"System-oriented approaches of people environment relationships encourage us to take into account the complex system of interdependences among the social and physical components of a setting to understand how these components may modulate people behavior. Moreover, these models also urge us to consider the individuals' perspectives, particularly their perceptions and representations in relation to their psychological and developmental characteristics. The aim of this study is to exemplify the functioning of the dynamic system of interdependencies linking children's behavior to the attributes of their environment. Specifically, it examines the respective and combined influences of spatial arrangement and caregivers' status on the regulation of 2- to 3-year-old children's behavior in day care centers. Two aspects of children's behavior are considered: children's use of space and peers interactions. MethodThe study was conducted in 11 groups of center-based day-care. It involved 158 children (86 boys) regularly attending these day-care centers. The children's ages ranged from 18 to 40 months (M = 29 months)The observations took place during free-play periods. Three hidden cameras, providing a full view of the room, filmed the children. An observational session lasted 10 minutes per day, and each child was observed for at least three days. The behavioral categories were designed to characterize the type of relationship that the child established with the immediate context. Specifically, at each coding interval, that is every three seconds, we determined whether the child’s behavior was self-centered, object-oriented or socially-oriented. Additionally, the child's precise location was noted on a square meter grid partitioning the playroom map. The caregivers' locations were also recorded. These records permitted to determine in each playroom three sectors: - Adult-proximal sector: areas where the caregivers are usually located. In these areas a child is in the immediate proximity of an adult (within 2 m). - Intermediary sector: areas where children are not in the immediate proximity of an adult, but where they can both reach the adults' location rapidly and without moving, easily establish vocal and eye contact with an adult.- Adult-distant sector: areas that are at the farthest walking distance from the adults' location. In the adult-distant sector, visual accessibility to caregivers varied as a function of the spatial arrangement. To accurately test the impact of visual boundaries partitioning the playroom, modifications of the spatial arrangement were conducted in 3 day-care centers. These modifications consisted solely in moving the furniture within the room. Two contrasted types of spatial arrangement were compared:- Visually restricted arrangement, in which the layout of the furniture created major visual and physical boundaries that reduced the degree of visual connection between the areas of the playroom. The children did not have a full view of the entire playroom.- Visually open arrangement, in which no major visual and physical boundaries restricted the children's view of the entire playroom. ResultsIn the adult-proximal sector, the percentage of time children spent interacting together is markedly lower than in the other sectors of the playroom. This result is very consistent across the 11 groups participating in the study. Adult caregivers represent particularly attractive social partners for 2- to 3-year-old children; subsequently, when these children are in close proximity to an adult they will turn to the adult rather than to a peer to engage in social interaction. Thus, being in the adult-proximal sector has an inhibitory effect on the onset of interactions among peers. Data show that children are likely to move away from the adults, either in the intermediary or in the adult-distant sectors, to initiate and sustain social interactions. However, when the boundaries partitioning playrooms constitute visual obstacles, children markedly reduce their use of the adult-distant sector. Furthermore, being in areas separated from the caregivers by opaque barriers have negative effects on the amount of peer interactions, as well as on the interactive mode (agonistic versus friendly), and on the duration of the interactive episodes. These results suggest that in the toddler groups, ease in establishing contact with adults, especially eye contact to ensure their potential assistance in case of difficulties, provide 2- to 3-year olds with a "secure base" that gives confidence to use the whole available spatial resources and facilitate the development of social interaction among peers. Overall, these results regarding young children's use of space and social interactions enlighten the system of interdependences that relates the spatial arrangement to the caregivers' status. They show that, in group settings, visually restricted arrangements reduce children's use of space and strengthen the inhibitory effect of close proximity to adults. On the other hand, the supportive effect of the caregivers' reassuring presence on peer interactions is reinforced when the layout of the furniture preserves the visual unity of the room. Visually open arrangements provide children with an easy visual access to caregivers, which encourages them to move away from the adult-proximal sector."