As a 35-year veteran preschool teacher, I’ve worked through many theories about what makes for an effective setup of a learning environment. Today’s children have a wider exposure to technology and spend more time indoors. This influences their style of learning. We need to set up our areas considering the holistic child and individual children’s interests, needs and abilities.
Theories evolve, but what remains constant are the practical lessons that we early childhood educators pick up from simple repetition, trial and error.
Every educator has their own preferences that they, rightfully, implement to ensure the space allows them to deliver their lessons as effectively as possible. There are a number of principles that one can follow to ensure you get a head-start to the year.
Create a Welcoming Feel
First impressions are the most important impressions you’ll ever make. Create an area where parents can converse with each other by having a lounge or adult sized chairs. They will immediately feel that are part of this learning environment. If the environment is set up to create bright, warm and interesting areas, children and parents will be enthusiastic to join in.
Having an abundance of resources out can create a cluttered and uninviting atmosphere. Clutter can also create anxiety. If children and their parents are able to walk into the learning environment and are struck immediately by how inviting, clean and organized the room is, they will be immediately put at ease.
Organizing Learning Centers
When setting up learning centers, consider the noise level, movement of children, the amount of resources available and the type of activity that is planned. For example, position learning centers where children are engaged in quiet activities, such as book corner, away from learning areas promoting social group interactions and conversations, such as dramatic play areas. This encourages concentration, focus and respect for the children undertaking different styles of learning.
I prefer to group the messier activities, such as painting and collage, close to the bathroom. This allows the children to be creative and possibly messy and to clean up without interfering with the other activities in the room.
Be creative and flexible with your learning centers
As the children settle in and feel comfortable and secure in their familiar environment, you can continue their interest by changing the location of your learning centers. If the weather is unsatisfactory outside, you can always ‘bring outside in’. For example, the children enjoy a sand trough experience indoors and pretending we’re at the beach.
Similarly, an indoor learning center can be set up outside. For example, your creative art center can be inviting to set up under a tree. This way your indoor and outdoor areas are blended and can be considered as an entire learning environment.
Ensure that your learning areas are set up to facilitate easy movement around the room, avoiding interference when transitioning between activities.
When establishing your classroom rules at the beginning of the year, include walking between activities.
When designing your learning center layout, consider the number of children at each area. Invariably, some activities will be more popular than others.
One way of ensuring the appropriate numbers of children are involved within a learning center is to have a sign with a diagram of the appropriate number for the activity. For example, a diagram of six heads if the activity caters for a maximum of six children.
For the more popular activities, this can mean that we need to encourage fairness, patience, sharing and resilience.
Create an Engaging Book Area
The book area is one of the most crucial areas of the room, where children can bask in the wonderment and escapism of reading with a teacher or together as a small group.
For this reason, I like to have a comfortable couch, which allows a teacher to sit with one or more children, along with cushions for others to sit in the area and listen if they desire.
Treating the book area with reverence instils an appreciation for books within the children and I encourage this at every available opportunity.
In the book area, I ensure all the books are neatly displayed, with the covers showing, on shelves. This way, the children can easily select books that appeal to them. It also creates the expectation that they will treat the books well and return them to the shelves in an orderly fashion.
Make Use of Natural Light
There are notable benefits, if you can, to centering your learning areas in parts of the classroom that receive good natural light, ideally close to a window. I like to use natural light as much as possible. Avoid placing furniture where children’s view of the outside is restricted.
The learning opportunities often take a new direction. For example, watching the light reflecting from shiny sequins on a child’s clothing onto the table top. Playing with shadows indoors can be a different learning to outdoors. When we use natural light, we may be able to turn off artificial lighting, encouraging the children to consider the environment.
As a teacher we need to ensure that each learning center promotes the learning outcomes to the greatest possible degree.
Play is the single most important element of the preschool experience. We must encourage play and ensure children have the opportunity to experience a wide variety of play activities with others, alone, inside and outside.
If we take the time to think through the ideal setup before the children come into our classroom for the first time, it paves the way for a much smoother, stress-free year of teaching.