Inside and Outside

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In recent weeks I have been working on a new course for Possibilities ECE. The course, Designing Uncommon Spaces, shares the thinking and process of designing spaces that embrace relationships between and among children, educators, and the community.

This work inspired me to reflect about all the different environments I have worked in during my career. During my reflection one environment revealed itself as the most appealing to both the children and educators. In this environment, we had the most success in meeting the activity and emotional needs of the children in our care. In this program, we had a shared open environment.

What is a shared open environment? My definition of a shared open environment is a classroom space that offers children access to the inside and outside environment during the entire school day, where children can move freely between both spaces, and where classroom materials are available and move between both environments. 

“Education must come to be recognized as the product of a set of complex interactions. Many of which can be realized only when the environment is a fully participating element in education.”  Loris Malaguzzi.

Offering children open access to the inside and outside environment creates opportunities and provides motivation for experimentation and extended learning to take place.

In 2017, I visited the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. One inspiring aspect of the schools was their use of the outside and inside environment. The provocations and investigations offered the children had common elements. Each flowed within the inside and onto the outside spaces of the classroom. 

The attention to detail and intention of the outdoor environment equaled that of the indoor classroom. The beauty of nature filled the inside spaces. The beauty from the classroom filled the patios and outdoor environments. The materials the children explored in both spaces were of the same depth and quality. During our visit we talked to the educator's who shared the importance of having educational significance in both environments.

What are some key elements of a shared open environment that make it inviting to both children and educators?

Plenty of Windows – Windows that look upon the outdoor classroom invite children to move outdoors as they notice something of interest. Often, children will take materials from the inside space, outside, and continue their work in conjunction with an element that attracts them outside. Windows within the classroom create a connection to the other elements and people in the space creating a greater sense of community.

Natural Light –Environments with many windows fill the classroom with natural light. The light exposure makes the inside environment feel like the outside. Natural light is inviting to young children, and is one of the first natural elements we explore as a child through shadow. Many children who are working inside are motivated to explore outside when exposed to natural light.

Movement –With free access to the inside and outside children engage in more movement during their day. The opportunity to freely move between different environments makes play fun and enjoyable. The freedom to move invites children to follow their interests and engage in a wider variety of experiences and social connections.

Experience Variety –When children have access to the inside and outside environment this creates a pathway for children to explore their interests in different settings. For example, a child who likes to paint could one minute be splattering a project on the easel inside and later decide to take their work to the outside easel and explore splattering paint in the wind. 

The Outside World Inside –Often, common outside materials like wood, leaves, bugs, dirt, sand, and sticks come inside. These materials end up in the studio space or in water table, or under a microscope for further exploration. Children love having the freedom to bring materials back and forth between environments. 

It is important for programs that do not have seamless access to the outside environment to bring outside elements into your space to keep the connection between the two worlds alive in your classroom.

Create Rooms – An important factor to make the outside space more enjoyable and adaptable as the season's change is creating rooms. Use natural and recycled materials to create provocations within your outside space. This invites children to use the space and adapt the space into rooms they would like to play and work in.

As an educator, I was fortunate to work in a program where the children had access to both the inside and outside environment on a daily basis. It was wonderful. Having a combination of indoor and outdoor elements in our classroom space created possibilities for exploration, learning, and growth within the learning community. 

All of the spaces I have worked in as an educator have been different. Not all enjoyed direct access to the outdoors. This required us as educators to adapt and do our best to create a connection to the outdoor environment. This aspect of our work is important because of the value it provides the children and families in our community.

What adaptations have you made in your program to create a connection between the indoor/outdoor classrooms?