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3.1: The Learning Environment

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    Course Competency 3. Establish a developmentally appropriate environment for STEM.


    3.1. explain how the environment supports children’s physical development.

    3.2. explain how the environment supports children's social/emotional development.

    3.3. explain how the environment supports children's language development.

    3.4. explain how the environment supports children's approaches to learning.

    3.5. explain how the environment supports children's cognitive development

    Supporting Learning in All Domains

    As you have learned in other courses the domains of development are interrelated. Development in one domain impacts development in the others. Chapter 3 will not be divided into separate sections for each domain or for each criterion for Course Competency 3 because of the interrelatedness of developmental domains. As you read this chapter, keep in mind how the domains are interrelated and how development in one domain affects the others. Also, consider how learning and development specific to STEM experiences support learning in all domains.

    The indoor and outdoor environments provide the context for children’s physical and social explorations and construction of STEM concepts. The following are strategies for helping educators set up a physical environment that is rich, stimulating, and conducive to children’s construction of knowledge. As you read each example think about how the materials and activities the teacher provides help foster learning and development in each developmental domain. (physical, social-emotional, cognitive, language, approaches to learning)

    • Be thoughtful about what objects and materials to include in the environment.
    • Provide a variety of natural materials to observe and investigate.
    • Include objects and materials that allow for creativity and open-ended investigation.
    • Include living things in the preschool environment.
    • Include scientific tools for observation, measurement, and documentation.
    • Make scientific tools available throughout the preschool environment.
    • Consider adaptations in scientific tools and materials for children with special needs.
    • Use technology to support children’s scientific experiences.
    • Present documentation of science-related experiences in the preschool environment.
    • Include children’s books with STEM-related content.
    • Use the outdoors for natural explorations and investigations.
    • Organize the space in ways that promote children’s explorations.
    • Allow space for observations and for objects, materials, tools, and resources related to science, technology, engineering, and math.
    • Allow flexibility in the use of physical space and furniture to accommodate each activity’s changing needs.
    • To promote self-direction and free exploration, tools, and materials need to be accessible and consistently available to children.
    • Social interactions are necessary for conceptual growth and the development of communication skills.
    • Always be aware of children’s safety.
    • Foster children’s curiosity and questioning.
    • Guide children in exploring their questions.
    • Be an active observer.
    • Talk with children and engage them in conversations during their investigations.
    • Provide children with time.
    • Know when to intervene and when to stand back.
    • Model and integrate the use of STEM vocabulary.

    Setting the Stage for Play Environments

    The environment is often labeled as a “teacher” in Early Childhood Education. The meaning behind this label is that if an environment is intentionally created with developmentally appropriate practice in mind, it will serve to assist with learning as well as classroom management. A quality early childhood educational environment, whether it is indoor, outdoor or temporal (timing, sequence, and length of activities and routines), should encourage engagement, stimulate learning, and promote growth in all areas of development.

    The effective preschool teacher recognizes, understands, and respects the values of children’s families and communities and attempts to make the preschool environment as congruent with those values as possible.[1]

    Creating an Environment for Social and Emotional Learning

    Teachers in a high-quality preschool program ensure that all the children feel safe and nurtured. They know how to create a classroom climate of cooperation, mutual respect, and tolerance and support children in developing skills needed to solve problems and resolve conflicts with peers. Social and emotional learning is central to young children’s development in the preschool years and works hand in hand with cognitive and academic learning. To learn well, they need to feel safe, to feel comfortable with their preschool teacher, and to be supported in their play with other children. All these factors interact with each other and either promote or detract from children’s learning and well-being. Because preschool children are naturally curious and learn best in meaningful contexts, teachers responsible for planning the learning environment and curriculum will best support children’s learning and development when they use a variety of strategies to support children’s learning—such as focusing on interactions, scaffolding learning experi­ences, engaging in explicit instruction, changing the environment and materials, and making adaptations to the learning environment.

