Preparing the Early Childhood Learning Environment
Early childhood, the period between birth and age six, is the most critical period in postnatal human development and learning. During this time, basic movements are mastered, speech is developed, senses are consolidated, and bodies acclimate to sensory input. With this tremendous development taking place, the environment where children spend their days must reflect the constantly changing needs of childhood.
The environment where children spend their days must reflect the constantly changing needs of childhood.
During their first months, children are in a state of unconscious absorption during which they learn from their environment spontaneously and effortlessly. This period of intense mental activity gradually leads to a state of conscious absorption, allowing for more purposefully chosen activities. At the same time, there is a tremendous quest toward both independence and a need for order. The optimal early childhood environment will have opportunities for children to gain the self-help skills they need in order to build confidence and realize self-liberation; while providing order in the physical arrangement of the furnishings, the materials, and the activities offered.
The role of the caregiver or educator is to prepare the environment to meet the needs of the unique group of children in their care. There are several factors that need to be considered in order to provide a space that will enrich their experience in a developmentally appropriate manner:
Meeting the Need for Movement
As we learned from Dr. Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952), movement is intrinsically satisfying. It also affects psychic and spiritual energies and eventually helps children acquire abstract thinking by first enabling them to experience abstract concepts through concrete forms. Young children need to move! Knowing the ages, developmental levels, and needs of the children in your care will enable you to arrange the environment to provide for the appropriate amount of physical activity.
If you are serving infants who need to creep or crawl, provide open, obstacle-free spaces with warm flooring surfaces of varying textures that they can safely navigate and explore. Toddlers need space for independent exploration as well as secure objects for grasping and pulling themselves into sitting and standing positions. Later they will need apparatus for stretching and developing their arm and leg muscles, such as climbing triangles, dome climbers, and short sets of stairs. At this age children begin to learn when and where it is appropriate to run and climb and when it is safer to walk or keep feet on the ground, and, with guidance, will start to make the appropriate choices.
Preschoolers (ages 3—6) need space to move back and forth between shelves, tables, and large open floor areas for unencumbered work; individual space, such as a cozy reading corner, where they can settle, concentrate, and focus; and spaces to congregate in small and large groups. Long narrow openings tend to encourage running, which can be a safety hazard. Try to break up these long expanses with furniture or plants. A combination of child-sized tables and chairs, preferably adjustable to each child’s height; shelves and cubbies that they can comfortably reach; and open floor space will accommodate multiple types of activities.
Meeting Sensory Needs in the Environment
- Visual Component:
Because young children are constantly adjusting to the barrage of sensory impressions they receive, what children see plays an important role in environment preparation. We live in a world focused on extensive visual stimulation. Although there is a trend to provide eye-popping bright colors or bold primary colors in early childhood environments, a palette of neutral colors and/or colors from nature can be more conducive to learning and to promoting a sense of calm. A subtler background allows the materials to stand out and attract the child’s interest.
In addition, urged on by manufacturers marketing classroom “décor”, often early childhood educators plaster their environments with posters and other materials. However, uncluttered walls can be comforting and soothing and far less distracting. Be selective and discriminating in choosing what is displayed and hang thoughtfully chosen artwork at the child’s eye level.
Considering lighting is also important. Lots of natural light is optimal in any educational setting. If artificial lighting is also necessary due to building limitations, using incandescent bulbs will lend a warmer, more homelike glow to your environment than the cool blue of fluorescents. You might also want to explore energy-efficient LEDs. In any case, remember safety considerations with young children, taking care with cords and hot bulbs and shades, as well as with the stability of the lamps.
- Auditory Component
Have you considered the sounds the children can hear in your learning environment? Just as your classroom can be visually cluttered, noises such as side conversations, small-group lessons, musical instruments, the rustle of leaves, or even the whisper of wind can make the classroom feel cluttered auditorily. Determine which of these noises are appealing and conducive to learning and which are distracting. Try to adjust the ones you’d like to control or mitigate by using sound-absorbing materials such as rugs and carpeting. Add soft pillows and child-sized upholstered chairs to the reading nook. Hang fabric curtains at the windows or draped across ceilings. If your budget allows, you may also want to consider unobtrusive acoustic panels for walls and ceilings.
- Tactile Component
Are the surfaces of your classroom furniture smooth and free of dangerous or pointy edges? Do you provide a variety of materials that appeal to the sense of touch, such as soft woolens, smooth silks, warm wooden objects, and cool metals, which encourage the child to explore and discover the unique characteristics of each? For babies and toddlers still crawling and creeping, have you considered the different sensations they feel on their hands and knees as they make their way around on varying surfaces?
- Olfactory Component
What smells greet the children arriving in your environment? Many licensing agencies mandate the use of specific cleaning and disinfecting solutions and we are beholden to these regulations. However, whenever possible, avoid the use of harsh smelling chemical cleaners. Allow fresh air to permeate the environment. Objects with appealing scents, such as a cinnamon bark box or a clove box, can be enjoyed by the children if displayed within reach on a shelf. Fragrant herb plants that are safely edible, such as sage, rosemary, and lavender, also make lovely additions to a class environment. Allow children to use a mortar and pestle to crush them to release their enticing scents into the air.
Besides the physical attributes of the classroom environment, there are various considerations to take into account regarding learning and play materials offered:
- Quality: Are the materials constructed to last through use by many children? Are they safe and free of sharp edges and small parts not suitable for children under 3? Are they attractive, inviting, and in good repair?
- Relevance: Do the materials embody and respect the personal identifiers that make up the diversity of your students, their families, and the wider community in which your program is located, such as race, ethnicity, cultures, family makeup, professions, and languages? Do they take into consideration the children’s interests, and inspire new ones?
- Developmental levels: Do the materials and activities provide appropriate learning experiences for all the ages and ability levels in the class?
- Language development: Does the variety of materials offered expose the children to the vast array of living and non-living things offered by our world and the rich vocabulary associated with them to expand their burgeoning language development? Are there opportunities for them to express themselves in their native languages, as well as learn new ones?
Considering these various factors when creating a learning environment for young children will help you provide a space that benefits them by enriching their experience in a developmentally appropriate manner, and contributes to their physical, cognitive, and social-emotional growth and learning.
Bagnoli, D. (2021) Montessori by Design: School Spaces That Stay True to the Montessori Method. Montessori Life. 33 (1). 26 – 35.
Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori Method. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Marie M. Conti, M.Ed., is head of The Wetherill School in Gladwyne, PA, and a former member of the American Montessori Society board of directors. She has more than 40 years of experience as a Montessori classroom teacher and administrator. Contact her at email@example.com.
Marcy K. Krever
Marcy K. Krever is a freelance writer and the former Senior Director of Communication & Community at the American Montessori Society. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.