by Sandra Duncan, Jody Martin & Rebecca Kreth
There are over 11 million children under the age of five spending the majority of their preschool lifetime in some type of early childhood classroom. Most of these environments for young children look pretty much the same resembling each other with their traditional primary-colored equipment, area rugs bordered with cartoon figures, shapes and letters, brightly colored plastic toys, laminated posters of all sizes and shapes, and shelves stuffed and stacked high with learning materials. Even the room’s arrangement of the learning centers and furniture is similar. There is, indeed, a certain aesthetic code or a traditionally accepted notion of what an early childhood environment should be amongst teachers, college professors, parents, and producers of early childhood products. The result? Cookie cutter classrooms.
Experts are beginning to break the traditional aesthetic codes of early childhood classrooms and examining classroom design with a new perspective. They are, for example, listening to the research of environmental scientists that clearly demonstrates a positive correlation between human productivity and space design. Armed with the contemporary thinking about pedagogy and space and the recent educational and environmental research on potential of positive places, educators are beginning to recognize the classroom environment as the third teacher. As a result, certain trends are starting to emerge: (1) linking the classroom to the local community; (2) providing authentic play spaces; and (3) naturalizing children’s spaces.
#1: Linking Classroom to Community
Connecting the child’s outside world to the classroom is essential for them to feel connected, included, respected, accepted, and secure — all critical emotional needs. Often, however, our definition of the outside world is much too broad when we include experiences such as flying to Japan in an airplane made of cardboard with children’s chairs for the jet’s seats or turn the classroom into an Amazon rain forest. It is far more meaningful to connect children to the amazing world immediately outside their classrooms’ windows or doors. It doesn’t matter if your classroom is located in a suburban, urban, or rural landscape, place-based adventures abound anywhere you reside.
Placed-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point for teaching academic and social-emotional concepts to young children. Because place-based education emphasizes hands-on, real-world learning experiences in the immediate area, this educational approach: (1) helps students develop stronger ties to their community; (2) enhances children’s appreciation for the natural world; and (3) creates a heightened commitment to becoming active and contributing citizens.
One strategy for place-based education is through traditional arts. Most of the time, traditional arts are passed down or learned from someone that shares ethnic heritage or family background and passed down from generation to generation. Often, these traditional arts can be learned from someone in the neighborhood who is willing to share their talents and skills. Offering children opportunities to engage in traditional arts activities such as basket making, weaving, flower pressing, wood carving, folk dancing, knitting, instrument making, painting, sculpting, storytelling and other forms of traditional arts helps promote a sense of connection to their community.
Nugget of Thought: Look close by before you look worldwide
#2: Providing Authentic Play Spaces
Most classrooms include the basic equipment, furniture, and learning materials required for licensing and accreditation. However, many of these items are not authentic and do not represent or reflect children’s real life experiences. Because authentic (or real) items are familiar, they are meaningful to children. When children are offered meaningful experiences through authentic learning materials and objects, their conversations, social interactions, and cognition increase. Examples of authentic objects include real pots and pans, metal colander, sterling silver tea pot, dish towels, pot holders, and wooden bread board. Framed images of real or natural elements such as flora, fauna, topography, animals, or people from the local community also enhance children’s play spaces with authenticity.
Nugget of Thought: Offer authentic over plastic—real over pretend.
#3: Naturalizing Children’s Spaces
It seems like children spend less time outdoors than they used to even though research shows that children who interact with nature are happier, healthier, and do better in school. Fortunately nature is all around us. Whether it is playing in the mud, searching for shells in the sand, picking berries off a bush, or tending to a mini-garden on the playground, children learn from interacting with nature and natural elements. Too often, however, educators think of nature experiences being limited to the outdoors and do not consider the idea of bringing the outside in.
In addition to the common elements of the classroom such as tables, chairs, bookshelves, and equipment, natural items can be added to enrich the environment. Examples of natural items include seashells, river rocks, tree bark, sea glass, pinecones, acorns, twigs, driftwood, buckeyes, tree cookies, sea grass, coral, and pine boughs — all gathered by the children from the local community. Including natural elements from outside the classroom door gives young children a connection to their neighborhood and a sense of belonging.
Nugget of Thought: Bring outside in.
Abandon the cookie cutter classroom notion of institutional environments and find other joyful expressions of unique furnishings and materials that can be added to change the landscape of the early childhood classroom. Connect to local community, offer authentic play spaces, and naturalize children’s environments.
Sandra Duncan, EdD, has over 45 years’ experience in the early care and education field. A past owner of early childhood programs, she now publishes curricula and teacher resources and trains teachers and program directors throughout the country. Jody Martin has 30 years’ experience at nearly every level of early education, a BA in psychology and minor in child development. She is now serving as vice president of education and training for Crème de la Crème. Rebecca Kreth has spent the last 25 years working with diverse communities, including supporting teaching practices for American Indian and Alaska native children. She has a BA in psychology and minor in child development.