    Teachers make use of daily routines as an important context for learning, inte­grating engaging learning opportunities into the everyday routines of arrivals, departures, mealtimes, naptimes, hand- washing, setup, and cleanup, both indoors and outdoors. Children enthusiastically practice and apply emerging skills when they are helpers who ring the bell to signal it is time to come inside; when they count how many are ready for lunch; when they move a card with a child’s photo and name from the “home” column to the “preschool” column of a chart near the room entry; when they put their name on a waiting list to paint at the easel; or when they help set the table for a meal, making sure that each place has a plate, utensils, and a cup. Such routines offer opportunities for children to build language skills, to learn the rituals of sharing time with others, and to relate one action in a sequence to another” (adapted from CDE 2010, 18).

    Figure 5.2: This young girl is learning through the daily routine of setting the table.[2]

    Based on teachers’ assessments of individual children’s learning, the teachers might add materials to play-based interest areas, decide to read books with small or large groups, adapt activities to meet the diverse learning needs of children in the classroom, and think of a particular topic area that children would be interested in investigating. Guided by the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards, teach­ers use their understanding of children’s learning and development as a way to ensure they adequately support children’s development across all domains. With clear ideas or objectives in mind, teachers plan curriculum that includes strategies to enhance the learning of all children in a group, as well as strategies to support the learning of individual children.

    Teacher Tip

    Reflecting the Interests and Skills of the Children

    During an annual ECE conference, a presenter challenged the participants to change their thinking on student readiness. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time considering how to best prepare the children in my care for the transition to older classrooms. Attending this workshop inspired me to think differently. Readiness is not about getting children ready, but rather getting our environments ready for the children as they come to us. To put this into practice, our preschool teachers visited children in the toddler classrooms and observed the interest in specific areas, materials and took notes on skills observed. As the children began to transition into our preschool classroom the room was set with a mixture of materials they were familiar with as well as new materials appropriate for their new stage of development. The pressure was off of the toddler teachers to prep for what they thought the children needed to be ready with and the new preschool teachers had realistic expectations of the children as they matriculated into their new environments. We took this idea one step further with our older preschoolers and had them help us to create the spaces they wanted to use. The children walked from area to area and estimated how many children could safely exist in each area. Next, we placed the number of students allowed in each area at a time (from the children’s perspective) and we let them experiment. We reflected with the children our observations and their experiences and decided together if the amount of children allotted per area was reasonable or needed adjusting. We found that by incorporating the children’s ideas and participation in environmental design, they were more respectful of the environment and the environment reflected their ideas and values. Remember: Not every area of the classroom has to be created equal. The environment should reflect the interests and skills of the people who use it.[5]

    To ensure that the STEM environment in the preschool classroom reflects the interests and skills of the children in the classroom, teachers can implement several key strategies:

    1. **Observation and Assessment:**
    - Regularly observe and assess children's interests, strengths, and areas of curiosity related to STEM. Pay attention to their natural inclinations, questions they ask, and activities they engage in with enthusiasm.

    2. **Child-Centered Design:**
    - Design the STEM environment with children's interests and skills in mind. Offer a variety of materials, tools, and activities that align with their interests and cater to different learning styles.
    - Allow children to have choices and autonomy in selecting STEM activities. Provide opportunities for them to lead and explore topics that fascinate them.

    3. **Flexible Learning Spaces:**
    - Create flexible learning spaces that can be adapted to different STEM activities and projects. Designate areas for hands-on exploration, quiet observation, collaborative work, and independent investigation.
    - Use movable furniture, storage solutions, and open-ended materials that can be easily reorganized to support diverse interests and activities.

    4. **Incorporate Diversity and Inclusion:**
    - Ensure that the STEM environment reflects diversity in terms of cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. Use materials, books, and resources that represent a range of perspectives and promote inclusivity.
    - Encourage collaborative learning and peer interactions that celebrate differences and encourage empathy, respect, and understanding among children.

