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Quality Environments for Infants

by Jim Greenman
Places for Babies

A Place for Babies

Imagine a room with light streaming in the windows, shadows dancing on the floors and walls, and a richly textured world of different shapes and sizes of furniture to climb on, over, around, and in—with places to just sit, places to snuggle. It is a room where you can sometimes make wild messes as you discover the mysteries of sensuous substances that often end up on you. It is a room with different places to be, just like your house—places that look, feel, sound, and smell different. There are lilacs here and baskets of ivy hanging by the window. There is a door to the outside, that wonderful place with grass and sun and shade. Out there the messes can be even wilder and you are free to kick up your heels—sorry, you can’t do that—let’s say instead bounce and waddle with abandon, roll and swing, twist and shout.

It is not a room dominated by cribs, nor are you sandwiched between the glare of florescent lights and gleaming tile. It is not a tiny cell-like space where the day is divided into time on the crowded rug, the bounce chair, and the crib—nor is it a room filled with tables and chairs and a random assortment of toys, where activities are put out to keep the group busy.

In the room are large and small people interacting; the interactions are warm and relaxed and frequent. There are real conversations between adults and children. Adults listen to children and respond to their vocalizations.

Look closely and see—it is a room filled with individuals. There is Stephen, striding into the room like Louis the Sun King, expecting to be loved, his good nature surrounding him like a bumper. There is Alexander, always a worried man who likes to be held. And Alicia, who likes to sample everything, and JoAnna, who needs a morning nap.

Children are trying to “do it myself”—infants holding spoons and cups, toddlers pouring milk and wrestling with zippers.

Parents clearly belong in the room; one feels their presence through photographs and the information directed toward their eyes. The warmth with which they are welcomed and their familiarity with the life occurring within leaves little doubt that it is their place as well.

There is a sense of security: both the security that comes from knowing that this is a safe place for children, beyond the normal bumps and bruises that go with active learning, and the child’s security that she is truly known, understood, and accepted for who she is.

There is a sense of engagement: when adults interact with children they give them their full human presence. When children are exploring the world and their emerging powers, they are intent.

There is a sense of active learning: children are genuinely INTO things, and ALL OVER things, as befits creatures that learn with all of their senses and through whole body action.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to find programs with these characteristics. Probably fewer than one in ten centers are truly good places for babies. Quality does not come easily or inexpensively.

Quality care for babies is not brandishing an infant curriculum or infant stimulation. It is not spic and span tile and formica, or attractive lofts, or a bump-free environment, or even low ratios and smiley, warm people. Quality is each and every child experiencing warm, personal care and developmentally appropriate opportunities for sensory, motor, and language learning. Quality is parents feeling in control.

How Does Quality Happen?

Without infant ratios of no worse than one adult to four children, toddler ratios of one adult to five children, it will not happen, or at least happen for all of the children all of the time. And quality depends on people who genuinely appreciate babies for who they are, for what they can do right now, not just what they will be able to do or are in the process of becoming. But good ratios and good people don’t guarantee quality.

Quality happens because the environment—time and space—is designed and planned to support care and learning. The setting is furnished, equipped, and organized to maximize the caregiver’s time. Quality is a result of considerable thought and planning: maximizing resources, adjusting to individual needs and changing circumstances.

The Importance of Built-In Learning

An essential quality of good infant and toddler programs is moving away from a traditional early childhood focus on activities and building learning into the environment. When learning is built in, it frees caregivers to be with children and focus on the child: to take the time to slowly diaper a child, or to help a child through the agony of separation, or to appreciate the joy of new-found discoveries. These are the prime times, the important times. It is upside-down priorities to rush through these times to get back to teaching or managing children.

While teacher-directed activities may take place, there are always other opportunities for those toddling to a different drummer. Activities take place individually and with small groups within an environment rich with opportunities for vigorous motor and sensory exploration.

The Importance of an Organized, Convenient Environment for Staff

Convenience and organization buy time for staff to spend precious minutes with a child. Poor storage and inadequate equipment result in lower quality.

What Kind of Place for Babies?

A Safe and Healthy Place
Good places for babies follow the National Health and Safety Performance Standards: Guidelines for Out-of-Home Child Care Programs in Caring for Our Children, developed by the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics standards for group care.

But there are also two important understandings:

  • Learning involves the risk of acquiring the normal bumps and bruises of childhood, the natural result of learning to explore the world with a developing body.
  • Sanitary and clean are not the same thing and are usually confused. A good program has a vigilant concern for avoiding the spread of germs and disease, but not a preoccupation with cleanliness that gets in the way of sensory exploration and other active learning.


