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8.2: Managing Space - Indoor Learning Environments

  • Page ID
    • Gayle Julian & Sharene Leek
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    The indoor learning environment teachers establish should reflect the teacher’s thoughts about children and how they will learn and play in the environment as well as the reflect the values of the program and the community. In addition, children should see themselves reflected in the environment. Do they see pictures of their families, books with children that look like them, places to feel safe and places they can explore and be loud? The more a child has ownership in the environment, the more they will value and respect the space. It should be their class/space as much as it is the teacher’s. This section of the chapter will discuss components of the indoor learning environment.

    Jim Greenman (2005) has written that there are nine aspects of a good early childhood learning environment. They are places:

    • to live, where children feel welcomed, competent, and relaxed with a sense of familiarity and order,
    • of beauty that engage all of the senses
    • that promote strong diverse families
    • with spaces for gathering and ways to see from palace to place in the program
    • with spaces for working independently and with others
    • for exploration and discover indoors and out with room to move
    • that develop responsibility, compassion, and community by giving children access to resources and encouraging them to work together
    • to connect to the natural world, the larger community, and the world beyond and
    • for staff to learn and work with space, internet access, professional journals, and books.

    This first section of the chapter will discuss components of the indoor learning environment.

    Activity Zones

    An activity zone, sometimes also referred to as learning centers or interest areas, are areas within a learning environment with a targeted activity purpose. Typical activity zones might include art, blocks, dramatic play, math (manipulative, table toys), sensory, science, language arts (literacy), library (quiet corner, books). Activity areas should be open to children during free choice time during the day or whenever a teacher designates time for specific small group activities. Sometimes children will explore an activity zone on their own, or in small groups. Sometimes children will need the scaffolding of a teacher or peers to extend their learning. These areas should be equipped with items that support children’s natural tendency to play and learn in an experiential manner and should always take into consideration developmental appropriateness for the children in the classroom.

    When children are engaged in free choice play throughout the day in activity areas, these are opportunities for teachers to conduct observations and assessments of children in authentic ways (discussed in chapter 6). This also provides teachers with the opportunity to plan curriculum and meaningful activities for the daily schedule.

    Some of the more common activity zones found in early learning environments include:

    Art: Encouraging children’s creative thinking is essential throughout the early years. Art is also a tool for thinking and inquiry, allowing children to make their theories and ideas visible, take new perspective, represent, and explore emotions, and to study properties of the physical world. Art is open ended, child directed and process oriented. Art is not a craft, product oriented with a correct way of making something, or step by step directions. Materials may include different kinds of paint, paint brushes, easels, collage materials, scissors, clay and playdough, colored paper, magazines, popsicle sticks, cotton balls and a large selection of loose parts. The area is best supported with plenty of light, close to hand washing sinks, and easy to clean floors. Art zones can help children to development coordination and fine motor skills which are needed for emergent writing.

    Blocks: blocks are wonderful open-ended learning materials with no closely defined boundaries, no right or wrong way to represent children’s ideas. Many skills and concepts are developed and enhanced through block play. Children think critically, explore, manipulate, experiment, represent, problem-solve, and make decisions in the block area. The block area is best in an area of the room where the noise level is increased and away from traffic, so structures are not disturbed. This area can include wooden, cardboard or foam blocks as well as small figures and architectural items that will promote creative building. This is where children can learn about sizes and shapes, spatial relationships and math concepts as well as learn how to make decisions and solve problems.

    Image 8.3 Playing with Blocks is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Dramatic Play: In this area children’s thought becomes visible through play. Children may operate at more advanced cognitive levels than they do in non-pretend situations, including staying on task for extended lengths of time. Is not just as an activity, but as an expression of thinking. This area provides opportunities for children to pretend and use their imagination, role play, and act out real and imaginary experiences in a playful context. Although “housekeeping” is a common theme for the dramatic play area, other themes can be explored in this area such as grocery stores, doctor offices, restaurants, veterinary clinics, and more. Through this type of play, children will practice social skills, learn to solve problems, and work cooperatively.

    Language arts (literacy): Literacy skills are critical in laying the foundation for current and future success in oral and written language. Literacy skills often play a crucial role in learning content in other areas. The space should be well lit and clearly defined. Comfortable seating and tables with plenty of paper and writing utensils. Puppets and props are also ideal for this area. Many teachers chose to create unique writing centers in literacy areas where children can explore print materials as well as create their own.

    Image 8.5 Manipulative Table is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Library (quiet corner, books): library areas support children in a lifelong habit that promotes literacy and a love for the written word. The space should be a comfortable area where children are encouraged to read books. Create an enticing area that is well stalked with a variety of books that support diversity, culture, and life. Literacy and library can be next to each other but should be separate areas, it is best to not have distractions when children want to read alone. Through the literacy and library activity zones in the classroom, children will begin to recognize the connection between spoken language and the written word.