    5. **Personalized Learning Experiences:**
    - Offer personalized learning experiences based on children's interests and skills. Provide opportunities for deeper exploration of topics they are passionate about and scaffold learning to meet individual needs.
    - Incorporate open-ended projects and challenges that allow children to apply their knowledge, creativity, and problem-solving skills in meaningful ways.

    6. **Parent and Community Involvement:**
    - Engage parents and families in the STEM learning environment by sharing information about children's interests, showcasing their work and accomplishments, and inviting them to participate in STEM-related activities.
    - Collaborate with local experts, professionals, and community resources to bring diverse perspectives, real-world experiences, and career exploration opportunities into the STEM environment.

    7. **Reflection and Feedback:**
    - Regularly reflect on the effectiveness of the STEM environment in meeting the interests and needs of children. Gather feedback from children, families, and colleagues to make ongoing improvements and adjustments.
    - Use documentation and assessment tools to track children's progress, interests, and skills related to STEM. Use this information to inform planning and decision-making in the STEM environment.

    By adopting these strategies, preschools can create a dynamic and inclusive STEM environment that empowers children to explore, discover, and thrive based on their unique interests, talents, and abilities.

    How to incorporate the interests and skills of the children into the STEM environment was generated using OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT (3.5) [Large language model].

    Early childhood teachers see and support children as scientists and thus design the play environment to serve the children’s inquisitive minds. Teachers also provide the materials children need to construct concepts and ideas and master skills in the natural context of play. Children learn from opportunities to discover materials that they may be seeing for the first time and need time to explore and get to know the properties of these materials. It means offering children materials that they can organize into relationships of size, shape, number, or function and time. Children can investigate what happens when they put these materials together or arrange them in new ways, experiencing the delight of discovering possibilities for building with them, transforming them, or using them to represent an experience.

    Loose Parts

    Loose Parts can be used in the indoor or outdoor environment. Children can build and create with these in many ways.

    An article by Reading Play discusses Loose Parts Theory:

    ‘Loose parts’ theory is about remembering that the best play comes from things that allow children to play in many different ways and on many different levels. Environments that include ‘loose parts’ are infinitely more open-ended, stimulating, and engaging than static ones. The play environment needs to promote and support imaginative play through the provision of ‘loose parts’ in a way that doesn’t direct play and play opportunities, but allows children to develop their own ideas and explore their world.

    • Must be included in both indoor and outdoor environments
    • Have no defined use and play workers must support the children when they decide to change the shape or use of them.
    • Must be accessible physically and stored where they can be reached by children without having to ask the play workers. The children should know that they can use them whenever and however they wish.
    • Must be regularly replenished, changed, and added to.[6]

    See: for more information about Loose Parts

    Early childhood teachers also design the daily routines as rich opportunities for children to participate actively and to use their emerging skills and ideas in meaningful situations. Equally important are the ways in which teachers use interactions and conversations with children to support learning.[7]

    Connecting Theories to Environments

    Environments should be planned with developmental theories in mind:

    • Jean Piaget and the Cognitive Theory: Environments should encourage active learning, stimulate skills of inquiry and promote problem-solving/risk-taking. Examples: Materials are placed low on shelves that make easy access for children. The shelves should be labeled with pictures of the materials so that children are encouraged to place these materials where they belong by matching the material to the photo when they finish playing with them. The environment must be stimulating for children to encourage knowledge seeking.
    • Vygotsky and the Sociocultural Theory: Environments should provide opportunities for meaningful interactions that challenge children (Zone of Proximal development--ZPD) and in which scaffolding exists through child-child and child-adult interactions.
    • Behavioral Theory: Daily routines must be consistent and expectations of behavior should be clearly defined.
    • Erikson: Environments provide opportunities for children to develop feelings of trustworthiness, autonomy, and initiative in the early years. The environment provides areas for children to feel safe, play independently, and make choices throughout the day.[8]

