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What is a Problem-Solving Environment?
By Eleanor Reynolds

Recently a program director called me to inquire about training for her staff. She wants to convert her program to one based on Problem Solving. Before answering her questions, I asked a questions of my own: Since it may be necessary to make changes in your environment before your adopt Problem Solving, how will your teachers react to making such changes? Her reply was that some of her teachers had been with her for twenty years and had never rearranged their classrooms?

Change for the sake of change is not necessarily beneficial, but everyone needs some change from time to time. Change brings stimulation, challenge, even excitement to a program, as long as the change is for the better and not so drastic that it upsets young children. Best of all, change has the potential of making the learning experience more meaningful for teachers and kids alike.

Take a fresh look at your environment. You may even want to develop a check-list of ways to make improvements. Is your environment child-centered? Does it allow children to solve their own problems, make decisions, take risks, and learn through hands-on experience? Does your environment encourage creativity, play, and social interaction by providing large amounts of time, space and privacy? Are virtually all of your toys and materials (including art) within reach of all children, whatever their age? If not, it’s time to think about ways to bring your environment to life and expand it to meet the developing needs, desires, and curiosity of your children.

Why do some teachers resist this kind of change? Many believe that by making materials available on the child’s level will cause problems. They envision terrible messes of paint and glue, puzzles strewn all over the floor, and sand or water creeping across the room. Some of this may actually happen at first, but believe it or not, we can teach very young children to take responsibility for these kinds of materials, and as they learn to take responsibility, their overall behavior improves dramatically. A great deal of inappropriate, even aggressive behavior is due to lack of stimulation and complexity in the environment.

Although I have known many resistant teachers, those who stayed in their program and made the changes found that after getting it used to a Problem-Solving environment, they would never want to return to the old way. Change is always painful to some degree, but when you can see positive results, the pain quickly vanishes. The environment influences children’s behavior so profoundly that, although your classroom won’t turn into paradise, it will be a happier, more productive place where children feel welcome and you find joy in your work.

Take Charge of Change
Change is not simply a matter of moving things around. Establish your goal and stay focused. If your goal is to make better use of Problem Solving, offer many choices and alternatives so kids can really solve their own problems. Have more than one of each item when possible so you can encourage negotiation when there’s a conflict over a toy. This is especially necessary for toddlers.

This article can’t possibly supply all the information or ideas needed for a major change in the environment, but you can begin to change with the following checklist.

·        Picture yourself in every area, supervising the play. Effective supervision is the key to "letting kids do what kids do." You must see everyone at all times without interfering wit their play, yet approach quickly when a problem requires facilitation. One of our roles as teachers is to teach kids how to put away their toys. This may take a lot of time at first, but less and less as you follow through.


·        All toys and materials for children’s use should be on low shelves, each in its own container (follow safety guidelines for developmental stages), in amounts that make clean-up easy for kids. Use bright-colors.


·        Children shouldn’t have to spend days in institutional settings. If you must have white walls, paint cupboards, tables and chairs in bright oil paints and accent wherever possible.


·        Imagine the room during routines and transitions. Will rearranging make things run more smoothly? Take at least a week to try out a new arrangement and see if your routines and transitions work better.


·        Replace toys that are one-piece plastic "things" with ones that offer challenge and complexity. Even a tiny infant will be bored by a single-purpose toy.


·        Have lots of areas and activities that accommodate several kids at once. A large tub of multi-colored beans, an indoor sandbox, water table, blocks, playdough, rhythm instruments, books, dress-up clothes, and from toddlers on up, an easel.


·        Provide for physical activity indoors and outdoors. Riding toys and a climber of some kid in every room, with a mat to jump or wrestle on. Outdoors, safe and easily supervisable, yet risk-encouraging (but safe) equipment, along with grass, sand, water, shade, a garden, when possible an animal or two (but be aware of the care that is required). Remember, this is only a partial list!


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com..