    Image 8.4 Reading together is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Math (manipulative, table toys): This space can also be referred to as manipulatives or table toys. The ideal location has accessible materials, shelves near tables, in a medium traffic area. As the adult, step back and let the child direct. While observing play in this area assess the level items are used, self-control, perseverance, pride, creativity, classification, number concepts, emergent reading, fine/gross motor, eye-hand coordination, visual discrimination, and refine sense of touch. You will want to rotate toys often and keep the area organized.

    Music and Movement: Help children synthesize experiences, transition into new activities, calm down, share culture, build self-esteem, and build a sense of community. There are also academic benefits to music and movement like boosting memory, improving spatial-perception, and cognitive development. For setting up the music and movement area, location should be away from quite areas and it is best to alleviate the clutter, so children have space to move. Include a variety of authentic instruments and this is the perfect time to introduce a variety of music to children.

    Sensory: When children are engaged in sensory related activities they are,

    • Developing questions throughout the sensory experience.
    • Investigating - by grabbing, smelling, rubbing, staring, licking, and so on
    • They are collecting data through their senses.
    • Leaning to communicate their findings.
    • Participating in a valid exercise in scientific inquiry.

    It is important to remember that sensory activities should include more than a sand and water table. After all, there are 5 senses that should be supported. This is where life can get messy (but not always) relax and have fun!

    When it comes to the sensory environment there are a few critical elements to think about. Make sure sensory tables are by a sink: for best hygiene practices, children should wash before and after interacting with materials in the sensory table. Depending on what is included in the sensory area, an easy clean floor is best. However, if the floor is not easy to clean having access to a tarp that can be placed on the floor will also work. Watch for allergies and other hazards. These can include scent jars or items in sensory that trigger allergies, items that are small and pose a choking risk, or even whisper tubes used improperly can hurt ears.

    Water tables are great areas to learn scientific concepts such as “will it sink, or will it float?” as well as mathematical concepts through the use of measuring cups, funnels, tubes or shovels. The water in water tables should be cleaned out daily or more often if needed.

    Science: Children are scientists who are naturally curious and biologically primed to learn about the world around them. They use information they gain through their everyday experiences to develop theories about how the world works. The science area should support “what if” statements, be enticing and inviting, and have adequate workspace. The area is best in a quiet area of the class that is uninterrupted so children can work and concentrate. This is a good place to include natural elements such as leaves, sticks, rocks, pinecones, magnets, kaleidoscopes, oil and water bottles, seashells, magnifying glasses, flashlights, and color wants to peak children’s interests.

    Room Arrangement

    The design and layout of the indoor environment can have an impact on children’s learning and behavior and on the teacher’s ability to do their jobs effectively. Good indoor environments support children’s interactions with good organization around space, materials and people. When a classroom is set up properly, children have the freedom to move around safely, engage in activity zones and learn to manage their peer relationships. These environments should also help both children and adults feel invited and welcomed.

    Each space within a classroom should be defined and boundaries made clear. In addition, the children need to be visible to the teacher at all times. Thoughtful room arrangement help to keep order to the space, reduces the possibility of crowding in any given area, and can support children in their choice making. This can be achieved by using existing walls or furniture like toys shelves. Even an area rug or a cloth draped from the ceiling can give the illusion of separation. Image 8.6 Illustrates two examples of room arrangement. The first image shows a classroom with less defined space for activity zones, while the second image shows how a classroom can look when a teacher uses furniture to define a space.

    Designating spaces where children can have quiet play such as puzzles or books can be made cozy with carpet or pillows that absorb sound. More active areas can be arranged that allow for more movement and give children the behavior cues that louder more active play can take place in that area. Furnishings also can be used to guide movement patterns throughout the room.

    Image 8.6 Drawing of undefined and defined space Photo by S.Leek is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Impact of Color and Plastic in a Classroom

    Small changes to an environment can make a big impact. For example, think about the use of color in a classroom and the use of plastic. Often time when people think of a classroom space for children, they think of bright bold colors. However, these are not the ideal colors for an early learning space. Color impacts the brain and can trigger a chemical response. For example, shades of red may trigger excitement, resulting in behavior perceived as hyperactive or even angry. Shades of yellow trigger hunger. Many fast-food restaurants select these colors for logos or building colors to make one believe they are hungry and excited to eat. Using yellow heavily in a toddler room can leave a teacher with fussy, emotional children because their brains are telling them they are hungry. Shades of blue can be a depressant. This is not an ideal classroom color, especially if any of the children for have experienced trauma. Ideally, colors should be within the green, brown, and grey color families. These colors ground children and help them feel grounded in the world.

