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5.4: Designing Literacy-Rich Play Environments

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    Illustration of a bird's nest
    Nest icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license

    Optimal learning environments are designed with intentionality. When considering how to orchestrate effective literacy-rich environments for young children, educators strategically reflect on how the physical environment invites children to actively use language in personally relevant ways. The principles of universal design guide educators’ decisions about how to establish literacy routines that support all learners within a particular learning environment. Originally, architects used the concept of universal design to ensure people with diverse interests, abilities, and needs were able to successfully navigate a particular space with ease (e.g., curb cuts, flexible seating, wide pathways, and automated doors and lights). Educators use concepts of universal design to ensure all children are able to meaningfully take part in and access the learning environment (Dinnebee, Boat, & Bae, 2013). When educators use concepts of universal design, they not only think critically about the physical spaces children occupy, they also think about how the learning experiences they create engage and support learners with diverse background experiences.

    Teachers use elements of the environment, such as developing routines, to engage students. One such routine is reading aloud to individual children and small groups.
    Teachers use elements of the environment, such as developing routines, to engage students. One such routine is reading aloud to individual children and small groups. pexels-ksenia-chernaya-8535173 © Pexels is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    Universal design principles encourage educators to (a) develop curricular routines and classroom spaces that meet the needs of all children, (b) recognize learning pathways for children are unique, (c) appreciate learning differences as a natural part of classroom communities, and (d) use open-ended learning opportunities that allow children to represent their understandings in diverse ways (Dinnebell et al., 2013). As described, these principles advocate for learning environments that are inclusive, flexible, and open for all learners as opposed to making modifications for individual children. The universal design principles ask educators to consciously attend to both the physical aspects of an environment that define learning spaces as well as the intangible classroom experiences that engage children emotionally, socially, and cognitively.

    5.4a Physical Literacy Learning Environments

    At the most basic level, the physical environment refers to the design and layout of the classroom. The decisions educators make about how to arrange the physical environment within a classroom has implications for the types of activities, behaviors, and learning routines children and educators experience. While there are elements of the physical environment that are beyond an educator’s control, (e.g., the overall size of the space and design details like sinks, bathroom accessibility, and electrical outlets) educators enjoy control over the learning spaces found in early childhood classrooms. Effective learning environments use a combination of visual cues (e.g., signs and pictures to identify learning spaces or processes) and structural features (e.g., rugs, low shelves, beanbags, play furniture, and tables) to divide the classroom into distinct learning spaces. The visual cues and structural features work together to guide children’s behaviors, engage learners, and inspire literacy explorations.

    To meet children’s learning preferences and needs, classroom designs include flexible individual and small group learning spaces. Classrooms also need a space large enough for a whole group of children to come together for shared experiences. The whole group space may actually prove to be the trickiest of all to “fit in.” The space needs to be large enough and situated so all children are able to share in the learning opportunity. Children’s sight-lines need to be clear and they need to be able to sit comfortably. For some children, this means providing wiggle cushions or small chairs, others need room to safely extend or bend their legs as needed to ensure they are comfortable. Traffic flow in and around this space needs to be flexible and open as well. An open design will allow guests, teachers, and children to enter and move around the space more easily and enhance children’s engagement.

    Open space works well for read-aloud time with a few children gathered together around the teacher in a carpeted, quiet area..
    group reading © Unplash is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    Establishing the primary learning areas first will help divide the room into distinct activity zones. When initially designing classroom spaces for children, educators stop to identify the types of learning opportunities they want young children to experience and where these experiences will take place. Common early learning areas include, but are not limited to, library nooks, home living corners, STEM centers, art exploration stations, and construction zones. The names of the learning areas suggest the types of learning activities children will experience and promote different kinds of play and explorations. Thoughtful arrangement of learning centers and activity zones within a classroom supports positive literacy behavior patterns.

