The classroom learning environment is the physical space that supports and shapes the curriculum. It can have a profound effect on individual children and the group. Our classrooms are designed to be safe, warm, and inviting to help children engage in learning activities and to support their development.
The classroom should be divided into different areas to give children opportunities to explore, make things, experiment, and pursue their interests. There should be spaces for large and small-group activities. Science and art activities should take place in specific areas set up for wet and messy play. Other areas should include dramatic play, block building, large-muscle activities, and a quiet area that is inviting to the children, visible to staff, and easily accessible to a child who seeks or needs time alone.
Designing effective classroom environments includes arranging the physical structure of the classroom to increase appropriate behaviors, such as engagement, and decrease the probability of challenging behaviors. Strategies for structuring the classroom include:
Arrange the classroom to ensure visual monitoring of children, support children’s appropriate behaviors (e.g., limit the number of children in a center), and facilitate smooth transitions between activities (e.g., organize the location of materials on shelves). Arrange materials to promote engagement, mastery, and independence.
Make sure toys and materials are accessible, appropriate, and available to facilitate children’s independence (which decreases the likelihood of challenging behaviors).
Attend to details such as the lighting, temperature, and noise levels to reduce problem behaviors from children who are sensitive to these environmental factors.
Manage traffic patterns. Minimize large open spaces and obstacles. Fences help organize the physical environment.
Universal Design is an approach to creating environments that are usable and accessible to the widest possible range of people, including those with disabilities. In an early childhood classroom, Universal Design can be used to ensure all children have equal access to learning opportunities and resources. Here are some ways you can use Universal Design:
Provide a variety of learning materials that appeal to different learning styles, including visual, auditory, and tactile. This can include books, posters, videos, music, and manipulatives.
Use multiple strategies to present information, including visual aids, pictures, and real-life examples. This can help children who have difficulty with traditional methods of learning.
Offer different seating options, such as cushions, beanbags, and chairs, to accommodate different needs and preferences.
Encourage children to work together in groups and pairs. Provide opportunities for peer teaching and support.
Consider the diverse needs and abilities of all children in the classroom and adapt activities and materials as needed.
Learning centers are interest-based areas within the classroom where children learn by playing and engaging in activities. Subdividing the classroom into spaces that accommodate a few children at a time addresses some children’s preference for small-group settings.
Children need time to think and to manipulate materials for deep learning to occur. Every classroom schedule should include time at learning centers, with open-ended activities and hands-on materials that promote the development of emerging skills for each child.
Learning centers should include:
music and movement center, with instruments
engineering center with blocks and building materials
manipulative/math center where children can sort, classify, and count
science center to carry out scientific inquiry
dramatic arts center with pretend household items and dress-up
literacy center with books and listening library
art center with paints and easels
sensory center with plenty to touch
an outdoor classroom
When designing learning centers:
Have clear boundaries so that children know where the center begins/ends, and they are not crowded together.
Make sure all children are visible to adults and adults are visible to children.
Indicate a closed center by using visual prompts such as sheets or blankets, circles with a slash through them, etc.
Have enough centers for the number of children in your care and enough materials for each center so children are engaged and not arguing over materials.
Consider the size and location of centers. Avoid locating a high-action center (block center, dramatic play) close to one with quieter activities (listening centers, etc.).
Use developmentally appropriate and creative ways to limit the number of children in centers if necessary (for example, laminated cards containing children’s names that can be moved into pockets at the center as opposed to a sign saying “2 children only”).
Organize materials and keep them in appropriate places. Consider children’s independence skill level when choosing locations.
Have centers organized and ready to go when children arrive.
equipment + materials
Toys help children learn by challenging them to figure out how things work, testing new thoughts and ideas, using their imaginations, and developing problem-solving skills. To ensure an environment conducive to learning, all the equipment and materials at First Circle must:
Be plentiful in quantity and variety to engage all children and encourage both active physical and quiet play activities
Be visible, readily accessible to children, and arranged for independent access
Promote imagination and creativity (for example blocks, sand, water, play dough, manipulatives, and art materials)
Pay attention to the materials and activities in each center. Learning centers need to be meaningful, engaging, and interesting to children. Materials in the classroom should be:
Plentiful enough for several children to use at one time. Materials should be age-appropriate, print-rich, colorful, and durable.
Open-ended — usable in multiple ways, such as blocks, art materials, and fabric pieces.
Kept at eye-level in an orderly way to use space productively and teach children to care for their space and possessions.
Relevant to children’s needs, interests, and lives (for example, within the dramatic play area, culturally appropriate materials should be available; the pictures on puzzles and in the classroom library should reflect the diversity within your classroom, etc.) There should also be culturally meaningful activities and materials with labels in different languages around the classroom.
Based on activities that children enjoy or express an interest in. If children tend to stay in one or two centers, it may mean that the other centers are not engaging or interesting them.
Varied in each center. Related books can be put in every center (for example, books on animals can be placed in the reading center; magazines can be placed in the dramatic play area designed as a veterinarian’s office; a book about the post office can be placed in the writing center). Writing utensils and paper also can be in multiple centers (for example, in the dramatic play area, the writing center, or near the computers). Be creative.
Changed on a regular basis. The post office set up in the dramatic play area might be interesting and engaging at the beginning of the year but will be old and boring if it is still there in the spring. Listen to what children are talking about. Create centers that build on their interests. Rotate materials within a center. Let children help you choose the materials.
Outdoors children play, practice, and master emerging physical skills. First Circle has expansive playgrounds divided by age range. Children can run, leap, jump, swing, climb, ride, push or pull moving toys, throw, kick, and catch balls.
By committing to learning inside and outside the classroom, we are teaching children that learning occurs everywhere. As much as possible, we should bring learning outdoors, and help children experience elements of nature hands-on. Natural environments allow children to explore and learn in ways not possible indoors. The outdoors offers diverse learning opportunities, increases health and well-being, and allows children to experience active physical play they need to grow and develop. Outdoor play and learning also help children:
appreciate nature and the environment
practice social skills as they play together, take turns, and cooperate
use language and communication skills as they invent, modify, and play games
develop math skills and number relationships, as we count or keep score
build resilience and adaptability
identify hazards and risks
develop self-awareness, confidence, and self-esteem
Outdoor activities you can do with children:
Go on nature walks to explore the environment. Encourage children to use their senses to observe and discover plants, animals, and other natural features.
Plant flowers, fruits, or vegetables in a garden area. This activity can help children learn about the environment, develop fine motor skills, and promote healthy habits.
Organize scavenger hunts where they can search for objects such as leaves, flowers, or rocks. This activity can help develop problem-solving skills and promote exploration.
Play games that promote physical activity and gross motor skills such as tag, hide and seek, or Simon Says.
Create sensory play stations using materials such as sand, water, or mud. This activity can help develop fine motor skills and promote sensory exploration.
Provide materials such as chalk, paint, or markers for children to create outdoor art. This activity can help develop creativity and fine motor skills.
Use music and movement activities such as dancing, marching, or playing instruments. This activity can help develop gross motor skills and promote creativity.
Read books in an outdoor area such as under a tree. This activity can help develop language skills and promote a love of learning.
Set up water play stations using materials such as water tables, sprinklers, or pools. This activity can help develop gross motor skills and promote sensory exploration.
Remember to prioritize safety when planning and conducting outdoor activities, and to supervise and support the children in your care.