Thinking About Environments

Our environments are our professional calling cards.  In a field where parents and colleagues don’t see us during the day, our environments offer visible proof of our values and intentions towards children’s learning.  What does your early childhood environment say about your practice?

Our environments send messages about children’s’ capabilities in the way we prepare and present materials. Are our materials crowded on the shelf, dirty, or mixed-up? Are there too many materials or too few? The display of materials provides children clues on how materials are to be used and cared for.  Messy shelves say, “you can put me anywhere” or “making an intentional choice about my time is unimportant.” Dirty or broken materials tell children “I can be careless,” and leads children to apply those beliefs to all materials in the classroom. Materials that are mixed-up create frustration and limit sustained play.  Too many materials keep children from focusing on the work, while to few materials create social tension in the classroom and attitudes of scarcity.

Intentionality in the display of materials leads positive messages. Materials with space between them---helps children’s eyes to rest between each material---enabling them see their choices clearly.  Children who have an opportunity to process their choice of materials are likely to engage in sustained activity with the materials they choose. How materials are displayed also send messages about how you value children’s ability to direct their own learning.  Are materials high on a shelf, requiring an adult’s help to access or are materials, even complex materials down low and accessible? Are spaces in your classroom organized for small groups of children to work with intention? Are there protected spaces where work can extend over a period of time safe from the busyness of the classroom?

In Reggio-inspired programs, there is a belief that the environment serves as third teacher.  In this way the environment and the messages that early childhood educators create in their spaces can support self-directed learning. When planning the environment, think about the provocations you plan to present for children.

What is a provocation?  

Provocations are presentations of materials and/or questions that invite children into a conversation with the materials.  For example, I might have a question in a plexiglass-frame at a table, stating, “Can you make friends with a leaf ?” This question would be based on an earlier discussion with the children and a question the proposed about their relationship with leaves. To assist the children in their exploration of this question I would add to the table where the invitation lives, leaves of different shapes and sizes, magnifying glasses, books on leaves plus writing materials so the children could record their investigation through drawing and/or words. When introducing the activity, I welcome the children to choose their own work and introduce the provocation on leaves. To introduce the discussion, I read the question in the plexiglass-frame, so children who do not read yet know what the words are expressing.

This is how I invite the environment in as third teacher. Once I had intentionally introduced an idea---mostly inspired by the children’s own questions that had been captured when observing---I would work to provide a provocation that could be introduced the next day. Engaging the environment as third teacher requires reflection on the children’s interest and intention in planning, while interest is ‘hot’ to capture children’s interest and imagination. 

Following this progression, I was able to connect the children's interests and the environment together.

How do you see the role of the classroom environment in children’s learning?