    Pause and Connect: Establishing Effective Classroom Climates

    Take a moment to read Table 5.2 “General Guidelines for Establishing an Effective Classroom Environment.” As you read, consider how each suggestion might impact children in the learning environment. After reading the selection, create a classroom design using this “classroom architect” app:

    General Guidelines for Establishing an Effective Classroom Environment
    • Divide the classroom into quadrants (wet, dry, noisy, quiet)
    • Ensure wet areas are separated from dry areas and noisy areas are separate from quiet areas
    • Design flexible whole, small group, and independent learning spaces
    • Use furniture and materials to provide boundaries and define learning spaces
    • Carpets, low shelving, front-facing book shelves, tables, chairs, open storage bins with writing tools and material, and easels inspire children’s engagement within particular spaces
    • Create soft and hard literacy play and learning spaces by offering flexible and moveable seating options, diverse writing surfaces, and cozy spots for reading, writing, and conversing
    • Organize materials for easy accessibility to support literacy practices and make clean-up easier
    • Label classroom spaces, shelves, and storage bins with words and pictures to guide children’s patterns of behavior and infuse the classroom with meaningful print

    5.4b Building Areas for Literacy-Rich Play

    Intentional learning areas invite children to engage in hands-on, minds-on explorations of their literacy worlds. During play children use and develop critical thinking skills while increasing their oral language and other emergent literacy skills and understandings. As Heath (1983) explains,

    In their play, the children tell stories to each other or they monologue their creations. They frame parts of the whole drama of adulthood in sandboxes, corners of the playroom, or the play yard. But there they also declare themselves members of the world of children and members of a community which does not let its members ever go too far or too long away from the constraints of reality (p. 162).

    Literacy-rich play spaces and learning experiences encourage children to explore their understandings of the world. To inspire children’s active incorporation of diverse literacy practices in play, educators need to take time to reflect on (a) the amount of time children engage in dramatic and guided play experiences, (b) the accessibility of intentional materials that inspire creative literacy play opportunities, and (c) the language they use to scaffold children’s understandings and support literacy-rich play experiences. Through their interactions with purposeful materials, educators, and peers, children manipulate and use language in flexible ways to learn about and influence their world. Literacy-rich play areas strategically infuse literacy tools (e.g. books, writing paper, pencils, stamps, envelopes, etc. ) and props (e.g. mailboxes, puppet theaters, recipe boxes, lab coats, aprons, etc.) to increase children’s incorporation of play scenarios that use their emerging oral language, reading, and writing skills (Walfersberger et al., 2004). “Literacy Enriched Learning Areas” provides examples of how educators enrich learning areas to intentionally promote children’s literacy explorations.

    As you review Table 5.3, consider how the materials invite children to engage meaningfully in literacy rich spaces and nurture children’s literacy understandings.

