The fifth blog post in the Practices series looks at Learning Environments. Here are 5 tips to help with this practice …
- Conduct an audit on your environment: When was the last time you actively assessed your environment? It is important to be connected to your environment and assess how useful it is in engaging children, demonstrating compliance and providing evidence of learning. All of the the points below will highlight some of the ways in which you can audit your learning environment and work out if it is achieving what you hope it will.
- Value your environment as a member of the teaching team: Your environment plays such a big role in how the children engage with learning and the curriculum that it is like an extra member of the team. Too many resources in the environment can be overstimulating or restrict children’s creativity. Too few resources to share or a lack of variety can cause boredom and acting out. It is important to see how the children engage with the environment, both inside and outside, and see whether it is in a productive and purposeful way. I once didn’t set up outside, no equipment other than the physical areas that were there already (sandpit, bark pit, trees, garden beds, hill, veranda), as a way to reflect on how the children were able to a) use the environment and b) resource their own learning. It was an experiment and through it we learnt that the children were far more engaged (after the first 10 minutes or so) in what they chose to do than they ever were with the equipment and resources we provided them to choose from. This taught us to value and respect children’s abilities to resource their own learning and not to feel like we needed to offer them resources and set tasks to keep them occupied. It also meant we changed the way we set up to keep some areas open and free for real choice and agency, instead of allowing the children to choose only between the activities that we had selected for them.
- Use critical reflection to connect with the environment: Critically reflecting on any aspect of the service or organisation will allow you to be better connected to it. Here are some areas you may like to use as a basis for reflection:
- What message does your environment send to children/families/educators?
- Who gets to make choices in your environment?
- Does inside or outside get more attention? why?
- Do you equate a busy environment with busy children or do you provide spaces with minimal resources for children to create their own learning opportunities?
- How inclusive is your environment? (does it support children with additional needs? sensory issues? physical disabilities/illness that may cause children to be tired? are different cultures reflected in safe and respectful ways?)
- Are all displays current and able to communicate holistic compliance?
- Use your environment to reflect your context: Every service is operating within its own context and and as such this should be reflected in the environment. Decisions made in the service should be made based on the needs and values of the local community and area, not feel like the service could be anywhere in the world. A service should feel like money is reinvested into the service in meaningful and valuable ways so there might be an additional educator, more qualified staff, project based work for the children with a regular visitor, excursions to places rich in learning potential, redesigning spaces to support children’s engagement and opportunities, instead of having the newest and best of every resource and piece of technology. A service in the bush should have an outside environment that reflects the space the children will be used to playing in and feel most at home in, such as grass, open spaces, natural resources, creek beds etc. Versus a service in the city where children all live in apartments and may not have access to yards and gross motor challenges that are present in suburban houses and may need more obstacle courses etc to challenge and support children’s development.
- Avoid a tick box approach to compliance evidence: There are ways to demonstrate compliance that are value laden, holistic, meaningful and child/family focused, that rely on a deep and comprehensive understanding of the compliance requirements as well as best practice and early childhood theory. Then there are ways to demonstrate compliance that are about ticking boxes, a surface level approach to each compliance point where one thing achieve compliance for one thing. I can walk into a service and see/feel whether there has been thought and critical reflection put into place behind the decisions that are being made, or whether ideas have been replicated and ‘pinched’ because they look good or cute or tick an obvious box. A simple example of this is having a downloaded poster off the internet of children washing their hands in the bathroom and explaining how to wash hands, vs discussing with the children about hand washing and having them think of ways that can remind them to wash their hands. Perhaps they want to make their own posters – take photos of each other, print them out, cut them out, write the steps, maybe laminate them. All of which highlights the value of the children’s voice, child directed learning, promoting and valuing learning opportunities (such as problem solving, using technology, working together, developing fine motor skills etc), creating a sense of belonging in the environment because children can see themselves reflected in the displays, as well as promoting hygiene practices.
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