    Curriculum Occurs Throughout the Day

    As previously stated, young children learn in everyday moments of play and interaction. A child who arrives in the classroom and sees his name written on a cubby where he deposits what he brought from home is learning. That learning is amplified when he walks to a nearby metal tray (labeled with the words “Home” and “School”) and moves the magnet attached to his photo from the “Home” side of the frame to the “School” side. The learning continues when he stops to write his version of his name in the sign-in binder, located near a ring of cards with a child’s name and photo printed on each. In this area, he can observe the accompanying family member sign him in as well. Remember, you can incorporate STEM learning into routines such as these by asking a "Question of the Day" related to STEM experiences to occur later in the day. One example would be to ask, "How much rain do you think we will get today?" The children could indicate the number of inches they think will fall during the day. The teacher and the students could put out a rain gauge and check it the next day. The class could then analyze their guesses and compare it to the amount of rain that fell. Then the class could discuss if their predictions were too high or too low, etc..

    Figure 5.3: An example page from a sign-in binder.[9]

    A bit later, that same child is learning when he describes to the teacher his frustration that his “favorite tricycle is still being used by another child.” The teacher suggests what he might say to encourage the other child to explore how the two of them might cooperate. After that conversation, his learning continues as he ventures into the block area and takes on the challenge of turning a container of blocks and boxes into a gas station, negotiating varying roles in the pretend play with his friends. At lunch, when he pours milk into his glass using a small measuring cup, he is learning. Each moment of learning, in this example, emerged from thoughtful, intentional curriculum planning. Early childhood teachers plan such opportunities for young children to learn throughout the day.

    Teachers’ early childhood curriculum plans include the physical space as a context for learning. This means that teachers plan what, when, and how materials and furnishings are made available to the children for use. Teachers also plan the social environment—the roles, responsibilities, and guidance offered to children—during the daily routines and during moments of spontaneous interactions. A broad definition of curriculum includes the following components:

    • Play spaces designed as environments for learning
    • Care routines designed to invite children’s active participation
    • Interactions and conversations with children that support their understanding of themselves and others

    Play Spaces as Curriculum

    With play being central to the way in which children construct knowledge about the world around them, an important task for teachers is to develop play spaces thoughtfully and purposefully. Play spaces are children’s environments for learning. Seeing children as young scientists leads to the creation of play spaces that become the children’s laboratories for learning. Whether inside or outside, their play spaces are where they explore, experiment, and solve problems. Play spaces include materials and furnishings that invite children to figure out what the world is like and how it works. When early childhood teachers thoughtfully select and organize materials for play, they support an essential aspect of curriculum—self-initiated exploration, investigation, and invention of ideas. Jones and Reynolds (2011) list the varied roles assumed by early childhood teachers, one of which they call “stage manager.” This role means that the early childhood teacher purposely sets the stage for learning by selecting toys, furnishings, and materials that invite children to explore, experiment, and solve problems. In a well-designed early childhood program, the play environment holds immense possibilities for learning and creativity.

    Consider how the play environment provides a context for learning in the following vignette:


    Art Area Example:

    During a moment of play in the art area, infant teacher Joette watches as two-year-old Lucila picks up a wooden frame that encloses two sheets of blue plexi-glass. Lucila puts her eyes up close to the plexi-glass and peers through. She holds the frame out to Joette, gesturing for her to take it. Joette responds, “You want me to see what you saw, don’t you? I’d love to!” Joette looks through and exclaims, “I see everything blue! Here, your turn, Lucila.” Lucila looks through the block again. Another child walks up and reaches for a different frame, this one with yellow plexi-glass inside. The two children laugh together as they move the frames back and forth in front of their eyes. Teacher Joette watches and then picks up a third frame, which has red plastic sheets. She holds it near the window, and a red patch appears on the floor. She gestures to the two toddlers and says, “Oh, look what’s over here!” They rush to the red patch. Lucila steps onto the red and laughs with excitement. “It made red!” she says. “Yes!” says teacher Joette, “Will yours make a color on the floor, too? You want to try?” Lucila holds her frame to the sun, sees a blue spot, and says, “Yes, I made blue!”[10]

    Infant and Toddler Play Example:

    Here's a vignette illustrating how the play environment provides a context for STEM learning in a preschool setting for infants and toddlers:


    As the morning sun filters through the windows of the infant and toddler classroom, the play environment comes alive with the sounds of giggles, babbling, and the gentle hum of exploration. In one corner, a group of infants gathers around a sensory table filled with colorful balls of various sizes and textures. Their tiny hands reach out, grasping and squeezing the soft and bumpy balls, exploring the concepts of shape, texture, and cause-and-effect as they roll the balls back and forth.