    Learning Area Emergent Literacy Purpose Examples of Relevant Literacy-Rich Materials
    • Connects young children to books
    • Promotes print awareness
    • Supports children’s comprehension and interpretations of text
    • Extends children’s oral language opportunities and enhances children’s vocabulary through story telling
    • Books on a range of topics
    • Books from multiple genres
    • Books with diverse representations of children and families (i.e., culturally, ability, socio-economically, geographically, and children and families with diverse gender and sexual orientations)
    • Puppets/Stuffed animals for children to read to and engage in story retelling
    • Soft materials (i.e., pillows and cushions)
    • Puppet theaters
    • Felt boards
    • Encourages children to understand letters combine to represent words in a written form
    • Develops children’s letter formation
    • Supports letter/sound connection
    • Expands opportunities for children to write in personally meaningful ways
    • Various types of paper
    • Writing utensils (pencils, colored pencils, pens, markers)
    • Clip boards
    • Hole punch/stapler for making books
    • Envelopes
    • Ink pads and stamps
    • Magnetic letters
    • Chalk and chalkboards
    • Dry erase boards and markers
    Dramatic Play
    • Inspires children’s oral language and supports vocabulary development
    • Invites children to manipulate text in diverse ways
    • Promotes creative expression
    • Themed props to encourage imagination and discovery
    • Bakery theme: recipe cards, cake boxes, cake pans, spatulas, etc.
    • Animal shelter: animal name cards, adoption certificates, veterinarian health charts, etc.
    • Post office: envelopes, mail boxes, stamps, boxes, labels, scales, etc.
    • Restaurant: menus, note pads, welcome signs, etc.
    • Writing utensils
    • Paper
    • Encourages children’s oral language fluency with mathematical and scientific concepts
    • Extends children’s vocabulary in personally relevant ways
    • Promotes mathematical literacy
    • counting,
    • Cardinality (the total number in a set),
    • Mathematical operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing)
    • Algebraic thinking,
    • Measurement,
    • Data collection, and
    • Geometry (shapes, lines, dimensions, etc.)
    • Manipulatives
    • Counting bears
    • Snap cubes
    • Blocks
    • Cars
    • Collections of “things”
    • Paper
    • Graph paper
    • Tape measures
    • Rulers
    • Writing utensils
    • Weights
    Art Exploration
    • Extends children’s voices by providing opportunities for children to use multiple media to express themselves and represent their ideas
    • Nurtures creativity
    • Promotes higher order thinking skills, including planning, designing, experimenting, and examining
    • Develops fine motor skills and eye hand coordination for detailed work with their fingers and hands
    • Construction materials (know your learners–safety first as always)
    • Glue
    • Tape
    • String
    • Staples
    • Magnets
    • Hammer and nails
    • Scissors
    • Recyclables (boxes, cardboard tubes, cans etc.,
    • Paper: all kinds, sizes, and colors
    • Natural items (boards, sticks, rocks, slates, etc.)
    • Paint
    • Clay
    • Playdough
    • Crayons
    • Markers
    • Pastels
    • Pencils
    • Colored pencils
    STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)
    • Promotes inquiry-based thinking
    • Encourages children to ask questions about how their physical world works
    • Supports children’s documentation of their thinking and wonderings using words, print, pictures, drawings, diagrams, videos, etc.
    • Domain specific vocabulary
    • Scientific method (e.g. investigation, hypothesis, research, inquiry)
    • Physical science (e.g. volcano, earthquake, ocean)
    • Biology (e.g., chrysalis, hive, stem)
    • Chemistry (e.g. reaction, dissolve, combine)
    • Technology (e.g. coding, streaming, cloud)
    • Natural elements (leaves, shells, snake skins, dirt, water, ice, seeds, etc.)
    • Physical elements (ramps, marbles, wheels, magnets, pulleys, ropes, etc.)
    • STEM inquiry tools
    • Magnifying glasses
    • Graph Paper
    • Markers
    • Tape measures
    • Rulers
    • Scales
    • Science Logs
    • Measuring Cups

    As the Literacy Enriched Learning Areas table demonstrates, once foundational structures are decided upon, educators can enrich the learning environment with a variety of materials to scaffold children’s literacy interactions. Classroom environments that are predictable support intangible, emotional elements that impact the nature of instructional literacy play experiences, children’s learning progressions, and educator-child interactions (Reutzel & Jones, 2013). Intentional design strategies help educators create places where children feel comfortable exploring their environment and empower children to modify learning spaces to meet their play goals and preferences.

    Pause and Connect: Observation of a Library Center

    Observe an early childhood classroom library center. Describe the center in detail. Consider space, furnishings, bookshelves, props, as well as the book collection. Does the center have ample space, soft comfortable materials, open face and traditional bookshelves? Is there a range of topics, genres, and diverse representations in the collection? Is there a writing center nearby? Reflect on ways that the center could be enhanced.

    Pause and Connect: Classroom Libraries and Book Nooks

    Pinterest Assignment One: Visit Pinterest and explore “Classroom Libraries”. Identify 3 that you are impressed with and also best reflect the suggestions in the text. Create a board or cut and paste the images with your choices. Add captions to explain your thoughts.

    Pinterest Assignment Two: Visit Pinterest and search for “Book Nooks Ideas”. Find examples of how families have created literacy spaces and reading opportunities in their homes. Select and identify with captions ideas which appear to be easy to replicate. In addition, consider cost. Create a board or cut and paste the images with 3 choices.

