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Dedicated or Embedded? Exploring Options for Early Childhood Education Campuses

Posted by Julie Walleisa

Many school districts that need additional space for preschool or early childhood education (ECE) programs debate whether the best approach is to create a standalone early childhood campus, or to add preschool/pre-K classrooms to existing elementary schools. There are many pros and cons that districts can consider in evaluating these options.

Student Benefits

One obvious difference is between a campus that will serve only the youngest children (usually 3-4 year olds) and one that may serve children from preschool through 5th grade (usually ages 3 through 11). A standalone ECE campus can ensure that every space, indoors and outdoors, is age-appropriate and custom-designed for ECE needs. Standalone ECE campuses can also often be smaller in size, which makes it easier to reduce walking distances and make the school experience welcoming for young children.

     Site plans of two standalone ECE campuses.


ECE programs integrated into elementary schools can enable students to stay in one school all the way from preschool through 5th grade to minimize school transitions that can be stressful to young children. They can also increase opportunities for peer-to-peer learning between preschoolers and slightly older students.  

     Site plan of a large ECE addition to an elementary school campus.

Practical Considerations

A standalone, district-wide ECE campus can be easier for districts to administer by co-locating experts in early childhood education and services in a single location and maximizing student resources. Many standalone ECE programs integrate early intervention programs, speech pathologists, diverse outdoor learning environments, and other specialized resources that can be difficult to provide in smaller, distributed programs.

ECE programs added onto existing elementary schools can take advantage of existing infrastructure such as school administration, commercial kitchen, and support services. These programs also allow ECE students to go to the same school as their older siblings, which streamlines daily commutes for parents and may shorten travel distances for families and school buses compared to having a single, district-wide ECE campus.

When ECE programs are added onto existing elementary schools, a number of practical considerations may need to be addressed including:

  • Adding separate outdoor play/learning areas for 3-4 year olds, with age appropriate equipment
  • Incorporating preschool materials (and possibly furniture) into the library/media center
  • Making changes to site circulation, parking, and access control, since preschoolers are often walked into the building or their classroom rather than dropped off

Future Flexibility

Another difference to consider between standalone campuses and preschool additions is flexibility for future changes. If a large increase in ECE enrollment is expected due to a growing population, or changes in legislation or funding for preschool/pre-K programs, a standalone ECE campus may be able to provide more capacity and accommodate future growth better than a series of small campus additions. If ECE enrollment is more variable, or funding for preschool programs may not be sustained, preschool classrooms attached to or located with an elementary school may provide more options to re-purpose ECE classrooms for elementary students.

Design Solutions

With either a standalone ECE campus or a program integrated into a new or existing elementary school, there are a number of design solutions that can:

  • Create age-appropriate, developmentally sound learning environments for young children
  • Balance efficiency and flexibility with customized spaces
  • Break down the scale of larger campuses to reduce walking distances and make welcoming environments
  • Provide safe, controlled access to the site and buildings for both parents and children 

Julie Walleisa is an Accredited Learning Environment Planner and architect who specializes in early childhood, K-12, and higher education design. She has completed a diverse range of early childhood education projects for school districts and private entities, for both typically developing students and children with special needs. Julie has a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University and is a Principal at Dekker/Perich/Sabatini.

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