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 materials.  For example, I might have a question in a pexi-frame at a table, stating, “Can you make friends with a leaf?” I would the add to the table leaves of different shapes and sizes, magnifying glasses, books on leaves and fine point black markers and paper.  Introducing the activity, I would take the time to explain that children were welcome to choose their work and we had a provocation on leaves.  I would read the question in the plexi-frame, so children would know what the works said.  As the children leave the circle as they share their intentions for their focus for the morning.

In this way, I would 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. 

In this way I was able to connect the children's interest and the environment together.

What do you see as the role of the classroom environment?