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Classroom Labeling as Part of a Print-Rich Environment
By Angie Dorrell, M.A.

Children’s books and other reading materials are an essential part of a young child’s early literacy experience and lay the foundation for a love of reading. But did you know that many other types and uses of print such as street signs, Dad’s shopping list, a thank-you note to Grandma, preschool attendance sheets, and names on the birthday board help contribute to a child’s ability to read? As young children experience different types of print, they learn what all the letters and words mean in different contexts and how they affect their lives.

Providing a print-rich classroom environment exposes children to reading in a functional way. One aspect of a print-rich classroom is labeling. Labeling helps to create an environment that puts children at ease and contributes to self-directed learning. Labeling also:

  • Helps children recognize that words have meaning
  • Infuses the environment with print
  • Helps children develop responsibility as they care for the materials they use
  • Frees the teacher for individual instruction with children
  • Turns clean-up time into a valuable learning opportunity
  • Gives visual clues to the location of items
  • Makes it easier for the staff to maintain inventory of classroom materials
  • Adds to the appeal and organization of the classroom

Labeling Guidelines

Every early childhood classroom should have its own personality or style that reflects the children’s and staff’s interests and personalities. However, to make labeling the environment a worthwhile venture that contributes to a child’s understanding of print, there are basic guidelines that should be followed.

  • Use upper and lowercase letters properly—only proper names begin with an uppercase letter.
  • Words are printed or typed neatly.
  • All words are spelled correctly.
  • The letters used in a label are of the same size, type, and color.
  • The words and letters in a label read from left to right.

Bins and Baskets

Bins and baskets placed on classroom shelves at the children’s level can be labeled with words and pictures. To assist in putting the bins away in the proper place, make sure the shelf is also labeled. By labeling the shelf, you help children know where the basket or bin belongs with a word and picture. Picture labels may come from a commercial labeling system, be cut out of catalogs or packaging, or be simple drawings. The word label should be typed or written neatly using proper capitalization and spelling and reading from left to right.

To increase the life of the label, attach the labels to the shelf or baskets with clear contact paper. For more even more durable labels put the picture and word on an index card and laminate it. Punch a hole at the top two corners and use slide or zip ties (found at hardware or home improvement stores) to affix the labels to the baskets.

Children will see the pictures and begin to associate the written word with the object. Labeling of this kind provides young children the opportunity to practice sorting, matching, and organizational skills. Matching the basket label and shelf label also makes for easier clean up. Shadowing Items that are directly placed on the shelf such as unit blocks, dramatic play hats, or children’s scissors can be labeled using shadows instead of pictures and words. Shadowing encourages easy clean-up, matching, and classifying—particularly with multiple items such as a large set of wooden blocks.

To create a shadow:

1.       Trace around each item with a black marker on construction paper or solid colored contact paper.


2.       Cut out each shape.


3.       Affix the shape directly onto the shelf where the item should be placed with clear contact paper. When organizing a unit block shelf, larger blocks should be placed on the bottom with smaller blocks at the top of the shelving unit.


Classroom Environment Labels

Common items such as the clock, bathroom, and sink should be labeled near the item. This promotes letter and word recognition and encourages reading. Cubbies and other individual spaces for children should be labeled clearly with each child’s name, using upper and lowercase letters as appropriate. For younger children, a picture of an animal, in addition to a child’s name can be included on the cubby label to make identification of the space easier than with the name alone.


Introducing Labeling in the Classroom

Children will notice the labels immediately as a new addition to their classroom environment. They will need some assistance in the beginning to understand how to use the labels and what they mean. Challenge the children to try to figure out what they think the labels are to be used for. After you’ve made their list, explain that the labels help them find and replace materials in their classroom. Throughout the day, remind and encourage them to find the two labels that match. It is also essential that the staff model how materials are put away. For example, a teacher might say during clean up time, “I need to put these musical instruments away. Here’s where they go, because this label says ‘musical instruments’ and I see a picture of them.”

Another idea to help children understand the labeling system, is to involve the children in the initial process of labeling of the room. The staff might print the labels ahead of time and assist the children in finding the item the label goes with. Children can also search through catalogues for matching pictures.

Angie Dorrell, M.A., was the director of curriculum for La Petite Academy, one of the nation’s largest providers of early childhood education programs. She also serves as a NAEYC accreditation validator and commissioner. She is the proud mother of two young daughters.