In my previous blog on ‘Effects of the pandemic’, I described some of the ways in which the pandemic has affected children, with settings reporting an impact in areas such as personal, social and emotional development, communication and language and physical development, along with some ways of overcoming these challenges. Here we will look at more ways to aid learning and development using the environment.
Creating the right environment
The environment is often referred to as the third teacher. It should reflect the children’s interests and needs. Using children’s interests is how best to target learning as you will be able to hold their attention for longer. The environment should build children’s curiosity, imagination, motivate them and invite them into deep-level play.
Things to consider when thinking about the environment
To start off, we need to focus on children’s well-being. However, these ideas can aid staff well-being too. Putting yourself in the children’s shoes, taking a step back, observing and noting the environment at different times of the day, helps you discover how the environment affects everyone. Take note of the noise level, is it too much? Is there natural light? Does it feel warm and welcoming? Are you drawn to one area or do not know where to go (this might be because there is too much to take in)? Is there somewhere to sit comfortably? Are people happy or sad and how does this affect your feelings? Is there space to play? Is there a quiet and cosy area? Is there a space to run, shout and generally expel energy and feelings? Getting this right will enable children to settle into the environment and be ready to learn.
Some things may be beyond your control, such as natural light if your setting is located in a basement for instance. Overly noisy settings can be due to the acoustics of a room or children excited about their play. Problem solving as much as possible can help us to create the best environments possible. For example, offering more outdoor play if your indoor environment is often noisy.
To create an environment that makes children (and staff) feel comfortable, warm, relaxed, focused and happy, you can create cosy areas using rugs, cushions, a snuggle chair or draping fabric from the ceiling. Ensure resources have proper homes and can be tidied away when children have finished using them using storage units or baskets. Low level storage units promote independence and confidence. Where possible, free flow into the garden to encourage children to self-regulate and maintain general well-being. Ensure children have room to move and create. Have an uncluttered welcoming area, particularly if you are maintaining doorstep drop off. Have somewhere for children’s coats/bags/lunch boxes to be stored and use plants as they naturally provide a calming feel.
Promoting key skills through the environment
Aiding children to share and take turns can be promoted at various times throughout the day and with various activities. For instance, taking turns to use the soap dispenser, sharing snacks between peers, sharing toys or playing games.
A language rich environment
Children’s speech and language skills will be developed all day every day and you are the main tool for this whilst children are in your care. Many resources can be used to support this. You will need to look at children’s individual interests to invite and encourage them to speak. General resources could be role-play areas, voice recorders, small world figures, telephones and, of course, stories. You can make your own resources too, such as photo albums of each child and their family; display books of trips undertaken with the children or photos displayed of the children at play.
The outdoor environment
The outdoor environment must be included, especially as settings have reported less confidence and ability to use gross motor skills. Even the smallest space is precious so use the floor and some of the vertical space you have. Have some continuous provision so children know what to expect and can revisit their play daily. Popular items include sand trays/pits, water trays and mud kitchens. To promote gross motor skills, work with your space. Provide resources for balancing, throwing and catching, or brooms that can easily be used in small spaces. Larger spaces can have climbing frames, bikes and much more.
Outdoor space solutions
When thinking about vertical space, some settings have space for chalk boards or painting easels, whilst others make the most of limited space by mounting things onto the walls. Water walls can be homemade using guttering and funnels or if you are limited on time, you may wish to purchase one. You can paint the walls with water if not paint.
Outdoor learning opportunities
Link all seven areas of learning and development to your outside space when you can. Items such as large construction bricks for mathematical development, a wigwam or tent for a cosy space to self-regulate, bug hunting kits with identification books/sheets for understanding the world, sensory equipment or mirrors for babies, spray bottles or pegs for fine motor skills, mark making tools or outdoor posters for literacy, dressing-up such as construction outfits for expressive arts and design and bubbles for communication and language.
Many resources cross over learning areas so if you have limited space, use resources that are versatile, and your teaching will aim for any specific learning. Loose parts are great versatile resources, and you can source these for free or little money from people you know, charity shops, car boot sales etc.
Focusing on the prime areas of learning both in and outdoors and ensuring that your environment naturally focuses on these areas, will help close any gaps. You will be able to weave in the specific areas into play through your environment and teaching.
Finally, remember the characteristics of effective teaching and learning and ensure you are offering opportunities for children to develop these through their play. These form the foundations to learning. A good example is making children curious through your environment. As children develop these characteristics, they will be more focused and concentrate for longer, learn to problem solve and use their body physically, learn about the world around them and listen to a skilful practitioner who can extend their learning in the moment. Children’s experiences have been limited due to the pandemic so providing a wide range of experiences and creating an enabling environment will aid all seven areas of learning and development, allowing children to make good progress.
Article written by Philippa Hines
With thanks to Philippa Hines, an Early Years Consultant and trainer, for writing this article. Philippa has past experience of working as a practitioner and nursery manager and also works with Rutland Early Years Agency who regulate childminders across much of England.
Loved this article?
Read Philippa’s next blog on ‘Effects of the Pandemic on Children in the Early Years’.