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How to achieve cost-effective kindergarten classrooms

K-12 Schools

How to achieve cost-effective kindergarten classrooms

Educational architect Robin Randall shares realistic advice about the challenges of adding developmentally appropriate, play-based kindergarten classrooms while respecting budget limitations.

By Robin Randall, AIA, LEED AP BD+C | Legat Architects | June 5, 2023
Childs are playing with play clay in classroom
Photo courtesy Adobe Stock

As of December 2022, 41 states and Washington, D.C. require school districts to offer kindergarten, but only 19 states and D.C. require children to attend kindergarten, according to The Education Commission of the States.

There is no debate about the educational value of kindergarten and early intervention in children’s lives. Learn more from Imagine Nation Center about some of the skills and development opportunities that kindergarten provides.

The real debate centers around the financial implications of expanding kindergarten. Increasing kindergarten offerings, whether half-day or full-day, means hiring more staff, which is a huge long-term investment for districts that have already maximized their budgets.

Many districts feel pressure to increase kindergarten enrollment—and to do so quickly. But how can they accommodate this growth in the most cost-effective manner? Following are a few considerations for districts that find themselves on the brink of kindergarten expansion.

Kindergarten classroom large
Compared to the classroom for older students, the ideal kindergarten classroom is larger and offers more zones for play-based learning. Photo courtesy Legat Architects

Renovation vs. New Construction

The investment and schedule of new construction can be daunting, so districts’ first thought might be to renovate existing space. Either way, districts should start with a program document that shows how many classrooms are needed now and in the future.

Here is a hypothetical yet common scenario: an elementary school district needs to add kindergarten space. An addition is off the table for this year, so the district has decided to retrofit three fifth-grade classrooms into kindergarten rooms. The fifth graders move into temporary classrooms. This Band-Aid solution offers the lowest first-time cost, but it might not be the best long-term solution.

The first thing the district should keep in mind is that kindergarten classrooms require more space. Thus, those three 800-sf fifth-grade classrooms transform into two 1,200-sf kindergarten classrooms. The extra space allows for hands-on learning zones (e.g., quiet, wet, messy, building, etc.) where students can explore based on their curiosities.

Making those former fifth-grade classrooms more developmentally suitable for kindergarteners will also require adding single or shared toilet rooms and intervention space for services such as occupational, physical, and speech therapy.

Since fifth graders are about a foot taller than kindergarteners, our hypothetical renovations will also have to respond to height differences. Are the window and countertop heights appropriate? What about whiteboards and tackboards? Furniture is a major discussion. Kindergarteners need tables that not only fit their stature but also can be quickly moved around to accommodate different group sizes. And because they are not as patient and self-aware as older students, kindergarteners will benefit from furniture that respects their need to rock, recline, or even wobble.

Expansion as a Long-Term Solution

Renovations to add kindergarten classrooms may seem like the most cost-effective option, but new construction often proves to be a better long-term investment. For districts that can afford this route, it takes time to plan for an addition or design a new kindergarten center—it’s not as simple as plunking down a double-loaded corridor with standard-sized classrooms.

Kindergarteners need larger spaces with more play-based opportunities than classrooms intended for older students. All-day kindergarten may also require additional cafeteria and gymnasium space. Planning allows for the required amenities for these younger learners and supports their intellectual and emotional growth.

An addition to an existing structure often emerges as the most long-term cost-effective solution for districts seeking to expand kindergarten offerings.

First, the addition eliminates the need to displace students (and possibly erect temporary classrooms) that comes with renovations. Additionally, building a kindergarten expansion not only avoids expensive plumbing upgrades and wasted resources, but it also allows for classrooms customized with all the appropriate kindergarten elements discussed above.

In contrast to the brand-new standalone facility, the kindergarten addition offers cost-saving connections: access to existing utilities (HVAC, water, power, etc.), existing services (occupational/speech therapists, transportation, etc.), and shared spaces (cafeteria, gym, library, etc.).

Test fit for how a kindergarten expansion might fit on an existing campus
This sample test fit shows how a kindergarten expansion might fit on an existing campus, as well as different views of a classroom floor plan. Image courtesy Legat Architects

Start With a Test Fit To Get a Rough Cost Estimate

Districts considering expanding their kindergarten facilities should start with a test fit from an educational architect. After listening to your goals, challenges, and budget, the architect can create a quick plan that shows potential work. It doesn’t have to take much time or include fancy sketches or renderings—this can be purely a functional overview.

If the work involves an addition, a test fit plan shows how the potential project fits on the site and connects to the existing facility. If the project is a renovation, the test fit demonstrates how the old space will be reconfigured to meet the needs of the smaller learners.

Community Partnerships

Another potential path for districts seeking kindergarten growth is developing partnerships with local organizations. This would be especially beneficial for full-day kindergarten; many children who attend half-day kindergarten go somewhere other than home for the other half of their day.

Dedicated classrooms at the local park district facility or YMCA, for instance, would release some of the financial burden on districts and ease some of the transportation pressures on parents.

Kindergarten classroom space North Scott YMCA
One way to reduce the financial burden of expanding kindergarten space is to pursue partnerships with local park districts and other organizations. Pictured is the new North Scott YMCA in Eldridge, Iowa. Photo courtesy Legat Architects

Contact us for kindergarten classroom questions or a test fit, or comment below to share your thoughts on this post.

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