It must be said that designing an early learning centre (ELC) is a special beast. There’s the unique set of design standards and minimum requirements for things such as floorspace, fall zones, entrapment, amenity and storage.

There’s the two (and very different) types of end users – children and educators. There’s the fact that childcare-aged kids are perhaps the most destructive and prone-to-incident group of human beings there is. And there’s also the very real responsibility that your design will impact upon the personal and physical development of the children occupying the space.

As the designer, balancing all these influences can be a very difficult task, one that demands immense attention to detail across all phases  of a project as well as a thorough understanding of the forever evolving design standards and best practice education methods in the early learning sector.

The transition from “child-minding” to “early learning” in Australian childcare centres over the past decade is one of those influences which has had an enormous impact on the way architects and designers approach an ELC project. Floorplans, materiality and FF&E are now, more than ever, meticulously curated and tied back to the way ELCs in Australia principally operate - as an environment for  a child’s cognitive and physical development. 

If these walls could teach: Pedagogy in the building fabric

As with all building types, moving walls or altering linings in ELCs has a knock-on effect for structural, hydraulic, mechanical, fire and electrical services as well as Section J and other BCA requirements.  But it also carries extra weight in an ELC because wall types and linings can impact the functioning of the centre and therefore the learning environment for its children.  

At Barangaroo ELC in Sydney, the architects chose a very unique partition method which, in a lot of ways, defines how the centre operates. The Collins & Turner design employs a circa 100-metre long joinery wall with floor-to-ceiling cabinetry of multiple types, sizes and colours – an architectural feat its own right. But the wall doesn’t just look good. By choosing this partition method, the architects provided the operator with a huge amount of storage options– something you cannot underestimate in ELC environments, as well as a unique system for displaying things like mandatory childcare provider information, educator documentation, kitchen menus and artworks by the children.

At River Garden ELC in Melbourne, SJB Architects employed a more traditional open floorplan divided by a mixture of low-height walls and amenity pods. This partitioning or blocking system follows the provider’s studentcentred education philosophy which encourages children to move about freely and learn how to use the spaces on their own terms.

River Garden also has a mezzanine level which is used as an art and workshopping area. The walls of the mezzanine are full height glazing, lined with a frosting decal. The decal lining, beyond offering a unique architectural expression and a play on the natural light that enters the room, is designed to provide circular frames of the views below and to teach children about different heights and perspectives.

Glass is also king at Queen Street ELC in Brisbane, where the children are afforded some of the best views available in the city through the building’s curtain walls. Inside, the BVN design employs many traditional linings but the coloured mirrored acrylic insets in the level 5 bulkhead are certainly a feature. Light reflects off the mirrored surfaces and onto the ceilings, walls and floors surrounding them, providing a play on light and colour for the children below. 

Nature's play: Timber is king

The use of timber as a building material in commercial construction is as popular as ever. Touted for its sustainability, natural tactility, health benefits and, more recently, its structural performance, timber is widely regarded as the new [again] frontier for construction.

And the childcare sector hasn’t missed the beat. In ELC construction, timber is specified as a lining material to break up what is, generally speaking, an environment dominated by fit-forpurpose wall materials – think plasterboard, glass partitions, tiles, etc.

Timber provides tactility, which is an important aspect of early learning curriculums, but it also serves as a reference to the natural environment which is attractive for ELC providers in office towers where exposure to nature is limited. 

At River Garden ELC, SJB specified timber lining to the building’s columns and lift core for this very reason. The linings were custom built by the builder but there are proprietry versions that come ready made. Cedar Sales manufacture a product called ‘Castleton Stepped Expression’ which provides the same texture and look.

Gunnersen’s suite of timber architectural lining products is another option for ELC environments. Its ‘DesignerPly’ range, which comes in Marine, Birch and Hoop Pine, has been tested in schools, universities and libraries with great results. DesignerPly can be powdercoated for added durability and it can also be perforated and lined with an acoustic backing board.

Kids will be kids: So specify accordingly

Children. Bless them, but they can be hard work. Give them a pen and paper and they’ll draw on the walls. Give them an abacus and they’ll eat the beads. Give them a set of toy construction tools and they’ll go to work on each other - they like to destroy everything and to do things their own way.

So, it’s fair to say that an ELC can be a war zone at times and architects need to keep this in mind when writing wall schedules. Plasterboard still rules in ELC construction and for good reason. It’s cheap and easy to install, it’s easy to fix and replace, and it’s also highly versatile in that you can clad it, paint it and use it in almost any room in a building. But there are always better versions of the best material.

Gyprock, James Hardie, Knauf and USG Boral all stock boards that provide a high resistance to damage by impact as well as range that can provide water, fire and impact performance all rolled into one. Another option is ‘Gtek Impact’ which is manufactured in Australia by Gtek and available through the company direct or through suppliers like Hume Architectural.

But if plasterboard is king then it rules only with glass at its side. If you’re going to specify 
full-height plasterboard partitions, then glass needs to be incorporated into the wall purely for supervision reasons. The ability to see through walls and into other spaces is a big plus for centres where educators are, at  times, looking after children at a rate of one to eleven.

Adding aluminium or MDF skirtings to walls is also a good idea, particularly in corridors between the kitchen and eating areas. Skirtings will provide some relief for walls from out-ofcontrol food trolleys and provides a neat finish at the floor and wall junction. Look for skirts by Altro Architectural Building Products, Studco and Criterion Industries. 

Quiet please: Silencing the perfect storm

ELCs are quite possibly the loudest places on earth. They’re filled with children for one, but they’re also commonly designed with a maintenance-first mindset. Vinyl floors, glass partitions and vinyl ceiling tiles are all easy to clean and maintain but don’t offer much in terms of sound absorption.

Where possible architects need to specify acoustic treatments in ELC environments to address the problem of sound reverberation. One of those treatments now popular in ELCs is acoustic pinboards which come in a variety of sizes, thicknesses and colours. The boards provide acoustic relief first, but they also serve  as a great place to pin documentation which would otherwise be direct-stuck to plasterboard.

‘Echo Panel’ by Woven Image is one popular product as is ‘Quiet Space’ by Autex. Both provide excellent acoustic performance and are very simple to install. Woven Image and Autex also manufacture fabric linings which can be applied like wallpaper and are perfectly suited to ELC environments, particularly in areas like cot rooms and reading ateliers.  

Wet areas: Think outside the tile

Tiles are still the most common wall lining in ELC wet areas, but they’re not the only choice. Acrylic sheets and even high-performance laminates are being used more and more as an alternative to tiles as they are easy to clean (no grout lines) and can be installed by a joiner or carpenter which reduces wet trades onsite and increases construction speeds.

‘Akril’ is a commonly specified product as is ‘Plexiglas’ by Plastral. The only trade-off is that you’re restricted by sheet sizes so if you’re looking for a floor-to-ceiling solution in a long room you may still be better off with tiles. Plastral also supply a product called ‘DesignBoard’ which is a high-performance partition board that can be used as a lining material. Both Laminex and Polytec stock their own version called ‘Compact Laminate’ which  are long-lasting, low-maintenance and decorative boards that are impervious to moisture.

Another alternative could be running  your wet area floor vinyl or lino up the wall which might be a bit retro but it does make cleaning a cinch. 

Pictured: The joinery wall at Barangaroo ELC is a unique partition system which contains a range of storage options, windows, doorways, serveries and portals. The cabinets are a mixture of Laminex, painted MDF and hardwood. Photography by kat Lu.



Cedar Sales   


CSR Gyprock

James Hardie


USG Boral


Hume Architectural

Altro Architectural Building Products


Criterion Industries

Woven Image