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A Study of Early Childhood Program Environments

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1 A Study of Early Childhood Program Environments
Deb Curtis and Margie Carter © Harvest Resources Click mouse to advance each slide

2 Environments reflect who we are
What does an early childhood environment teach those who inhabit it as an everyday space? In a direct as well as subtle manner, the environment teaches us about the values and knowledge of those who design and care for it. The physical space and materials, the routines and interactions all reflect how those in charge view childhood and the process of teaching, learning, and building relationships. The environment teaches us about ourselves, as teachers, children and families. It regulates our feelings and behaviors, and shapes a significant part of our identity.

3 What values do you think the teachers who designed this space have?
What do they think children, their families and their own work deserve? If children were to spend long hours in this space every day, how might they feel about themselves? What might they be prompted to do?

4 Every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who use a space and the activities that take place there. For example, having individual desks rather than group children at tables suggests that the teacher believes children learn best in isolation from one another, and values individual work over group activities. Thoughtfully planned or not, each environment also influences the people who use it in subtle or dramatic ways. An environment may temporarily over-stimulate or bore, calm or agitate those in it. Spending an extended period of one’s life in an environment deemed unpleasant will eventually exact a toll. In the twenty first century, children spend thousands of hours in early childhood programs. What impact will this have on their identities, their desire to form relationships, investigate materials and ideas, their right to stay connected to their families?

5 Identifying Key Elements for the Environment
What are the elements of physical and social emotional environments that reflect a respect for childhood and the people who care for and teach our youngest citizens? How can the environment nurture a sense of well-being and positive identity development for all involved? What arrangements and materials will provoke a sense of wonder, sustain an eagerness to learn, and a delight in collaborative inquiry?

6 Cozy and homelike elements to build relationships
When your environment has a cozy, homelike feel that brings out strong connections among the people there, they will experience a sense of belonging and security. Throughout your building you can create a sense of softness in your selection of color, furnishings, lighting, and materials. You can add specific features that represent the interests, families, and cultures of the children and staff. Indoors and outdoors you can create places for people to comfortably gather, get to know each other, and find avenues for further connections. Providing opportunities for people to build relationships, to collaborate and demonstrate what they know can guide your selection of equipment and materials.

7 Study these photos of early childhood programs and make a list of the elements that add a cozy home like feel to the environments.








15 A simple strategy for creating a welcoming feeling in your program is to have framed photos of the children and their families all around the rooms. Children can carry them around and use them throughout the day.


17 The toddlers in this program find the photos of their family members to comfort them throughout the day. James is taking this family photo to a friend who is feeling sad and crying.

18 These family boards become a daily part of the curriculum for the toddlers. The children interact with their own family photos as well as those of their friends.

19 To help the children and families learn more about the staff, this programs gives each staff member her/his own shelf to display photos and special objects from their lives.

20 Consider the cozy and homelike elements of your own early childhood environment with these questions. Where in this space can one learn more about others and build relationships with them? Are there a number of soft elements in your physical space through the use of light, color, and seating options? What contributions can you invite from families that add their interests and values to your environment?

21 Flexible space and open-ended materials
Children come to our programs with active bodies as well as active imaginations. Creating multilevel spaces inside, as well as on the playground, gives children different ways to explore spatial relationships with their bodies. Modular furniture that can be turned and stacked in different ways will provide more flexibility than furniture that is designed for a single use. Offering open-ended materials in a variety of areas will spark children’s imaginations and speak to their desire to continually rearrange and combine materials for exploration and inventions.

22 A platform and a steamer trunk can be moved around and be used for small and large group gatherings, different leveled surfaces for building and construction and for extra storage space.

23 Open shelving in the corner of a room can create a flexible separate space for small group work.

24 Bring indoor materials outside to take advantage of natural light and fresh air, protected against the elements.



27 Platforms, pulleys, fabric and lights add layers of complexity to entice builders.

28 Even in small rooms, space can be flexible and children can continue their work over time.

29 Open-ended materials allow children to be creators, rather than consumers of their learning. Careful and attractive displays help them to see the possibilities for the materials.

30 Open-ended materials in the drama area offer more possibilities for dramatic play beyond the typical housekeeping roles.

31 Consider the flexible space and open-ended elements of your own early childhood environment with these questions. What message does this environment give children about how they should use their bodies? Are the indoor and outdoor areas flexible so they can be transformed for a variety of uses? Where are there opportunities for individual children to get away from it all and relax? How can we create more opportunities for undertakings among a pair or small group of children? Do we have a useful balance of open-ended materials and single purpose ones indoors and outdoors?

32 Natural elements that engage our senses
When you contrast something as simple as a shelf of plastic baskets with a shelf containing natural fiber baskets, the different sensory experience is immediately apparent. There are many ways to incorporate plants, water, natural light, herbs, and fresh air into your building. Landscaping should get as much attention on your playground as the equipment and toys you place there.













45 Consider the natural elements of your own early childhood environment with these questions.
What natural materials are found in your community, yet missing in your program? What natural materials uncommon to your area could you include? What seasonal traditions or rituals could help children become more closely connected to Mother Nature and the life cycle?

46 Objects to provoke wonder, curiosity, and intellectual engagement
Children are intensely fascinated with the physical world and how it works. You can simultaneously honor childhood and promote a love of learning by adding different kinds of engaging discoveries to your environment. This is especially effective when you include things that provide a sense of mystery and wonder so that children become curious about how they work, where they come from, and what can be learned by manipulating them. Examples include things that play with light and its relationship to color, or things that reflect, sparkle, spin, make sounds, and move. You can use natural light, air, projectors, and other simple technology to build these features into your environment. Create nooks where you can place intriguing objects to keep those brain pathways growing and expanding.

47 Study this photo and the ones that follow to make a list of the elements that provoke a feeling of wonder, curiosity and intellectual engagement for the children using these spaces. Choose one to add to your environment next week.








55 Objects to provoke wonder, curiosity, and intellectual engagement
Where does air naturally move in our room, and what could we place nearby to capture elements of sound and motion to peak the interest of those around? Are there ways we could make better use of light to explore shadows, reflections, and color refractions? How can we use nooks and crannies, windowsills, or countertops to display treasures to capture someone’s imagination?

56 Symbolic representation, literacy, and visual arts
Beyond the limited notions of reading and writing materials, consider a wide range of other materials including magazines, newspapers, charts, diagrams, reference and instruction books. Include materials that support children growing up in a multicultural, multilingual world. Literacy involves unlocking a system of symbols and codes and this should include a variety of materials related to the visual arts. Provide opportunities and materials for children to represent their ideas using a different media.

57 Provide writing props throughout the environment

58 Provide journals and books featuring the children and their activities


60 Provide mail boxes for each child and family



63 Offer reference books with materials




67 Offer tools for working with visual arts





72 Engage children in book making

73 Help children connect writing with their other representations



76 Exposure children to artists and their work

77 Consider the elements of symbolic representation, literacy, and visual arts
How will children know that you value image making and the visual arts? Are there examples of different symbols and representations of the same idea or object? Where are there tools in your room for symbolic representation and image making? What in your environment tells children that we see them as readers, writers, decoders, and visual artists?

78 Consider the Key Elements You Have Studied Here
What could you do differently on Monday morning? What might you add to your classroom? What might be good to remove? What changes do you want to make by the start of the next school year?

79 For permission to use these slides,
please contact Harvest Resources

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