    Children extend their play and build on their language with each other at the sand table as they interact and discuss their play.
    Children extend their play and build on their language with each other at the sand table as they interact and discuss their play. Sensory table © Business AM is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license

    5.4c Print-Rich Environments

    Print-rich environments promote classroom cultures that value literacy explorations. Literacy rich contexts intentionally display children’ own writings, drawings, and pictures alongside a variety of children’s books, writing materials, and engaging charts, diagrams, and signs. Print-rich environments present children with a wealth of reading and writing materials and encourage children to see that print has meaning (McGee, 2007). In print-rich environments, children observe adults using printed materials in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. In turn, children are guided by educators to use printed materials for their own play purposes. Therefore, careful attention to both the placement of print and the amount of print found within the environment is important.

    Images, symbols, and text designed to cue children’s interactions with text need to be strategically placed to draw children’s attention and encourage sustained engagement. Writing materials, children’s books, and other items that support children’s literacy enactments (e.g., puppet theaters, construction signs in the block center, alphabet stamps in the art center) need to be both visually and physically available so that children instinctively use classroom resources to support their learning explorations. When educators place print-rich classroom literacy materials, including signs, materials, and books, within children’s natural sight lines, the literacy materials remain child-centric. This increases the likelihood that children will use the resources in personally meaningful ways. Print that is placed for intentional and functional purposes in “just right spaces” allows children to meaningfully engage and interact with the print. Conversely, print materials positioned in a space “too high” for children to visually or physically access, will not be easily incorporated by children into their play scenarios or learning experiences.

    In addition to deciding where to position print-rich material, educators also need to consider the amount of print in the classroom. Classroom environments with too much print can be overwhelming and distracting to young learners. Environments that overload children’s sensory capacities may impact how children interact with peers and adults and undermine children’s literacy enactments. Ultimately, the print displayed within the classroom should be done so in an intentional manner with children’s literacy interactions in mind. For example, in a veterinarian dramatic play center thematic word and picture charts (e.g., bird, snake, dog, cat), scales for weighing animals, record forms for the children taking care of the animals, and relevant labels (e.g., water, food, check-in) support children’s literacy play experiences.

    A display of the photos of children's artwork, in which the children’s verbal statements regarding the art experience are recorded and also displayed, enhances the print-rich environment.
    A display of the photos of children’s artwork, in which the children’s verbal statements regarding the art experience are recorded and also displayed, enhances the print-rich environment. Artwork on the wall © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license

    5.4d Critical Responsive Children’s Books

    Children’s books offer a rich foundation for children’s literacy explorations. However, the quality of literature children are immersed in matters. Emergent readers, writers, and speakers need consistent opportunities to engage in texts they find compelling. Educators can use books to spark and provoke children’s interests. Intentional literature experiences encourage children to consider multiple perspectives and allow children to vicariously experience worlds beyond their immediate classroom environment. Narrative texts (fiction texts) invite children to problem solve along with central characters, explore places beyond their own communities, and listen to lived experiences of other people. Expository texts (nonfiction or informational texts) promote children’s inquiry and encourage children to use texts as mediums for learning about how the world works and consider how people influence our communities. Educators play a critical role in determining children’s access to print and their intentional selection of compelling children’s texts is essential.

    Children need to see themselves represented in the books embedded within their early learning spaces. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop published a seminal article titled, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Dr. Sims Bishop explains,

    Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. (p. ix)

    Children’s early literacy experiences offer the opportunity for children to learn about new worlds or ideas. For example, in the book, Bilal Cooks Daal, the main character, Bilal, cooks daal with his friends who have never had it or made it before (Saeed & Syed, 2019). Daal is a term used throughout India and South Asia to broadly identify a variety of spiced lentil and bean-based soups. The dish is described in the book along with the cooking process and serves as a window for children who have never heard of daal, a sliding glass door for children to walk through and experience new cultural practices (such as how daal is served in the bowl and the preparation practices), and a mirror for children who regularly eat daal with their friends and family.

