on choosing age-appropriate books for every age group.
- How to Create a Literate Home from PBS Parents
- Home Library Builder Tool from Scholastic
- Choosing Great Books for Children from Scholastic
- Choosing Books for Young Children in Child Care from the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care
Use shelves, labeled bins (pictures make great labels for pre-readers), and easy-to-access drawers or cabinets to store toys and books. Children should be able to find what they’re looking for, know where to put it away and safely access materials almost any time of the day.
Emergency Supplies and Information
First Aid kits and fire extinguishers should be out of reach of children but easy for caregivers to access. Emergency evacuation routes should be posted in each room. Additionally, emergency contacts, such as Poison Control and the Fire Department, should be posted. Working smoke detectors should be placed throughout the program. Caring for Our Children recommends placing a smoke detector in the following locations:
- On each story of the building in of front stairway doors
- In the hallways of all floors
- In lounges and recreation areas
- In each room used for sleeping
Your state’s licensing regulations will specify where smoke detectors should be placed. For best practice, consider installing devices in each location above.
State Licensing Regulations for your Indoor Environment
If your program is required to have a child care license, you should make sure that you meet any standards set by your state for your child care environment. You may also want to consider getting involved with your state’s quality rating system (QRIS) for help improving the quality of your indoor environment. To get in touch with your child care licensing office or QRIS, visit our State by State Resource Map. Click on your state to find the child care licensing information and website for your area.
Additional Resources for Your Indoor Environment
- News You Can Use: Environment As Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers from the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC) Infant and Toddler Resources
- Early Essentials Webisode #7: Environments from the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC) Infant and Toddler Resources
- Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. Department of Justice
- National Fire Protection Association
- Culture of Safety from the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness
- Active Supervision from the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness
Health and Safety Checklists for Child Care Programs
Center-Based and Family Child Care programs may use these checklists to evaluate health and safety in their environment, policies, and procedures. Both checklists cover topics that are often found in licensing requirements. Regardless of which tool is used, programs should always work with a child care licensor to ensure that they meet state licensing requirements in all areas.
- Caring for Our Children Basics: Program Review Tool (based on Caring for Our Children Basics minimum health and safety standards for out-of-home child care settings)
- Health and Safety Screener: Policies and Procedures for Head Start Programs (designed for Head Start programs but may also be useful for child care programs)