Supporting the Whole Child:
Creating Learning Spaces with the Nervous System in Mind
The places we live, work, play, and learn impact who we are, what we do, and how we feel in both subtle and overt ways. Stimuli in our environment are processed by our nervous systems and our nervous systems, in turn, impact how we feel, how we behave, and how we experience being alive. Creating early learning spaces with nervous system health in mind is therefore imperative, and a key way to support the whole child. From the quality of the lighting to the background noises, from the texture of the carpet to the color of the building blocks—each of these choices impacts the children in our care.
. . . each of these choices impacts the children in our care.
The Nervous System
Our nervous systems coordinate actions and sensory information by transmitting signals from the brain and spinal column to every other part of the body. The nervous system also detects environmental changes that impact the body, then works in tandem with the endocrine system to respond to such events (by regulating hormone production). A calm nervous system allows us to focus, create, digest, take appropriate risks, cope with challenging situations, and be still. Humans are designed to operate the majority of the time in this optimal state. The nervous system also has another setting designed to protect us in times of danger known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” setting. When we enter this survival mode, our nervous system signals the production of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that help us respond to imminent danger.
For most of history, humans lived surrounded by nature and socialized mainly with familiar people. Apart from times of extreme stress, like being chased by a predator or coping with extreme weather, life was relatively calm. The nervous system is exquisitely tuned to function well in these circumstances, mostly calm but when needed can kick into high gear. In contrast, the modern world is full of daily stresses that trigger the sympathetic nervous system to activate. While these stresses are different for different people, for children they can include everything from loud noises, cluttered environments, harsh cleaning chemicals, processed foods, environmental toxins, and screen time. The more time children spend in these “stressful” environments, the more time their nervous systems spend in the “fight, flight, or freeze” setting.
While there are many variables outside our control, we as educators can mindfully work to create an environment that supports children. If you have ever seen a child screaming uncontrollably, circling the room, fidgeting during circle time, or running away from the group on a neighborhood walk, you have witnessed what happens when the fight, flight, and freeze response is triggered. On the other hand, when their nervous systems are at ease, children are better able to meet the challenges presented and enjoy their time in school.
Imagine an early childhood classroom packed to the brim with toys and materials. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with artwork, charts, announcements, calendars, and colorful bubbles containing messages and ideas. Bins of art materials are piled high, some overflowing, with paper, crayons, scissors, glue, markers, stickers, felt, and collage materials. There are bins of books, comfy chairs, bean bags, and loads of stuffed animals. The dramatic play area has hooks overflowing with costumes. There are several colorful rugs and up a staircase is a loft. Blocks and trains line one wall. In the technology center children have access to the latest educational games and apps. The space is bright, a function of overhead fluorescent lighting.
During choice time in this classroom you may see children milling about looking for something to draw their attention. Some are engaging in physical play on the rug near the books, with barely enough space to contain them. A few children are pawing through art materials—digging for a particular colored pencil, marker, or glue stick they need to complete their ideas. Others are building a train track, one child becoming increasingly frustrated as they attempt to connect two broken pieces. Several children are sitting in the technology center, their eyes glued to the screens. The loft is full of kids climbing and yelling—they’ve just invented a new game where they bring the stuffed animals up from the library and throw them down on the tables below. In the dramatic play space, two kids both want the princess costume. One child has caught his finger in the door of a broken toy car and is screaming for help, but the teacher can hardly hear him over the classroom din.
Many of these challenges are the direct result of an overwhelming environment. Operating in a survival mode, the students struggle to stay focused, engaged, and to follow through with creative or imaginative ideas. In contrast, a minimalistic environment can be soothing, grounding, and help support children as they navigate social interactions and develop creative ideas.
Let’s imagine a different classroom, this one is nearly bare. There are wood shelves with minimal materials: one contains paper and a few jars of pencils, colored pencils and charcoal. Another houses plain wood unit blocks. A few others hold baskets of rocks, pinecones, and sticks. The walls are a neutral color, with children’s artwork displayed sparingly. The dramatic play area has a simple wood kitchen and some hooks with scarves of various sizes, colors, and fabrics. There is a large central rug, in a neutral color, and the centerpiece of the room are big glass doors opening to a tree-filled yard. There’s a sensory table filled with colored rice along with metal scoops and bowls. Near the wood tables is a low shelf containing glasses, plates, and napkins—one for each student—and underneath a long row of rubber boots for outdoor play. There are a few small shelves holding books with the titles visible. Most of the light in this room comes from outside, supplemented by small lamps.
In this classroom, children have much more space both mentally and physically to get involved and focused in their play. Because they are in a stress-free environment, they will not only have a chance to develop their imaginative ideas, but will also be better equipped to cope with challenges when they do arise. With less options, but clearer ones, the children have a better chance at uncovering something meaningful to them. Teachers will notice when materials are no longer in good repair and will clearly see what draws the children’s attention. Instead of digging for art supplies, the children can see what is available. In the imaginative play area the simple scarves can be transformed into any number of costumes and the natural loose parts can get incorporated serving as cars, airplanes, or baskets of treasure or food. The wood blocks are plentiful, but mostly the same, minimizing disputes over “the red fire truck” or the “yellow legos”. Large physical play can happen outdoors, or on the one central rug, unobstructed by a clutter of toys, bins, beanbags, and stuffed animals. The natural light keeps the children’s bodies in tune with nature, helping them to self-regulate and understand when they need rest.
Does your approach support each child holistically?
I believe that as educators and caregivers, one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is, “Does our approach support each child holistically?” Whether you seek to cultivate creativity, provide comfort and security, promote healthy risk taking, or facilitate social connections, a key way to support these goals is through the thoughtful creation of the learning environment. I believe this environment should be minimal, intentional, and contain simple, high quality materials—just enough and nothing more. This approach helps children feel grounded, explore their limits, connect with others, and avoid overstimulation. It’s always tempting to support children by providing them with lots of stuff, especially if that stuff inspires delight. By resisting this urge, and creating a space where children can innately discover through their own play experiences we do much more to serve them. With some time and dedication, even the most overwhelming space can be transformed to support children’s nervous system health which will translate to supporting them holistically.
After a short professional ballet career, Lauren transitioned to the world of early education in 2001. After 4 years of nannying and teaching creative movement, ballet and yoga, Lauren founded Bija in 2005. Originally a creative movement arts studio for children and adults, Bija has evolved organically in response to the needs of the community and Lauren’s interests in progressive, arts and play-based education, nature ed, social justice and community engagement.
Lauren is passionate about creating a warm and welcoming space, providing tuition assistance to families in need, and furthering the Bija values of environmental sustainability and food access. Lauren lives with her family on a 5 acre homestead in central Vermont. She offers parent coaching, consulting for like minded organizations and spends much of her time outdoors making food. Lauren is a certified yoga teacher and licensed Ayurvedic therapist. Learn more at bijaproject.com