To Label or Not?

The practice of labeling shelves follows a tradition. Labeling shelves has lasted the test of time, and still continues as a practice in many programs. Labeling shelves is often tied to concepts of literacy development and a way for children to replace materials where they found them. However, labeling shelves reminds me of a factory, where shelves and rows of parts are labeled, then factory workers can retrieve the parts quickly during assembly and repair.

What if we think in a new way?

Educators practice in a classroom instead of a factory and educators cultivate children’s experiences. Why has the tradition of labeling everything (including shelves) lasted? What is the purpose? Does the practice of labeling make the experience for children better?

The traditional view is labeling shelves supports children to discover materials, recognize where to place the materials away, and to learn words as a path to reading. Another claim is labeling helps children recognize words have meaning, makes children calm, and contributes to self-directed learning.

In school-age care, a wide range of ages and reading abilities exists. The children in our care discover words and language through books, documentation, and writing when creating new work. Each child exists in a different stage of language acquisition, and is moving through the process at a personal rate. The addition of a few words on paper, with a picture attached, is not dramatically advancing their ability to read or interpret language.

In learner-centered pedagogies, the classroom environments are beautiful and simple. The shelves contain materials that motivate children to explore and learn. The shelves in these spaces are not labeled. The children learn through experience and instruction, where the materials are located and how to nurture the environment.

The American Montessori Society states in a Montessori classroom; “learning materials are displayed on accessible shelves, fostering independence as children go about their work” In the text, labels are not mentioned. Waldorf inspired classrooms, practice without labels on the shelves. The Waldorf view of a childcare environment represents one where, “Children who live in an atmosphere of love and warmth, and who have around them truly good examples to imitate, are living in their proper element”. Rudolf Steiner. The instruction embodies the people and the connection to learning for the love of learning. In Reggio inspired learning, “the environment is the third teacher” and the environment (third teacher) is not labeled with word stickers and colorful pictures.

My own experience, I have observed that an environment without labels is calmer, more inviting, and contains less distraction. The children all know where the materials are located, and how to care for the materials. If a material required for work is not present, the children ask each other or a teacher for help. I have never witnessed a child looking for a pencil, paper, or the glue for work, and not able to locate a material because a label was missing. Labels are great for moving boxes.

Do you use labels in your classroom? How are they used? What benefits do they bring to the children?