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Providing creative waiting rooms and play spaces for children is an important consideration in today`s competitive marketplace. Given the current high U.S. birth rate, the census forecasts a total of over 40 million children under the age of 10 during the next decade. With a much stronger focus on the benefits of preventative dental care and early treatment, odds are that a significant portion of them will be in your waiting rooms. With some forethought and professional advice, designing space a

HOW TO PROFIT FROM... office design

Designing for young children - a competitive advantage

Renee Reback

Providing creative waiting rooms and play spaces for children is an important consideration in today`s competitive marketplace. Given the current high U.S. birth rate, the census forecasts a total of over 40 million children under the age of 10 during the next decade. With a much stronger focus on the benefits of preventative dental care and early treatment, odds are that a significant portion of them will be in your waiting rooms. With some forethought and professional advice, designing space and providing the appropriate products to engage children can offer benefits beyond occupying them while in your office.

James Barnard is president of Playscapes Children`s Environments, a company that designs and manufactures children`s furniture and activities with emphasis on its use in the medical environment. "When you design for children in a health-care environment," Barnard says, "you`re really designing for four separate clients - children, their parents, staff, and the facility owner. They all have separate needs which should be taken into account."

Jay Levitt, DDS, is the owner of four Dentistry for Children PC practices outside Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Levitt worked with professionals to help him create waiting areas that function as more than just a place to sit and wait.

"Our waiting area is designed to communicate how important our patients are to us," Dr. Levitt emphasized. "I not only want everything to look terrific, [but] I want an environment that makes our patients feel comfortable. We used to have staff bring in old books, puzzles, and games, but small pieces were lost and the game or puzzle became worthless. We now select more durable equipment without small pieces that can be lost or swallowed."

Barbara Balongue, IIDA and president of Balongue Design, Villanova, Pa., works with health-care staff members. "Our clients come to us for the assurance that, as professionals, we have designed an environment for children that frees them from liability-related issues," she explains. "Safety is always a big concern."

Barnard agreed. "All of our customers are very concerned with installing and purchasing equipment which not only engages children in interactive play, but also pays close attention to safety issues. We design our products to avoid concerns such as pieces which can be put in the mouth, choked on, tripped over, or used to hit another child."

Parents appreciate having activities for their children, as well. Lynn Pawlak, Waunakee, Wis., and a mother of two young children, points out, "The biggest challenge in any waiting room is occupying the kids. There is always an added value when the dentist has thought about the strong possibility that parents need to keep their children engaged in activities that keep them from climbing over and under chairs while waiting for an appointment. The whole experience is more relaxing for everyone."

"Paying attention to designing an environment for children within the waiting area frees up the balance of the space from being disrupted by young children," Balongue adds, "and can enhance the overall environment of the office."

Since front-office staff members often assume the responsibility for maintaining the appearance of the waiting area, their concerns also should be addressed. According to Barnard, some key points to consider are:

> Keep clean-up simple by purchasing equipment with laminate surfaces that can be maintained easily with the usual disinfectants.

> Avoid loose pieces which staff may need to keep picking up to avoid a cluttered look in the area.

> Keep in mind the amount of noise an activity will make and, on a similar note, avoid toys that require battery replacement.

"Finally, keep in mind that your staff has to look at the office all day, every day," Barnard says. "I always recommend selecting equipment and décor that bring out the child in anyone - child-like, not childish."

Arguably, when designing for young children, the most important customers are the kids themselves. Young children are divided into three age groups - infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, each with their own play-area requirements. Learning through exploration is important at every stage. Infants tend to stay on the caregiver`s lap, while toddlers and preschoolers are more likely to play independently ... and potentially wreak havoc in a waiting area!

When designing for young children, Barnard recommends having a well-defined area that encourages interactive and dramatic play. The defined area always should be in the sight-line of adult supervision. Focusing on activities that encourage fine motor exploration (i.e., a play island) versus gross-motor activities (such as running and jumping) can help keep noise and chaos to a minimum. Wall-mounted units, such as an engaging finger maze, can keep young children busy, quiet, and much easier to supervise. Self-contained play stations also keep kids busy and have minimal clean-up responsibilities for staff. In fact, many units currently on the market have nonremovable pieces.

"Waiting rooms, when well thought out and properly designed, can serve as an important marketing tool," Dr. Levitt notes. "For us, they are part of our daily focus on creating a positive, professional experience for our patients, parents, and siblings."

Tips on designing for children

James Barnard, president of Playscapes Children`s Environments and author of Children in the Built Environment, gave the following tips for designing spaces with the young child in mind. While this list serves as a good starting point, Barnard advises consultation with a professional when it comes time for final decisions.

1. Make sure the space is developmentally appropriate.

* Is the area well-defined?

* Is the area scaled to the size of young children?

* Is the space visually engaging - i.e., child-like, but not childish?

* Are there possibilities for self-directed discovery, as well as interactive and dramatic play?

* Are the activities developmentally appropriate?

2. Pay close attention to safety factors.

* Does the space afford easy supervision in the sight line of adults?

* Is the equipment easy to sanitize for infection control?

* Is the space free of equipment that can be choked on or tripped on?

3. Kids require tough long-lasting equipment.

* What materials and processes are used to make the equipment tough and justify cost?

* Are there loose pieces that might easily be removed from the environment?

* After the equipment is purchased and installed, what kind of warranty and ongoing service does the company provide?

For a free copy of Playscapes booklet, Designing and Selecting Play Environments for Healthcare Facilities, call (800) 248-7529.

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