    Daal is frequently served with rice or flatbread like naan. So, for Prashant, Bilal Cooks Daal serves as a mirror, reflecting the familiar food items his family prepares at home. At the same time, the story offers windows and sliding glass doors for his peers and educators who may not be as familiar with Indian or South Asian cuisine. The story invites all children to vicariously experience the rhythm of cooking daal and can subsequently be used to extend the play scenarios Prashant and his friends create. Diversity rich classrooms encourage conversations and offer children opportunities to learn about people and families that are different from themselves (Baker, 1990).

    NAEYC’s 2019 Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education underscores the intentional infusion of literacy opportunities that reinforce the dignity of each child, stating “children of all genders, with and without disabilities should see themselves and their families, languages, and cultures regularly and meaningfully reflected in the environment and learning materials” (NAEYC, 2019, p.7). Educators must always be mindful that in selecting materials, they are exercising power to choose which windows, mirrors, and sliding doors children will be exposed to. Accordingly, it is important for educators to infuse children’s literature with elements that show children and families of color as the central characters even if the classroom demographic appears to be predominately white. When selecting texts, educators need to “remember that the learning environment and its materials reflect what [they] do and do not value by what is presented and what is omitted” (NAEYC, 2019, p. 7). With this power comes a responsibility to use a critically responsive lens when selecting children’s texts. Diverse texts allow children to celebrate and honor cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, ability, family, and gender diversities. It also creates opportunities for educators to challenge storylines that stereotype, misrepresent, and marginalize.

    Pause and Connect: Using children’s books to help develop inclusive classrooms.

    After viewing this video, reflect and answer these questions:

    How do we select books for our classroom or program?

    Do we have multiple books that reflect each of the cultures and family structures represented in our program?

    In what ways do we use books to support children’s understanding of differences?

    How do we decide what kinds of questions we ask to prompt children’s thinking before, during, and after reading a book?

    Do we prepare for those discussions in advance of reading a book?

    Pause and Reflect: Diverse Children’s Texts

    Looking for Diverse Children’s Texts?

    If you are currently in an early learning context, take a moment to review the children’s texts available to your young learners. Alternatively, take a moment to reflect on the diversity of children’s text you read as a child. How many texts include children and families of differing ethnic, economic, ability, linguistic, and regional backgrounds. Then consider whose voices were underrepresented or not represented in the evaluation you conducted. Consider if generalizations, stereotyping, or misrepresentations are present. How might the texts you reviewed serve as windows, sliding glass doors, or mirrors for children?

    Developing literacy opportunities and class libraries that meaningfully infuse books with children and families that bring diversities to the classroom takes planning. Fortunately, there are a number of resources educators can access to support their efforts in acquiring diversity rich texts.

    Pause and Connect: Resources for Diversity Rich Children’s Books

    Explore the resource sites in Table 5.4 “Finding Exemplary Children’s Books.” Then, identify 2 or 3 sites that may assist you in enhancing children’s access to a wide variety of texts with multiple cultural, familial and ability representations. In a well thought out paragraph or two, support your choices.

    Resource Description Web Link
    American Library Association (Coretta Scott King Award Books) The Coretta Scott King Award recognizes African American authors and illustrators capturing the African American experience.
    American Library Association (Pura Belpré Award Books) The Pura Belpré Award is presented to a Latinx author or illustrator capturing the Latinx cultural experience.
    American Library Association (Schneider Family Book Award) The Schneider Family Book Award recognizes authors and illustrators presenting stories of the disability experience for children.
    Learning for Justice Learning for Justice is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that published guidelines to support educators’ considerations of children’s texts. The free resource guides educators to use a critical lens when selecting text for children.
    The National Museum of the American Indian The National Museum of the American Indian online bookstore presents a selection of texts that show children contemporary experiences of Native Peoples and challenge stereotypes that continue to marginalize tribes.
    National Council for the Social Studies The National Council for the Social Studies Carter G. Woodson Book Award also honors a few children’s texts each year “that depict ethnicity in the United States” (NCSS, YEAR)
    We Need Diverse Books WNDB provides a platform for curating “literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people” (WNDB, 2020).
    Pause and Connect: Culturally Responsive Literature in the Classroom

    The Preschool Podcast: Leveraging culturally responsive literature in early learning classroom

    The Preschool Podcast Is a platform for learning from leading professionals in early childhood education. The Preschool Podcast provides both practical advice as well as thought provoking ideas and insights regarding the field of early childhood education.

