This chapter aligns with student learning outcome (SLO) # 2: describe the role of play in early childhood programs and SLO #6: describe the observation, assessment, and teaching cycle used to plan curriculum for all young children.
Children live, play and learn in many different settings. Home, childcare, school, the local park, while out in public. They are constantly learning based on cultural and social expectation as well and what each environment offers for learning opportunities. An early childhood program is a special setting that helps children learn and grow. The job of the early childhood education teacher is to create a safe space that supports learning through all developmental domains (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, and Social). This chapter will outline some practices that an early childhood professional can do to develop a quality early learning environment.
- Understanding how teachers must manage space, materials and time in an early learning environment both indoors and outdoors.
- Understanding and defining the characteristics of activity zones in both indoor and outdoor environments.
- Taking a closer look into the impact materials chosen, have in an early learning environment including suggestions on how to use “loose parts”.
- How minor additions can impact the environment in positive ways.
- Addressing accessibility in the outdoor learning space.
In addition to terms found in the preface to the text, this chapter introduces terminology including:
- Environment: the totality of surroundings in which something exists or lives.
- Activity Zone: A defined space with a topic of interest like blocks, art, and dramatic play. Also known as learning centers or interest areas
- Aesthetics: creating an attractive or pleasing place in appearance.
- Boundaries: the physical separations between activity zones. Can use furniture, shelves or other dividers as boundaries.
- Licensing: A set of rules, and regulation that are in place to ensure safe and healthy learning spaces for young children. Licensing is overseen by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families Licensing Division.
- Loose parts: open-ended play materials that children can use for construction or art.
- Routine: activities that occur every day in a pattern such as snack, lunch, restrooms time, outdoor free play and nap time.
- Schedule: the overall big picture of the activities of the day’s events in a classroom or environment.
- Transition: occurs when one activity ends and the next one begins. Usually involves physical movement from one area of the room to another or indoors to outdoors.
When you think of an environment, what comes to mind?
A general definition of an environment is: the totality of surroundings in which something exists or lives (dictionary, nd). However, Head Start defines the early learning environment as: nurturing spaces that support the development of all young children. They include classrooms, play spaces, areas for caregiving routines, and outdoor areas. They are well-organized settings that offer developmentally appropriate lesson plans that include indoor and outdoor chances for play, exploration, and experimentation. The environment includes age-appropriate equipment, materials, and supplies, and integrates home cultures. The spaces should be flexible to support the changing ages, interests, and characteristics of a group of children over time (2020).
An early learning environment should include the following and more.
- Eat and snack
- be alone or with others
An early learning environment consists of both indoor and outdoor spaces that support learning, are developmentally appropriate, and safe for children to explore. They include places for group learning, break out spaces for small group learning, table groupings to facilitate social learning, and space for children to be alone if they wish.
Environments affect our mood, our ability to form relationships, our effectiveness in work and play, and our health. If a child enters care as an infant, the time ultimately spent in an early learning environment may far exceed the time spent in elementary or secondary school combined (Isbell & Exelby, 2001). Therefore, the environment is an essential element to a quality early learning program and can have a tremendous influence on children’s development.
Each environment will have a feel and characteristics all its own. They will reflect the values and philosophy of those that work in it. Environments must reflect the diversity of the children and families served and offer opportunities for children that are developmentally appropriate and align with professional standards.
The goal of this chapter is not to suggest a cookie cutter approach to environmental design, but rather to raise awareness of the variables that can influence the quality of an environment for young children and allow the reader to dream of their perfect environment. Yes, there are elements that are better for children, but the design, feel, and identify of the environment should be as unique as those creating it and for those that will learn in it.