    Nearby, a pair of toddlers engages in a collaborative building project, stacking oversized foam blocks to create a towering structure. They experiment with balance and stability, problem-solving as they adjust the blocks to prevent the structure from toppling over. Their laughter and animated conversations reveal their excitement and engagement in the process of building and creating.

    In another area, a caregiver sits with a small group of infants, introducing them to a set of brightly colored nesting cups. The infants watch intently as the caregiver demonstrates how to stack the cups from largest to smallest, exploring concepts of size, order, and spatial relationships. With gentle encouragement, the infants eagerly mimic the stacking action, delighting in the discovery of new patterns and sequences.

    As the morning progresses, the play environment continues to evolve, offering a myriad of opportunities for STEM learning. Infants and toddlers explore water play at the sensory table, investigating concepts of volume and buoyancy. They experiment with simple musical instruments, exploring sound and rhythm. They engage in outdoor exploration, observing nature and discovering the wonders of the natural world.

    Through play, the infants and toddlers in this classroom are immersed in a rich STEM learning environment. The play materials, activities, and interactions are carefully designed to stimulate curiosity, promote hands-on exploration, and foster the development of foundational STEM skills. In this nurturing and stimulating environment, every moment of play becomes a valuable opportunity for learning and discovery.

    How to incorporate the interests and skills of the children into the STEM environment was generated using OpenAI. (2024). ChatGPT (3.5) [Large language model].

    The above example illustrates how the environment provides a context for STEM learning for infants and toddlers. Think about how the environment can provide a context for STEM learning for preschool age children.

    It is easy to see evidence of the children’s thinking in this moment of play. They take full advantage of the materials available in this well-stocked play space designed to prompt play with colors and textures of materials. They notice the distinct features of the panes of translucent plastic. They compare them as they play. They use one item in relation to the other. They experience how they can use the different-colored panes to transform the shadows on the floor. They explore how the shapes change in space and how their actions cause different reactions. The inventions of one child are exchanged with those of the other. In this play space, children can be seen constructing concepts of shape, orientation, light, and transformation.

    Joette and her co-teachers supplied this art area with the same care that scientists might stock their laboratories. In the art interest area for toddlers, they placed an array of toys and materials that invite exploration and comparison of color, line, shape, and texture. They made certain that there were objects with similar features as well as distinct features, in order to challenge the toddlers’ emerging ability to sort one object from another. They gathered similar objects graduated in size, in order to challenge the toddlers to explore concepts of size and sequencing. In the collection were identical objects for creating pairs and for assembling many rather than few. The teachers made the materials easily available to the toddlers, on low shelves and in wide, shallow baskets and bins. A variety of containers were labeled, each holding a distinct type of object—objects made from paper in one; a collection of orange and red fabric pieces in another; a collection or blue fabric, feathers, and ribbons in another; and a collection of translucent colored frames in another.

    In the natural course of spontaneous play, toddlers encounter such materials and build relationships of identity, order, size, shape, number, and space. Many of the materials, like the collection of fabric pieces, are familiar to the toddlers, already available in the bins of the play space for many days. Other materials, like the long pieces of translucent cellophane paper in a variety of colors, have been recently added by teachers, with the hope of extending and adding complexity to the toddlers’ play with color.

