Play is a significant component of a child’s learning experience and is a foundation for their growth and development. Creating and providing children with an environment that supports their health, safety, and thinking is extremely important for their overall learning experience and growth. Encouraging safe exploration is an important job for child care providers.
Children are natural explorers and risk-takers. They move quickly, put things in their mouths, drop or throw things, and love to climb and hide. Keeping children safe is crucial. But setting up an environment where you spend all day saying “Don’t touch this!” or “Stay away from that!” is not the answer. Instead of spending your time redirecting children, think carefully about how you set up the environment.
Giving children the chance to explore freely in a well-organised and child-safe space is a much more effective way to manage behaviour and encourage learning.
If children in your child care program are misbehaving, check whether the environment contributes to the problem. Take a close look at your space, indoors and outdoors. Setting up a safe place to play and providing appropriate toys can keep children interested in learning, reduce behaviour problems, and save you from saying “No” too often.
How Do Environments Affect You?
You like to go to certain places:
- Maybe a favourite restaurant
- A local park
- A sporting arena
- A good friend’s home
What about those places that make you feel welcome or secure? What makes you want to go back? Thinking about these places, you might remember the people around you, the colour of a room, if there is sunlight, the smells and sounds, furniture and accessories or temperature.
Now consider places you don’t like to go: the dentist’s office, the airport or a noisy restaurant. What makes these environments less pleasant for you? In some settings, we feel relaxed and comfortable. In other places, we might feel tense, overwhelmed and confused. The environment has a powerful effect on us. It influences how we think, what we do and the ways we respond. Some of us dislike places where we feel we can’t control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may also feel we don’t belong or are not appreciated.
Like adults, preschool-age children are affected by their environments, even if they cannot yet express these feelings sophisticatedly. It’s our job to ensure classrooms and other learning spaces for children make them feel welcome, secure and ready to learn.
Why is the physical environment in childcare important for learning and play?
A well-arranged environment should enhance children’s development through learning and play. One of the most common ways children learn is through play - therefore, their surrounding environments need to be designed and configured in alignment with how they feel, act and behave. For example, a positive physical environment allows children to grow and develop through activities, colours and textures. Conversely, poorly designed learning environments in childcare can harm a child’s learning experience. For instance, positioning the reading and literacy area near the music area will cause major disruptions for children trying to concentrate.
The physical learning environment in early childhood depicts the teacher’s planning and the student’s learning. An organised and comfortable space will allow children to develop socially, emotionally and physically. The physical environment will also differ, depending on the child’s age and the number of children placed in the room. Below are the differences in how these learning environments were designed in early childhood.
Features of a good learning environment in early childhood
Learning environments in childcare should be a positive and welcoming space where children feel comfortable participating, exploring, and growing. However, there are particular features that successful learning environments provide. These include:
- Spaces to enable quality interactions with educators and children
- Areas for exploration and investigation
- Group spaces and areas for children to explore creativity
- Spaces for relaxation
- Zones for rough and tumble play
- Welcoming spaces for families
- Opportunity for risk-taking and challenge
- It is also crucial that these areas have adequate resources and materials that reflect children’s needs, lives and identity.
Designing Your Space to Meet Preschool Children’s Needs
Creating a supportive learning environment requires time, reflection (thinking) and planning. Whether children spend three or twelve hours a day in your program, the environment plays a major role in helping children develop and learn. Research suggests that a high-quality classroom environment can help close the achievement gap . That is, children who enter school less ready to learn benefit the most from supportive classroom environments. Your supportive classroom can also be an important source of consistency for military children (a group that may experience a great deal of change in their daily lives). A supportive environment is:
- Well-organized: orderly, planned and safe.
- Dependable: a stable “home base” for children who need it.
- Flexible: able to adjust to meet the needs of different children.
Such supportive environments send children a variety of positive messages about their learning , such as:
- This is a good place to be.
- You belong here.
- You can trust this place.
