Raising children is a rewarding but exhausting process. There is no getting away from the transformational nature of being a parent. Many of us fail to be
the parents we want to be, and I suspect that each generation, to a certain extent, repeats the successes and failures of the previous generation. However, today the world is a global and ever more frenetic one, usually dominated by short-term commercial expediency. People are less secure in their jobs, communities are more fragmented. This inevitably impacts on family lives; things feel less certain, more impermanent. Seen in this context, modern lifestyles can be very stressful for children. This can be significantly relieved by good nursery provision. Simply adapting an existing building, such as a church hall, which is often an expedient approach to low-cost childcare in the United Kingdom, fails to recognize the rights of young children to their own space, and the need to support and reassure parents in every way possible. Equally, it demeans our view of the role of architecture as a power for good in society. Despite its many shortcomings, it is my view that a coherent system of early-years care and education are the most important political and
social interventions of the past 15 years in the United Kingdom. Although I emphasize the people involved over and above any building as being the most important and critical factor in this, an environment which enables high-quality care and education to take place is an important aspect of this offer. Many of the 3,500 children’s centres that have opened since 1996 are testament to this concern for children and the value of society as a whole. As the social structure of Britain becomes less equitable, so its social problems resemble more those of the post-industrial American cities, with many teenagers excluded from society, and particularly boys lacking male role models. In my view this is a direct result of the ineffectual nurturing during the early years, and the failure to support impoverished and poorly educated parents, itself probably because of second-rate early-years care in their own childhoods. It is hard to place a price/value on long-term investment in goodquality nursery care and education. There are so many variables at work, and no systematic research has been undertaken that pins down the value of nurseries, let alone the importance of their architectural quality. All we know is that a building is required, and if it works well, then the circumstances of the users will be improved. The historic HighScope project in the United
States, which tracked two sets of early-years children over a 30-year period (starting in 1964), is widely quoted. A huge amount of help was offered to one sample of disadvantaged families – extra tuition, therapeutic and practical support for mothers, every kind of welfare benefit. Nothing special was done for a comparison sample, and 30 years later the HighScope graduates had done dramatically better. For every dollar spent up front on HighScope, seven dollars were saved further down the road on the costs of police detecting crimes, judicial process, incarceration and those gained from taxes paid and benefits unclaimed. The conclusion is that as long as the proper resources are provided to help them and offer good-quality early-years care, hundreds of thousands of children will not wreck their own and others’ lives. What we hope to do here is explain how the environment not only supports this end, but also show how it can in some circumstances become the most important element in the equation.