I’ve been thinking a lot about environments lately. Specifically, inspiring and wonder-filled indoor environments. Environments where people walk in and feel calm, welcomed and inspired. Environments that foster learning and passion. Environments that are beautiful and natural and interesting. And as I’ve been thinking about them, I’ve been looking at our environments with new eyes, and thinking about what I know about the importance of environments for children’s learning and engagement.
So what makes a “good” environment for children? The trouble with this question is that so much of the answer is subjective – what I find beautiful and inspiring is different to what you will find beautiful and inspiring. What fills me with a sense of awe and wonder is different to what fills you with a sense of awe and wonder. Add to these two opinions the opinions of six other educators and sixty children, and suddenly the environment is far from engaging and inspiring. In fact, it’s a right old mess.
This is the challenge faced by educators in all early childhood environments – how do we find the connections, how do we find the common ground to create a space that inspires and embraces?
The beauty of the environments at Flinders is that we are working with such a great foundation. All our buildings are generously proportioned and purpose built. We have great natural light and lots of flexibility, which allows us, the educators, to be creative with the space. It is our job as educators to observe, to look closely, and to think deeply about the children we work with and the spaces we work in. We document children’s interests and learning and take note of the moments, the materials, the minutes that inspire them.
One of the key ways of meeting the varied needs in our environments is to create spaces within spaces. So within our indoor environment there will be a series of smaller environments that function as a part of the whole. Each space will have a different mood, may use different colours, and will contain different resources and possibilities. Some key spaces are construction, art and quiet spaces. Simply from the name you can sense the different potential held within these spaces and the different kinds of play they may inspire. The art space, for example, might be filled with tactile media such as paint, clay and wire. It might be flooded with natural light and contain examples of work from the children, the educators and artists. There might be soft music playing, designed to inspire children’s work and creativity. The construction space, in contrast, might be open and wide, and filled with the sound of collaborating children. It might contain enthusiastic carpenters and passionate architects, all seeking to create their vision through blocks and other loose parts.
The vital part of these spaces within space is that they are dynamic, flexible and responsive to the children who use them. They should change once occupied – they should come alive. But before they can come alive they must invite. But how do we create spaces that invite and entice when the children who share our space may only come once a week?
Again we come back to observation. The closer we observe, the better we know the children we work with. The better we know the children, the more likely we are to create an environment that entices. So we observe and we record. We reflect and we change. We plan and we evaluate.
And above all, we keep it simple. The most engaging early childhood environments are not the ones stuffed full of resources, walls plastered with art, floor filled with furniture. They are not the ones that overwhelm and yell with colour and size and choice.
The most engaging environments allow space for childrent to think and create and be.
When I think about my ideal environment for children, I see neutral colours and timber furniture. I see natural light complimented and supplemented by lamps and soft overhead lights when needed. I see items of interest next to items of beauty. I see art and documentation treated with respect. I see places to play alone, places with play with friends, and places to be together as a group. I hear soft music. I smell something beautiful; oils burning, or something baking. But most of all, I see children engaged and inspired.
So I guess the answer is there is no simple answer as to what makes a good environment for children. It is complex, contextual and dynamic, as is all work in early education. I guess, when it all boils down, what children need are educators who watch closely, think deeply, act sensitively and reflect critically. Educators who look at things upside down, flat on their backs, standing up and bending sideways.
So I’m off to practice my headstands.