With the myriad of things good teachers and caregivers must do everyday, examining the physical environment can easily be overlooked or forgotten. Yet designing a good space benefits everyone. In peaceful classrooms, children and their families feel welcome, child-centered activities happen easily, and those who use the space feel comfortable and have the ability to take ownership. The environments which thoughtful teachers and caregivers design make a big difference in children’s success in child care and beyond. “The environment in the classroom has a profound effect on the feelings and actions of the children, their families, and the teachers. Children organize their world through the environment we provide” (Dombro, Colker, and Trister Dodge, 1997). The world children are presented with will make a big difference in their lifelong journey! This article will explain the importance of good environmental design in the classroom and how this can be achieved.
Why Bother with Environmental Design?
Purposeful environmental designs:1) build comfort for children and their families; 2) free up teachers by helping to minimize management issues, and 3) support children in their quest to construct knowledge.
Supporting the Needs of Families
Although this article focuses on peaceful environments for children, it would be a disservice not to mention parents’ needs. “Family-teacher relationships are essential for learning about the children from an additional and valuable source, promoting children’s emotional health, and helping children deal with difficult problems that may have lifelong consequences” (Sussna Klein & Miller, 2002).
A big part of making the environment peaceful for family members involves creating personal spaces. When parents come to your program, what environmental elements encourage positive outcomes? Since, most parents come your program carrying numerous items (Rui Olds, 2000), it is helpful to have a transition space. Families will appreciate having a place to set down their belongings, such as backpacks or strollers, hang their coats, and drop off their children. A small lobby with adult-size chairs make parents feel comfortable and provide for a place to say goodbye, sit and snuggle, or observe their child (Dombro, Colker, and Trister Dodge, 1997). Also, It is helpful to have a place that ensures confidentiality for teacher-parent conferences and more informal sharing of information. Providing environments where parents are at ease will strengthen teacher-parent partnerships. The stronger these partnerships the more likely the child will flourish.
Supporting the Physical and Emotional Needs of Children
Many children spend several hours in a center each week. Yet, Rui Olds (2000) states that the average center environment provides very few furnishings for relaxation, areas of comfort, and little or no space for a child to be alone. She advocates meeting four basic needs for children: movement, comfort, competence, and control. Movement refers to an environment where each child can safely move without being too restricted, yet has clear limits. Comfort results from providing a balance of stimulation—a place where there is neither too much nor too little stimulation. Competence is achieved by organizing an accessible assortment of activities in a variety of places; this assortment allows each child to find the activities they enjoy. Too much “stuff,” however, can be overwhelming which confuses rather than supports children. Finally, controlmeans that the child has a place in the classroom to feel orientated and feel comfortable. For example, a child who cannot see what is behind her may loose a sense of control.
Peaceful Environments Minimize Management Issues and Free Up Teachers’ Time
As Greenman (1988) states, space does speak to all of us. A thoughtfully-designed environment for children will have fewer management issues and less wasted time for teachers if the following two fundamental goals are met: 1) the environment is congruent with the philosophy, and 2) the environment is inviting.
When designing your classroom environment, it is important to know your goals and educational philosophy. As Sommer (1969) points out, the hallmark of the professional is that she has her own private space and can control her use of that space. The classroom design must be consistent with the educational philosophy or the space and the teacher may well be giving the child conflicting messages. A classroom, which is set up as free-choice for the children, will create conflicts if the program is teacher-directed. Certainly we could argue the benefits of one educational model over another, but the goal is designing classroom space to combine the specific needs of the teachers and children who use the space with the physical limitations of that space.
It would be ridiculous, for example, to design a space for Montessori if the teacher practices a High/Scope approach since there are many differences between these two models. As noted by Sussna Klein (2002), “…The role of pretend play (e.g., playing house) is … different in the two methods. In High/Scope, children’s creative exploration is encouraged, and this sometimes leads to pretend play, while in Montessori, ‘practical life work’ that relates to the real world is stressed.”
The second goal in designing classrooms is to provide the users of the space with an environment that is warm, welcoming, and interesting. In early childhood education, we seek to encourage exploration and discovery. Children will not explore, manipulate, or discover unless they feel secure and comfortable in the classroom (Olds, 1979). Insecurity and discomfort lead to problematic behaviors, such as being destructive with materials and the inability to play with other children. On the other hand, security happens because there has been attention to the four basic environmental needs—movement, comfort, competence, and control—mentioned in the previous section. When children feel secure in their environment, teachers are able to actively observe or help children broaden ideas.
Children’s experiences in peaceful environments support the development of fundamental dispositions, such as curiosity, creativity, cooperation, openness, friendliness, confidence, and being proactive, that are generally considered important to facilitate success. “To acquire or strengthen a particular disposition, a child must have the opportunity to express the disposition in behavior” (Katz, 1999). Chaotic spaces, on the other hand, feel uncomfortable. The chaotic environment may elicit behavior from children that may be seen as problematic and may result in the teacher’s time being spent “putting out fires.”
Purposeful Set-up of Materials Helps Children Construct Knowledge
As Berk (2000) notes, environments can either provide social and physical conditions that help children develop and form new ideas or the environments can suppress them. The Reggio Emilia approach illustrates how powerful the environment may be in helping children construct knowledge. In The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach—Advanced Reflections (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998), the environment is seen as an additional teacher.