- There are places where you can be by yourself when you want to be.
- You can do many things on your own here.
- This is a safe place to explore and try out your ideas.
Places for Play and Learning: Interest Areas
When you walk into a retail or grocery store, how do you find what you need? If you are looking for grapes, you probably feel confident you can find them with other fresh fruits and vegetables. If you want a new pair of socks, you probably have a good idea about where to look. Some stores have better designs than others, but many retail establishments use simple design principles: objects with similar uses are stored near each other, and signs guide you. Now think about a child in your classroom. How do they know where to find toys and materials or use the environment to make decisions?
There are many differences between retail establishments and classrooms, but organising materials by their purpose makes sense in both environments. In stores, we might call these groups of similar items “departments.” In environments for young children, we use the terms “interest areas” or “learning centres” to describe spaces designed for certain purposes or that hold materials with similar uses.
When a child enters a well-designed interest area, they know:
- The materials that can be found there.
- The type of play (loud, quiet, social, solitary) that might happen there.
- The expectations for how to behave there.
- How to explore, learn and have fun there.
As a preschool teacher, you design learning opportunities for children every day, and your classroom or outdoor environment sets the stage for most of these opportunities. Interest areas are key tools for learning in preschool learning environments. You can use children’s needs, interests and abilities to design your interest areas.
Important elements are found in every effective room design:
Use shelves, furniture or other barriers to help children focus and avoid distractions. For example, large, open spaces encourage running and roughhousing. Arrange your furniture and interest areas to break up large, open spaces.
Clear Ways to Enter and Exit: Help children know how and where to enter an interesting area. If you use a “centre management system”—a system of tags, pictures or symbols to limit the number of children who play in an interesting area—make sure children know how to use it and meet their needs and interests throughout the day.
Have duplicates of favourite toys. Also, make sure there are enough materials that several children can play in social areas, like dramatic play and blocks. Children are more likely to have meaningful play together if there are enough materials to use together.
Engaging Materials that Spark Children’s Interests:
- Consider what children in your class like.
- Add materials or rotate materials regularly, so children have new experiences.
- Think about the pictures, displays, print or writing materials that support children’s learning and engagement in each area.
Separate Loud, Active and Quiet, Calm Spaces:
Examples of quiet interest areas are the library, listening, and writing. Loud, active centres might include the block area, dramatic play area and the sand or water (sensory) area.
Access to Needed Materials
Sand and water, discovery and art spaces should have easy access to sinks. Music and movement, technology and cooking areas might need access to electrical outlets. Soft carpeting in the library and block area can make it easier for children to sit and comfortably interact with materials on the floor.
Align materials and interest areas to learning objectives.
Keep Safety in Mind
Make sure you can see and supervise all children at all times.
Common interest areas recommended for preschoolers
Great block areas contain a variety of materials to spark curiosity and exploration. Children use the block area to explore how things work; they build, tear down, fill, dump, stretch, reach, balance and create.
Block areas should be large enough for several children to play at once. You might have various large and small blocks (wooden, cardboard, foam or interlocking).
You can also make blocks yourself from cardboard boxes or sturdy fabric. Many block areas include natural or recycled materials children can consist of in their structures. It is important to include accessories like toy figures, cars and construction equipment.
The accessories you offer should change periodically and be based on children’s current interests and learning goals.
The dramatic play area allows children to take on roles and try out new ideas. Children use their imaginations as they cooperate, and they practice self-care skills as they try on dress-up clothes. A great dramatic play area offers children a chance to act out their own home and family themes with props like a kitchen, table, clothes, food and babies. It’s also important to offer various other play ideas for children to explore as they become interested.
For example, children may use props to create a bakery, doctor’s office, flower shop or nearly any other scenario. Once again, the additional props or dress-up items offered can vary according to children’s current interests or ideas you are currently exploring (e.g., community helpers such as firefighters or police officers).
