Back in 2020 I had the pleasure of talking to Greg Bottrill, a brilliant voice and advocate of play based education in the early years as well as a great author. (If you haven't read his books they're brilliant).
During our conversation we talked about the environment and the important role it plays in learning. For those of us that take inspiration from the Reggio Emilia Approach we repeat the wise words of Loris Malaguzzi "The environment is the third teacher". In the Instagram years we have seen the beatification and advertisement of the classroom environment which has had both positive and negative effects. Yes, we need to create attractive and inviting spaces for children but sometimes the over focus on beauty can give a false perception that the kindergarten environment is only a wooden wonderland of beautiful spaces.
Firstly, I want to make clear I am not criticizing the designs of the pictures above. It would be impossible to make any comment without seeing how both adults and children use each space and I would love to have such a space as my work home each day. I am simply making the point that having an attractive environment is not the main objective or results in high quality play/learning.
The truth is a kindergarten in play is a little messy, a little disorganized and a process based environment. Social media pictures and videos often stick to showing the before (children engage with the environment and materials) and leave out the during and after images.
For teachers new to early years or play based methods they can become disillusioned quickly as the reality of real childhood play and learning isn't like they imagined. It's like someone who has grown up watching only romantic comedies and is disappointed by having a real relationship because the reality doesn't live up to the fantasy version. In a real classroom there is over or under stimulation, sensory challenges, social development challenges, emotional development challenges and many more.
How does learning happen?
The environment should be welcoming and cozy. Part of that is how the teacher treats the space. It should be described as "ours" and not "mine". It doesn't belong to the adult or the children's but rather both. As such the layout and resources should reflect the interests of both the child/ren and adults in the room.
The environment shouldn't look like a theme park with bright colours everywhere. It also shouldn't be just variations of wood browns. There should be colour and they are best integrated over time through the play and learning that happens. Art work, documentation, pictures all add colour to the room along with small furnishings that add extra elements.
Learning happens in a classroom when the adult allows the classroom to support students. This means not cleaning up every toy, block, puzzle,and art resource everyday. Children need to come back and continue with their ideas. The notion that you need to clean everything up is the equivalent of deleting an authors work every night. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is/was the "Volcano Rescue Team Underwater Super Base" being developed in the block area.
The learning space should also build on the actions, conversations, and interests of the children. It is observing how children use the environment and what they do in it then planning out evolving pathways. It is about asking "what's next?" and seeing how the third teacher can support you in your work and the children in their play/learning. All this is made clearer and visible through documentation.
The learning environment doesn't need to be separated by subjects! This doesn't mean it shouldn't just that is not the only way. For example, children don't learn math only in a well provisioned math area. They can learn math in many places and times throughout the day and although it can be helpful to divide the environment into different learning domains it is also beneficial to try new things, create new areas that might be directly connected to a project being explored.
So remember, just because it looks nice doesn't mean learning can happen!