    The new materials added to the play space are part of the teachers’ curriculum plan. During their weekly planning, Joette and her co-teachers discuss the observations they made of Lucila and her friends as the children explored the colored panes of plexi-glass. As the teachers interpreted the play, they wondered how to add some challenge and surprise to the toddlers’ enjoyment of making colored shadows on the floor with the sunlight and the translucent plastic. The subsequent curriculum plan held a question: “In what ways will the children explore the long lengths of colored cellophane that they discover in the art area?” The teachers wondered whether these new materials might provoke toddlers’ deeper exploration of relationships of size, space, and similarity and difference. The teachers explored possible questions to prompt toddlers’ experiments in transforming the primary colors in the yellow and the blue cellophane into the secondary color of green.

    Once the stage is set for play, teachers observe to discover what will ensue. At times, teachers might narrate what goes on as the children play, offering language related to the play. The teachers might also prompt new ways of looking at the materials, as Joette did when she held the colored pane near the window to catch the sunlight and cast a colored shadow. In this moment, she artfully scaffolded the toddlers’ learning by suggesting a new way of playing with the plexi-glass. A scaffold is a structure that allows someone to go higher in order to accomplish a task that the person could not have done alone. Teachers scaffold children’s play when they connect in shared knowing with children and support them in going further to figure something out.

    Environmental Factors in Supporting Math

    Here are some things to consider and remember when setting up your environment to support mathematical learning.

    Young children actively construct mathematical knowledge through everyday interactions with their environment. Setting up a high-quality physical environment is essential for children’s mathematical development. The preschool environment sets the stage for children’s physical and social exploration and construction of mathematical concepts. It should provide access to objects and materials that encourage children to experiment and learn about key mathematical concepts through everyday play.

    • Enrich the environment with developmentally appropriate, challenging, and engaging materials that promote mathematical growth
    • Integrate math-related materials into all interest areas in the classroom
    • Use materials, books, and real-life settings that reflect the culture, ways of life, and languages of the children in the group
    • Use children’s books to explore mathematics with children
    • Be intentional and mindful in setting up and using the physical environment (children do not effectively use materials and engage in experiences just because you provide them)[1]

    Environmental Design

    Rich learning environments with a variety of activities enhance young children’s learning and development. In an environment in which children have the opportunity to make observations, ask questions, plan investigations, gather and interpret information, and commu­nicate findings and ideas (CDE 2012b, 53), they explore concepts in domains such as science, math, and history–social science. Dance, music, and drama not only introduce children to the arts and allow them to explore creative processes, they also provide opportunities for children to learn to regulate their behavior and take the perspective of another person.[11]

    Creating Environments for Infants and Toddlers

    The infant/ toddler framework proposes the following play spaces to consider for an infant/toddler program:

    • A cozy area for books and stories
    • A small-muscle area
    • A sensory perception area
    • An active movement area
    • A creative expression area

    While you consider these areas in your classroom, think about how you will integrate STEM into these areas.

    Here is a sample infant/toddler classroom. See Appendix B for an older toddler classroom and for the corresponding blueprints.

    Figure 5.4: An infant/toddler classroom.[12]

    Creating Environments for Preschoolers

    The preschool framework offers the following list of suggested play spaces when creating a learning environment for children three to five years of age:

    • Dramatic play area
    • Block area
    • Art area
    • Book area
    • Writing area
    • Math area
    • Science/Sensory area
    • Family display area
    • Music/movement
    • Meeting area (for conferencing)

    Once again, as you think about the areas you will have in your classroom, reflect on how you will integrate STEM learning into the areas.

    Here is a sample preschool classroom. Additional sample classrooms for preschoolers and corresponding blueprints can be found in Appendix B.

    Figure 5.5: A preschool classroom.[13]

    In both cases, it is helpful to think of ways that the spaces can be used by two or three children together, one child alone, or an adult and one or two children, as well as larger areas for more exuberant group play. Providing opportunities for small configurations enables the play space to support growing social relationships and meet needs of children who prefer more defined space or space away from others. [14]

    Licensing Requirements for Indoor Preschool Classrooms

    All states have childcare and K-12 requirements. You may view licensing requirements specific to Wisconsin group childcare centers or specifically the Wisconsin requirements regarding plant and furnishings and the Wisconsin Department of Instruction (DPI) Facility Regulations.