Toys and Games
Toys and games allow children to develop important thinking skills, social skills, and fine motor skills (using hands and fingers well).
Your toy and game area can include a range of puzzles, board games and small objects. This area can provide a good opportunity for children to identify and match colours, shapes, sizes and textures.
The art area provides opportunities for children to express themselves and develop fine motor skills. Visual art can include painting, drawing and sculpturing. This is a space for inspiration and creativity.
Great art areas include various materials for children to use and explore, such as sponges, rollers, glitter, tape, paint, stamps and recycled materials of all types. They also include commonplace or unique items that can be used in new ways (e.g., “block printing” with paint and different plastic blocks).
Many art areas also include displays of famous artwork, books and children’s creations. Remember that you do not have to have every material or art tool imaginable accessible at all times; you may change out some materials, tools, and displays based upon the experiences of focus that day or week.
The library is a quiet space where children can relax and enjoy reading. A great library includes various books: fiction, nonfiction, alphabet books, number books, nursery rhymes and resource books. In addition, it typically contains soft furniture or pillows.
Books can be displayed on shelves or in baskets for easy access. The library can also include a listening station, felt board, literacy activities or other materials that introduce children to language and print. Although the library is a great place for supporting children’s literacy development, remember that it’s important to include print materials (such as books, maps or magazines) and writing materials in every interest area . Some classrooms may also choose to have a dedicated “writing centre,” perhaps near the library or art space, with various writing utensils and forms of paper available (e.g., lined and unlined paper, post-it notes, etc.).
The discovery area is children’s gateway to scientific exploration. It contains materials meant for open-ended exploration. A wide variety of natural materials are often displayed for children to explore (rocks, pinecones, starfish, etc.). Other materials appropriate for the discovery area include PVC pipe, magnets, weights, etc. Tools for exploration are also provided, such as microscopes, magnifying glasses, balances, ramps and measuring instruments. Children can also participate in experiments or care for a class pet here.
Sand and water
Sand and water areas provide opportunities for measuring, pouring, comparing and creating. Although the space is called “sand and water,” you are not limited to providing just sand and water. Many teachers consider this a sensory area. Your sand and water area can offer various materials to explore, such as leaves, snow, packing peanuts, shredded paper, etc. In addition, many children find the sand and water area soothing.
Music and movement
A space for children to engage in large movements allows them to make their music and respond to the music of others. It’s important to provide various materials here, such as streamers, ribbons, shakers, musical instruments and recorded music. The music and movement area can provide an opportunity for dance and rhythm.
The cooking area lets children practice real-life skills and is a great way to introduce various cultures to the classroom. By preparing simple recipes with an adult, children learn important math, literacy and self-care skills. The interest area for cooking need not be dedicated to cooking experiences alone, but rather cooking experiences could take place in a more flexible part of the room, perhaps at the table(s) children typically use to eat morning or afternoon snacks, or the tables available to use in the toys and games area.
Many preschool classrooms provide computers for children to use. The use of computers, or other technology and media (e.g., tablets), can provide developmentally appropriate learning opportunities to children of various ages. For example, computers and the Internet can expose children to people, animals and places that they cannot experience in person. Children can also use computers and media to document and share their own experiences. Using interactive ebooks and playing games that facilitate learning letters, letter sounds, and numbers are additional ways children can use computers to meet learning goals.
At Young Academics, we understand the differing needs of every child and provide resources and facilities that are tailored to suit. The colours, shapes and textures of our resources and play environments allow your child to apply concepts and ideas in a practical, real-life setting.
When it comes to children's behaviour, the environment just means the little things around your child. Your child's 'behaviour environment' includes: his location – for example, at the park, at home, at the supermarket. toys, books and play equipment, but also other things you might not want him to play with.
Environments should be welcoming and interesting. Unfamiliar surroundings and people can provoke a stress response, which has the potential to be damaging to a child's learning abilities. Having homey features in a classroom environment helps children feel more comfortable and can help their ability to learn.