    Plastic, often heavily used in early learning environments, can also have an adverse effect on behavior. It can be substituted with wicker baskets, and other more natural containers, to hold toys and materials. Every person absorbs and expels energy. Depending on the space, this exchange is done without a person knowing. We often have things in our space that we are naturally drawn to that help with the absorption of energy. These items are made of natural materials like glass, wood, cotton, and rock, to name a few. However, if we fill children’s classrooms with material that will not absorb their natural energy, such as plastic, the result can be a room that feels electrified. The effort adults may spend to focus children and get them engaged can be futile. Simple changes like using baskets to hold toys, adding rugs, a plant, or wooden frames and adding other natural elements will not only have a positive impact on behavior. It will be far more aesthetically pleasing as well. If you work in a program that tends to use a lot of plastic, look for way you can balance that with some of the items listed in this section. If that is not possible, providing more frequent or longer periods of outside time will also be beneficial.

    Selection and Placement of Materials

    Part of the physical environment takes into consideration the selection and placement of materials. Having already discussed the overuse of plastics in classrooms, it is important to note that materials that are selected for classroom environments need to be developmentally appropriate as well as culturally relevant for the age of children using the classroom.

    Teachers also need to keep in mind how the materials will be organized and accessed by the children. Keep in mind these tips when choosing appropriate materials for early learning classrooms:

    • Organizing the materials should take into consideration the independent abilities of the children in the classroom.
    • Keep appropriate materials in appropriate places (art materials in the art center, books in the library) but allow for the crossing of materials during play from one center into another.
    • Provide enough materials for all children to be engaged in the activity.
    • Place heavy items on lower shelves.
    • Rotate materials to promote children’s interests.
    • Make sure to have personal storage areas (such as cubbies) for both children and teachers.

    It is a basic practice in early learning that when a material is broken, missing pieces or is otherwise worn out, it is a good idea to eliminate those materials from the environment. In addition, all materials need to be clean and sanitized following licensing guidelines.

    Labeling shelves with print and pictures where materials are to be placed will help children to become more self-sufficient and build print awareness. Some teachers will use color coding of materials to keep organized.

    Image 8.7 Organized Space is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Looking at the image above, how could you remove the plastics and reorganize the materials into more natural based storage materials?

    Environmental Aesthetics

    When creating an early learning space that will foster learning, inspire creativity, and support social relationships; a professional will need to consider environmental characteristics such as lighting, color (as discussed at length earlier in this chapter), crowding, noise levels, clutter and more. When designing a space—any space, creating an attractive and pleasing environment includes thinking about the aesthetics of the space.

    Creating supportive early learning environments is an art and a science and can seem overwhelming at times. Setting goals to make physical changes to the environment is helpful, but these can be costly. Setting small goals will bring positive change to the space over time.

    Alleviating clutter is one goal that will make a huge impact on the environment and the teacher, and children who share the space. Clutter can distract from even the most attractive spaces. Clutter usually happens slowly and stems from:

    • Undefined space for where items belong
    • Taking time to put things in their place
    • Lack of sufficient organization

    A poorly organized space with too much clutter will prevent a classroom from functioning effectively. The best way to assess the level of clutter is to take pictures of the space while standing, sitting in a child chair, and sitting on the floor. If you would not want to show a parent or coworker the photo because of materials not put away properly or a stack of papers needing your attention, then you have a clutter issue to address.

    Two other environmental characteristics that should not be overlooked are the impact of crowding and noise. Both have a significant influence on stress levels and learning opportunities. Sometimes less in a space is best. Less items keep children from being overwhelmed by the many choices and there is clear purpose with what is available to them. However, when limiting items in an activity area, it is best to swap out the items often so children have access to new education experiences. If items remain the same and children are not engaged in what is offered, behavior issues will soon arise. Noise if also often a distraction and can be improved by adding rugs, hanging tapestries or noise absorbing enhancements to the walls, and by placement of the activity centers.

    Lighting is something to consider when creating an early learning space. Ideally, lots of natural light is preferred. When additional light is needed; lamps, string lights, or similar are advised. The large fluorescent lighting, often found in early childhood spaces, interact with the brain, and can cause problems like headaches and irritability.

    Children are more likely to feel they can be themselves when their classroom environment feels home-like. Soft furnishings, nontoxic plans, natural or soft lighting, decorative touches such as area rugs, family photos of children and staff and neutral paint colors help to create a space that everyone in the environment can enjoy.


    What would you include in the various activity areas to spark interest and curiosity?

    How can clutter be addressed in a space?

    Image 8.8 Family Child Care Outdoor Mud Kitchen Photo by Sleek is licensed under CC by 1.0

    This page titled 8.2: Managing Space - Indoor Learning Environments is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gayle Julian & Sharene Leek.