    Here are a few of the licensing requirements to keep in mind when planning indoor environments for young children in California:

    • The program provides for quiet and active play, rest and relaxation, eating, and toileting. (101230)
    • 35 square feet of indoor activity space per child (not including bathrooms, halls, offices, food preparation areas, or storage. (101238)
    • That each child has individual storage space for clothing, personal belongings, and bedding. (101238).
    • Storage must be provided for play materials, equipment, and napping equipment. (101238)
    • Combustibles, cleaning equipment and cleaning agents shall be stored in an area separate from food supplies in a locked cabinet or in a location inaccessible to children. (101238)
    • Tables and chairs scaled to the size of children must be provided. (101239)
    • All play equipment and materials used by children must be age-appropriate. (101239)
    • Drinking water must be available freely to children. (101239)[15]

    Ensuring Quality in the Indoor Environment

    Tools, such as Environment Rating Scales, can be used to help ensure the environment is high quality. Here are some items that describe high-quality indoor environments for preschool-aged children according to the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS). A full checklist can be found in Appendix C.

    • Space is accessible to children and adults, including those with disabilities
    • There is ample space for the people and furnishings
    • Adequate storage and seating
    • Storage for play materials and personal belongings are accessible to children
    • Cozy spaces and other soft furnishings and materials are provided
    • At least five of the following centers are provided and accessible to children:
      • Art
      • Blocks
      • Dramatic Play
      • Reading
      • Nature/Science
      • Manipulatives/Fine Motor
    • Spaces for active and quiet activities are separated
    • There is more than one space for a child to have privacy
    • Children’s work makes up a majority of the classroom display
    • Diversity is featured throughout the space (people of different races, cultures, ages, abilities, and gender in non-stereotyping roles)
    • New materials are provided/rotated at least monthly
    • The following materials are provided to children
      • Books feature many topics/genres
      • Fine motor toys (such as building materials, puzzles, art materials, and manipulatives)
      • Art materials (such as drawing materials, paints, play dough, clay, collage materials, and tools)
      • Musical instruments and different types of music
      • Blocks (such as unit blocks, large hollow blocks, and homemade blocks) and accessories
      • Dramatic play equipment and props
      • Sand and water play equipment and materials (such as containers, funnels, scoops, and accessories)
      • Natural materials (such as collections, living things, books, games, toys, and tools)
      • Materials featuring numbers and shapes
    • All materials are organized and in good condition
    • Materials of differing levels of difficulty are provided[16]

    Outdoor Spaces

    The areas highlighted in the frameworks should be represented in outdoor play spaces as well. Materials may vary but all areas should be reflected in both the indoor and outdoor environments.

    Many outdoor spaces feature play equipment, such as what is shown in the following image, which is a great way to provide for children’s large motor play and exploration.

    Figure 5.6: An outdoor play area.[17]

    But materials and experiences that would typically be indoors can easily be taken outside as well.

    Figure 5.7: Caption: musical instruments can be explored indoors or outdoors[18]

    A variety of additional equipment can be purchased to expand children’s experiences outside, although a large budget is not required to create high quality outdoor spaces for young children.

    Figure 5.8: Sensory play is one of the most popular activities for young children. While this setup allows for many children to play, less elaborate spaces would still create quality experiences for children.[19]
    Figure 5.9: These children are busy building. Similar activities could be done with non-commercial materials.[20]

    Programs may choose to provide a playground made of natural materials to immerse children in nature as well.

    Figure 5.10: This preschool features nature heavily. Children can engage in many of the same experiences outdoors with these natural materials and “equipment.”[21]

    Licensing Requirements for Outdoor Preschool Classrooms

    All states have some type of licensing requirements for preschool environments. Outdoor Requirements for Wisconsin can be viewed here DCF 251.06 Physical plant and equipment. (11) OUTDOOR PLAY SPACE.

