The Early Childhood Classroom Environment: Your Silent Teaching Partner

By Molly Breen

The Early Childhood Classroom Environment: Your Silent Teaching PartnerIn graduate school, I learned about a preschool teacher who, at the beginning of the school year and after all subsequent resetting of the classroom, would “walk” the entire classroom on her knees to perceive the environment from the vantage point of a preschooler. This thorough (and kind of hilarious) approach to really seeing the environment in service to learning and developmentally appropriate practice is a great reminder that our classroom environments are our silent teaching partners. All too often, the setup of our environments gets overlooked as integral architecture to our teaching and kids’ experiential learning, and instead we treat it as a series of checked boxes: Blocks? Check. Books? Check. Play dough? Check.

Our planned classroom activities, and even our morning meetings/circle times/shared learning, should be purposeful, thoughtfully planned, and flexible in order to best meet the needs of the children engaging with them. When we plan our environments and provocations to be open-ended, compelling, and inspiring, we cannot predict what children might do with them and how kids might creatively extend their own learning. As “guides on the side,” it is our job to prepare our environments with thoughtful attention to design and child development.

Setting the Environment and Choosing Activities: Keys to Purposeful, Playful Learning

When we set up our environments and classroom activities, we must first consider the intention: What purpose do we intend the environment or activity to serve? Some questions to consider may include several of these:

  • Which developmental domain(s) does this activity support?
  • How many children can be involved? (Is this explicit or implicit?)
  • Is the choice of materials self-correcting and/or open-ended?
  • Does the environment reflect the values of the school/center?
  • Is the environment and/or activity safe and compliant with state standards?

If we are deliberate about our answers to these questions, we can better crystallize our intentions.

Next, consider how our choice of materials can activate learning. Activating learning is a transfer of accountability from the teacher as designer to the student as capable learner. That means leaving space for children to interpret and iterate upon the original idea. For example, in your setting, collaborative problem-solving may be a program value that you wish to convey in play-based learning. Blocks are an excellent, open-ended material (problem to be solved) that can be used by several students at once (collaborative), depending on the size of the play area and the quantity of materials. To activate learning, you may consider adding writing or drawing materials to the block area so students can design and plan (we love to use graph paper on a clipboard in the block area) and books about building or architecture to inspire ideas. Throw in some unexpected materials like short lengths of rope or pipe cleaners (suspension bridge?) and fabric to inspire creative problem-solving in building.

In my setting, we do a lot of three-dimensional provocations and set them up to include mixed materials. For example, instead of setting up translucent magnetic tiles on our light table in a simple geometric shape, we might set them up as a house and add smaller nonmagnetic blocks as play furniture and little rubber people and animals as residents. Depending on our curricular content, we might choose materials differently (dinosaurs instead of people or spiders instead of dogs and cats). Whether or not our students choose to interact with the provocation in the intended way becomes less important than their creative use of materials, space, and curricular content.

Once we have connected our intention to the use of materials, observation becomes the most important tool to measure the success of a planned activity. Observation can be employed in two basic ways: informally and formally. Informal observation includes noting how a provocation or activity is used (or not used) by students, reflection and conversation with other teachers, and refining or retooling if necessary. Formal observation includes using an observation rubric. This can be a simple form, which is useful for schools that share spaces between different groups of children; with a rubric, teachers can compare notes.

An example rubric for environmental observation could include:

  • intention of activity/provocation
  • materials used
  • placement of activity/provocation
  • maximum number of children at activity/provocation
  • number of times activity/provocation is used during classroom period
  • length of time available/versus played with by a single child
  • length of time available/versus played with by a group of children
  • challenges
  • iterations (ways children modified or changed the activity/provocation; include photos, if possible)

If you find that a provocation or activity is seldom being used (or is being modified into a dangerous projectile), it is likely time to change it out for something else. Take cues from the kids about what they are interested in doing and then provide opportunities for them to go deeper (or go different) with their investigations. A value in our setting is to “think with things,” so it’s a good idea to do a lot of tinkering and provide plenty of flexible, open-ended materials that kids can use in ways that suit their interests. There is excellent, credible research regarding the importance of play and learning with open-ended materials, including loose parts. Some items that are always useful and are easy to find include:

  • cardboard tubes
  • caps and lids
  • beads
  • fake gems
  • tape
  • buttons
  • pine cones
  • stones
  • shells

Using loose parts means you don’t have to do a major reset of the classroom environment every time you change your curricular focus or “big ideas.” This approach is also flexible to change and allows for multiple pathways to connection and learning. Sounds good to me!

Through thoughtful planning, checking our intentions and connecting them to our choices of activities and materials, and observing what works and what needs modification, we may not have to bust out our old kneepads to get an authentic view of our rooms.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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One Response to The Early Childhood Classroom Environment: Your Silent Teaching Partner

  1. hlhivy says:

    Interesting! I shared the link with my “methods and materials for gifted” grad students- can’t wait to discuss their reactions in our next class.

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