Child abuse is a mounting public health crisis in Kansas City, Mo. In 2020, more than 78,000 local children were involved in investigations following calls to the state’s Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline. The Children’s Place, a specialized trauma treatment agency that covers a holistic continuum of care in Kansas City, plays a vital role in advocating for the social and economic well-being of the community’s most vulnerable residents—children under the age of 8.

Founded in 1978, the organization supports the developmental and mental health needs of young children who have experienced abuse and neglect. Programming includes a therapy-infused day treatment program, outpatient therapy, and critical training for parents and community members on topics such as childhood development, age-appropriate discipline, helping children navigate trauma, and indicators of child abuse.

As The Children’s Place expanded substantially over four decades, its operations remained in the same building, which began to hinder the organization’s ability to serve a growing patient population. Additionally, the building lacked natural light and didn’t have enough classrooms, meaning that critical programs, including therapy, were taking place in hallways because of space constraints.

In May 2016, The Children’s Place reached out to HOK’s Kansas City studio to design a new home that would serve more patients; accommodate comprehensive programming; and create an environment carefully designed for children to learn, play, and heal.

Building blocks
An early visioning session with The Children’s Place leaders, staff, and board members encouraged goal setting for the new facility, which occupies a series of former school buildings just a few blocks from the organization’s original location. Starting with a first impressions exercise, participants identified four key user groups—children, staff, families, and the community—and how they wanted each group to feel when they entered the space. This process helped establish goals for the building form, as words like “welcoming,” “safe,” “inspired,” “healing,” and “hopeful” were repeatedly mentioned.

Next, a dot poll exercise was used to help establish a clear design aesthetic. Dozens of images of each space type, including classrooms, therapy rooms, indoor play spaces, entry, and more, were pinned up in a room. Participants were given sticky dots—three green and two red—and asked to place them on images they liked and disliked and then share their reasoning with the group. This process helped build consensus on the look and feel of the design and created an opportunity to discuss unique considerations for this patient population, like safety issues and visual connectivity.

An adjacency exercise, in which the team thought about relationships between different programs and departments, informed the space program. Because the previous building didn’t have dedicated clinical therapy space integrated with day treatment, the team discussed the importance of locating classrooms and therapy rooms adjacent to one another to allow children to move back and forth seamlessly and encourage collaboration between staff and therapists.

From this collaborative process emerged four qualitative goals for the project: increase visibility, provide program excellence, celebrate culture, and expand services. Additional meetings with each user group informed quantitative requirements including the required number of classrooms and therapy rooms.

These meetings and conversations also educated designers on the special needs of the patients, families, staff, clinicians, and teachers who would be using the facility. For example, staff and board members explained the importance of creating safe, quiet spaces for children to process their feelings. Yet they also stressed the importance of children remaining visible at all times to ensure they don’t hurt themselves. The design team responded by suggesting open, child-sized house structures in each classroom, giving children privacy to process their feelings.

Warm welcome
Opened at the end of 2020, the 35,000-square-foot facility houses seven classrooms; separate therapy rooms, including outpatient, occupational, speech motor, and parent-child interaction; testing rooms; and staff offices. To foster a sense of belonging for children and adults from the moment they arrive, the design utilizes thoughtful graphics and architectural elements to create a welcoming and noninstitutional setting. “The space was designed to feel like a healthy, secure home for children who may not otherwise know what that is like,” says Ann Thomas, president and CEO of The Children’s Place. “Each classroom is designed to mimic familiar spaces in a home while promoting creativity, play, and healing.”

Specifically, the “front porch” of the classrooms greets children with simple wayfinding strategies using a playful color palette and letters in the entryway, hallways, and outside each door, promoting autonomous wayfinding for children who can’t read. Inside the classroom, daylit zones for learning, imaginative play, and quiet time make up the “living room.” The “back porch” provides direct access to outdoor classrooms and an expansive, private outdoor playground called the “backyard.”

The design was also tailored to help foster independence in young patients. For example, the house-like structures in the quiet zones include child-height doors and windows. Sinks in the classrooms and restrooms are appropriately sized so children can take charge of their own hygiene. Graphics and activities like sensory
toys are strategically placed at eye level for the youngest occupants to
explore independently.

While the project was designed as a welcoming destination, it also needed to create visual and physical boundaries that keep the children safe. The team programmed the building to support this goal with exterior classroom doors opening to a secure playground that has climb-resistant fencing, which visually protects child-occupied spaces while allowing daylight to reach deep into the space. Windows in classrooms have higher sill heights, while the adult waiting room makes use of expansive floor-to-ceiling windows.

Transparency was crucial to help staff support and monitor the children. View rooms with one-way mirrors into each classroom enable care providers, therapists, and family members to observe the children and discuss strategies before they interact. Curvilinear, low-height furniture in the rooms is arranged to designate different zones without impeding the ability of staff to see the children at all times.

Similar considerations impacted the design of outpatient therapy and support spaces, as well. For example, each of these areas features ample natural light, high windowsills for safety, and playful carpet patterns featuring houses. These details connect back to the house-like structures in the classrooms and encourage play and exploration.

Room to grow
The new facility demonstrates how designers can use a creative, engaging process to inform strategic solutions that address the health and social needs of users in a space.

Since opening, the new Children’s Place has served 30 percent more children and families. The highly flexible classroom, therapy, and community areas will enable it to grow and provide more effective, much-needed child services to its Kansas City community for years to come.

Erin Nybo, IIDA, is practice leader, interiors at HOK (Kansas City, Mo.). She can be reached at