    The following are some licensing requirements that programs in California should incorporate in the design and planning for their outdoor space:

    • There shall be at least 75 square feet per child of outdoor activity space. (101238)
    • The outdoor space shall permit children to reach the space safely. (101238)
    • A shaded rest area should be provided. (101238)
    • The surface of the activity space shall be in a safe condition and free of hazards. (101238)
    • The areas around and under climbing equipment, swings slides and similar equipment shall be cushioned with material that absorbs falls. (101238)
    • Equipment and activity areas shall be arranged so that there is no hazard from conflicting activities. (101238)
    • Sandboxes shall be inspected daily and kept free of foreign materials. (101238)
    • The playground shall be enclosed by a fence at least four feet high. (101238)
    • Hazardous equipment such as a fuse box shall be inaccessible. (101238)[22]

    Ensuring the Quality of the Outdoor Environment

    According to the ECERS, here are some items that describe high quality outdoor spaces for children. See Appendix C for the full checklist:

    • There is adequate space for gross motor play
    • The space is easily accessible to children
    • The space is organized so activities do not interfere with one another
    • The following materials are included
      • Stationary equipment (such as, swings, slides, climbing equipment)
      • Portable equipment (such as, wheeled toys, mats, jump ropes, bean bags, balls)
      • Equipment that stimulates
        • § Balancing
        • § Climbing
        • § Ball play
        • § Steering
        • § Tumbling
        • § Jumping
        • § Throwing
        • § Pedaling
    • Equipment provides skill development at multiple levels
    • Enough equipment that children do not have to wait long to play
    • Equipment is in good repair
    • Equipment is appropriate for the age and ability of the children
    • Adaptations are made for children with disabilities[23]

    The environment and how it is set up is as important as the activities and interactions the teachers plan in supporting the development of learning in all domains.

    Pause to Reflect

    How Does the Outdoor Environment Foster Development?

    Taking children on nature walks keeps them grounded and allows us an opportunity to nurture their connection to the natural world. Expressing positive emotions promotes a natural curiosity and appreciation of our cosmological (relating to the origin and development of the universe.) family. Ask questions, encourage their inquisitive nature, and foster their imagination to build a life-long relationship with the outdoors.


    [1] California Preschool Program Guidelines by the California Department of Education is used with permission

    [2] Image by Senior Airman Brittany A. Chase is in the public domain

    [3] California Preschool Program Guidelines by the California Department of Education is used with permission (pg. 40-45)

    [4] Australian Government Department of Education (n.d.) Educator My Time, Our Place. Retrieved from (p. 48)

    [5] The Integrated Nature of Learning by the California Department of Education is used with permission

    [6] Reading Room (n.d.). The Theory of Loose Parts by the Reading Room. Retrieved from

    [7] The Integrated Nature of Learning by the California Department of Education is used with permission (pg. 19-21)

    [8] Content by Kristin Beeve is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    [9] The Integrated Nature of Learning by the California Department of Education is used with permission

    [10] The Integrated Nature of Learning by the California Department of Education is used with permission

    [11] California Preschool Program Guidelines by the California Department of Education is used with permission (pg 2)

    [12] Image by Community Playthings is used with permission

    [13] Image by Community Playthings is used with permission

    [14] The Integrated Nature of Learning by the California Department of Education is used with permission (pg. 24-29)

    [15] Child Care Center General Licensing Requirements is in the public domain

    [16] MiraCosta College (n.d.). Preschool Environment Checklist. Retrieved from

    [17] Image by Staff Sgt. Nathan Bright is in the public domain

    [18] Image by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is in the public domain

    [19] Image by Community Playthings is used with permission

    [20] Image by Community Playthings is used with permission

    [21] Image by Jim Triezenberg is licensed under CC BY 3.0

    [22] Child Care Center General Licensing Requirements is in the public domain

    [23] MiraCosta College (n.d.). Preschool Environment Checklist. Retrieved from

    3.1: The Learning Environment is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vicki Tanck (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College).