A Good Place to “Be”
A good place to be a baby and be with a baby for long days and weeks includes:

  • sufficient room for adults (including a few parents) and children
  • windows and doors to the outside
  • home-like lighting that allows a variety of lighting conditions
  • multiple places to be that feel different when you are there
  • places to pause that allow you to step back from the action
  • soft places and more soft places: pillows, couches, futons
  • enough tile surface for eating and the rest, carpet
  • a separate crib room or area that accommodates individual schedules
  • plants and multi-textured decor
  • an outdoors area of shade and sun, grass and deck, hills and flats, things to climb on, and loose parts to collect


A Good Place to Learn
Nearly all the important learning in the first two years of life is sensory, motor, language, and self-knowledge: “I am important, competent, powerful, and connected to others.” A good place to learn is filled with challenge and exploration:

  • large motor learning: climbing, pushing, grabbing, and motor opportunities of all kinds
  • sensory learning: a world at their fingertips to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear
  • language: conversations, listening to children, reading
  • expression and accomplishment: opportunities to express yourself in motion and mess (art), solve problems, and do-it-yourself
  • loose parts to inspect, collect, dump, and sort


A Good Place to Work
A good place to work needs:

  • water and toilets, where they are needed
  • ample storage, close to the point of use
  • ample information space, close to the point of use
  • clear organization and signage
  • cleaning supplies, right there


A Good Place for Parents to Be
Parents are welcome, greeted, and helped to understand how the room works. There is storage space for their things.

A Final Note: Babies in the Real World

Babies deserve more than they usually get from group care. Too many programs are too hard, inflexible, over- or under-stimulating, and tolerate too much child distress. But it is not really the people involved who are to blame. Many programs for babies are the equivalent of shanty towns, makeshift creations put together out of the wonderful stuff we can find and keep, the found and purchased spaces and materials barely adequate for the task, and all the energy and love and commitment that can be mustered. It is easy to accept what is and avoid criticism of programs doing the best they can. But at what cost to children? It is our job to assert what quality is and to push for the resources for all programs to achieve it.

About the Author
Jim Greenman (1949-2009) was Senior Vice President of Education and Program Development with Bright Horizons from 1986-2009. Jim had over 30 years experience as an educator and early childhood administrator. His experience ranged from working with employer-sponsored child care to inner city, hospital, and university programs; early childhood and family education programs; Head Start, family child care, and public and private schools. Jim played a significant role in the facility and program design process for over 100 early childhood projects and taught the Institute on Child Care Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Jennifer commented on  April 15, 2016

I'm not familiar with Jim Greenman, yet this article surely resinated with me. I participated in RIE and Waldorf programs, so this article feels like home. I look forward to learning more from Jim Greenman. Great article. I love Community Play Things, and this is just another reason why! Thank you.

Linda  commented on  April 03, 2016

I miss Jim Greenman but his presence in the world is still felt and this article reminds me of why he became one of my ECE "gurus" many years ago. His understanding of the needs of children and the associated need for us to create environments that support that understanding always inspire.

Olga commented on  March 29, 2016

Because babies are capable of doing many things on their own does not mean they need babysitters. Infants need professionals! They need care-givers who understand their development and the different theories and approaches. I recommend for you to read the RIE approach. It will help you get familiar on the quality of care that infants need.

Missy Brown commented on  March 29, 2016

I love, love, love, this blog! I find so much inspiration and good research based information to share with providers. Thank you Community Playthings!

Fay commented on  March 29, 2016

I love and appreciate this article. " Quality does not come easily or inexpensively " is absolutely right. I am a provider who primarily serves underserved families receiving subsidy vouchers. The subsidy amounts are way below market rates for all children and our low income families can't afford to make up the difference. I would love to be able to afford this standard of quality for all ages, but especially infants and toddlers. Providers are committed to achieving as much quality as possible, but until the funds are released to increase payments for the subsidy program, those of us who take care of these families find it increasingly difficult to reach our goals.

Sofia commented on  March 29, 2016

Ideally, all programs could provide low ratios and invest in an environment designed for relationship building and active learning where parents can feel welcome and participate. I felt the love surround me as I read this article. Thanks for the hope.

Patty Zimmerman commented on  March 29, 2016

Kuddos to you Jim for putting these thoughts out there again and again for all humans to understand how precious and important the first three years of life are! I'm sharing this with all I can. Sincerely, a 30 year veteran teacher of toddlers.

Nicole commented on  March 29, 2016

Our infant rooms are clean, spacious, full of wonderful materials. We have wall size windows looking out on the playground. Magnificent natural light pouring in, yet we are still required to keep the fluorescents on. These precious babies sleep, play, eat under the buzz of fluorescent lighting. It's probably the one thing that keeps my baby out of the program in which I work. Our babies all struggle with naps and we know how important sleep is for early development and recharging. Yet we still keep the brightest lights on while we have natural light available. How is fluorescent lighting keeping our babies extra safe? Doesn't make sense.

Judi Pack commented on  March 29, 2016

Jim Greenman's death was a terrible loss to early childhood, but he left a wonderful legacy of keen insight and heartfelt ideas.

Jennifer Birckmayer commented on  March 29, 2016

This is a wonderful article! I want to frame it and share it with everyone I know. But it does make me miss Jim Greenman and his incredible wisdom about babies.Thanks for printing it!

Ellen commented on  March 29, 2016

How I wish that people would truly understand this. Even in 2016, people underestimate what babies/young toddlers can do. People also do not understand the need for infant teachers. After all, they think, babies only need babysitters. :(

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