    After listening to this podcast, respond to the following:

    1. According to Hillary Price, a Learning Literacy Advisor, what is meant by being culturally responsive in general and specifically regarding Early Childhood Education?
    2. Explain “windows and mirrors.”
    3. What are some steps that we can take to ensure our classroom collection is culturally diverse?

    5.4e Assessing Early Literacy Environments

    A number of program evaluations are currently used in early education contexts to guide early educators’ efforts designing classroom spaces, negotiating and nurturing relationships, and facilitating effective literacy experiences. In Chapter 6: Exploring Emergent Literacy Assessment Practices, there is a more detailed discussion of early childhood education literacy assessment practices for young children. For the purposes of this chapter, three evaluation scales are considered to demonstrate how elements of classroom environments are captured in evaluation instruments and help guide program development and instructional practices in diverse early childhood contexts. The Classroom Literacy Environmental Profile (CLEP; Wolfersberger et al., 2004), the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-R; Harms et al., 2014) and the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO; Smith et al., 2008) are grounded in research that demonstrates positive correlations between the unique environmental factors itemized on the scales and children’s learning. These tools help educators understand how the physical environment and human interactions influence children’s learning. Table 5.5 below summarizes the broad categories emphasized in each assessments’ observational protocol.

    Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale

    (ECERS; Harms et al., 2014)

    Classroom Literacy Environmental Profile

    (CLEP; Wolfersberger et al., 2004)

    Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation

    (ELLCO; Smith, Brady, & Anastasopoulos, 2008)

    Environmental Subscales Literacy Environment Subscales Literacy Environment Subscales
    1. Space and Furnishings
    2. Personal Care Routines
    3. Language-Reasoning
    4. Activities
    5. Interaction
    6. Program Structure
    7. Parents and Staff
    1. Identifying Literacy Tools for Use in Literacy-Rich Classroom Environments
    2. How to Use Literacy Tools or Props to Support Such an Environment
    1. Classroom Structure
    2. Curriculum
    3. Language Environment
    4. Book and Book Reading Opportunities
    5. Print and Early Writing Supports

    A quick analysis of the subscale titles across each evaluation tool reflects the central role environment plays in shaping children’s literacy experiences. Across the scales, some of the indicators focus on how the environment is constructed to support children’s emergent literacy while other indicators consider the literacy interactions between educators and children. For example, the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-R) includes an indicator encouraging children to communicate in the classroom (Harms et al., 2014). An example of this indicator would be to include “materials that encourage communication throughout the room (e.g., puppet, small figures in block)” (Harms et al., 2014, p. 147). The Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation Pre-K Tool includes an indicator for supporting children’s writing and gathers evidence demonstrating that educators engage children in “authentic uses of writing that are integral to their daily classroom experiences” (e.g., children make charts, dictate stories, participate in daily sign-in) (ELLCO, 2008, p. 36).

    Early childhood educators will encounter diverse assessment tools across their careers. It is beneficial for educators to take time to understand the theoretical perspectives that inform the nature of the items on each assessment. It is also important for educators to consider the assessment tool that can be used to enhance their work with young learners and the families they serve. Just as we use a variety of assessment tools to understand what our children know, we can use a variety of tools to analyze how we use intentional teaching practices to promote children’s learning. Collectively, the human relationships, physical spaces, and literacy routines young children experience make up the essential components promoting children’s emerging oral language, reading, and writing skills.

    This page titled 5.4: Designing Literacy-Rich Play Environments is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.