Boyd Cadwell (1997) discusses how she has learned from her experience with the Reggio Emilia approach about how the environment is a valuable teacher if it is ”…amiable, comfortable, pleasing, clean, inviting and engaging.” She goes on to state “this is true of all space, whether big or small, open or furnished, public or private. This is true of floor space, ceiling space, and wall space.”
In the Reggio Emilia approach, the classroom environments are magnificent. Materials are presented in a beautiful, homey, pleasing, and organized manner (Sussna, 1993). This attention to details in the environment is something to emulate for many reasons. First of all, the classroom environment is important in building aesthetic awareness (Feeney, & Moravcik 1987). Also, organized materials build organizational skills. A child as young as one-and-a-half will put things away when the items are presented in an organized manner and will build important sorting skills while performing the task.
The educators in Reggio Emilia collaborate and purposefully set up the environment so that there is a clear message inviting children to take part in new explorations and to look at what they have done in the past, helping them make deeper inquiries. Experiences such as these encourage revisiting.“ Revisiting is not merely redoing. Rather, revisiting entails reflection and encouragement of thinking about one’s own and another’s thinking…. Revisiting is a process of reviewing the discovery that has been captured and made concrete through documentation. Revisiting allows and encourages extension, connections, and understanding. (Sussna, 1995).”
Achieving Environmentally Pleasing Classroom Spaces
To achieve environmentally pleasing classroom spaces teachers need to get in touch with what feels good to them and attend to the specific population that will be using the room. Anita Rui Olds (1987) began a class on environmental design for young children by asking participants to close their eyes and do three visualizations: 1) imagine a favorite place (as an adult or child); 2) imagine a place you disliked; and 3) imagine yourself with a favorite person, and think about where you are with this person. After each visualization, Rui Olds had participants draw the place and encouraged them to think of the size, smells, shapes, and lighting in that place. Then, as a group, the participants listed the elements in each place. This exercise may seem simplistic, but it can tap into essential elements of what is needed to create peaceful classroom environments.
Thinking about size, smells, shapes, and lighting are helpful in reminding adults to provide children with what they naturally need and create a variety of environmental experiences. They need hard and soft spaces. A chance for sunlight is important. Smells may make children feel at home and nurtured. Boyd Cadwell (1997) captures the importance of reflecting on the classroom population when she states “...an environment that educates holds the presence of all those who live, work, and play within it, even when they are not there.” There is not one prescriptive answer that fits every classroom. Rather, teachers need to reflect upon developmental ages, issues of diversity, attention to safety, and a need for varied uses (e.g., large group times and small group times) of the same space. When evaluating your environment, consider the following:
- Does the environment reflect tendencies of the developmental age level of the children that are going to use the environment? For example, infants will be on the floor and are apt to be teething, so it is helpful to have spaces that can be washed easily to prevent the spreading of germs. Toddlers usually want to climb. Adding a small loft to the classroom will allow them to meet their needs. Three-year-olds are inclined to “flock” together, so providing space for them to be together makes sense. Four-year-olds are typically dogmatic about their world. Helping four-year-olds learn that there are several right ways to use their environment would be helpful.
- How many people are typically in the environment? Is there a place for them to meet as a whole group? There should also be places for them to break out into small groups. Since children are at school for a long time each day, they may yearn for some quiet and a place to be alone sometimes.
- What about safety issues? If the space is too open, it may invite running. On the other hand, if a space is too closed, children will not have enough room to use materials appropriately. Without the proper space, children may bump into each other and this could lead to arguments. Every classroom should have spaces that give children a chance to be alone and have privacy, but teachers need to make sure there are no hidden spaces that could be dangerous.
Suggestions for Getting Started
A classroom should greet you with a strong feeling of “welcome home.” When you enter your classroom it should make you smile. If you do not feel this positive welcoming, it is a signal that something probably needs changing. It is important to remember, however, not to change everything at once. When making changes, think about what appeals to you and see where it takes you. Also, think about the various areas and materials in the classroom and the type of behaviors and activities you wish to foster. If something is not functional or attractive, be brave enough to let it go. It is important to think about function and attraction from both the child’s and adult’s point of view. On a visit to the Bing School at Stanford University (Sussna, 1997), a graduate researcher pointed out why this was such a pleasing environment for children; evidently, the architects kneeled down to the child’s view to check out what was functional and pleasing from that perspective. Small and inexpensive changes can have a positive impact on your space. Sit on the floor, brainstorm solutions and dare to take some small action to improve your environment.
Small and affordable additions to the classroom can be the inclusion of homey touches. Families are often helpful in providing these homey touches, too. For example, many parents will have a basket sitting around that they may lend to the classroom for holding materials. If you don’t sew, find parents who enjoy sewing and ask them to make items such as curtains or pillows. Perhaps you can have a family meeting to talk about building a peaceful environment. Parents may also be helpful in brainstorming ideas and making sure that the population in the classroom is authentically attended to. Children feel a sense of ownership when they are represented in the classroom. Knowing that their parent(s) contributed can extend this ownership.
All early childhood teachers can certainly start taking steps towards making their classroom into more peaceful, purposeful environments. To build wonderful environments, it helps if teachers reflect upon who is in their classroom, what feels comfortable in their space, and why. We all need to remember that change happens one step at a time. Since building peaceful environments is an ongoing quest, take time to celebrate successes along your journey.
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