The Importance of the Environment in the ECE Classroom

This week, children will be returning to school after (hopefully!) a fun-filled summer. To prepare for their arrival, teachers have been spending time designing their classrooms. There is so much that goes into setting-up a classroom far beyond filling bookshelves and lining up desks. Seasoned teachers make intentional choices about everything in their classroom – from the layout of the furniture to the materials on the shelves to what is (or is not) on the walls. By carefully looking around a classroom, one is able to understand the values of the teacher, how s/he views children and how s/he wants them to learn. In honor of the hard work these teachers are putting into their classrooms this month, this post is a quick look at the importance the environment plays in the classroom and some of the theory behind the choices teachers make in setting-up certain learning spaces.

For those familiar with early childhood theory, it is no secret that the classroom environment plays a pivotal role in the education of children. Since the environment is a key tool in supporting any approach, it is crucial that the classroom set-up be directly aligned with the overall school philosophy and goals of said approach. While mostly all current early childhood approaches acknowledge the importance of the classroom environment, they each have different ways of explaining why and how it plays an important role. For example, Maria Montessori’s writings referred to “the prepared environment”. For Montessori, this was about creating a space that facilitated maximum independent learning and exploration by the child. In her words, in order “to assist a child, we must provide him with an environment which will enable him to develop freely.” Independence is a key tenet of the Montessori Approach and as such the classroom environment needs to support this.

The Montessori classroom must allow the child to move as freely as possible throughout the space, to select works of interest and to complete these works without much interference from the teacher. You will see orderly shelves in any Montessori classroom with works arranged in order of difficulty and separated by content-area – this order works effectively to allow the child to select work independently. Montessori was the first person to create classrooms that reflected the children’s own lives which supported them to become competent individuals, capable of caring for themselves. As such, she wanted to provide them with real materials they would encounter in their homes such as real knives and real glassware. By providing children with these items, she was displaying the trust she had for her students, showing that she valued children as capable. Montessori is also to thank for bringing child-sized furniture to classrooms. It probably seems obvious now to include small tables and chairs in a preschool classroom, but it all started with her! By providing appropriately sized furniture for her students, Montessori was once again conveying, through the environment, the value that she placed on children. She wanted them to feel the space was created specifically for them and that they would be able to manipulate the items within the space on their own.

montessoriFor those interested in learning more about the Montessori “prepared environment”, the North American Montessori Center (NAMC) is a great resource. On their website, you can find more information about the six main aspects that must be considered when setting up a Montessori classroom: Freedom, Structure and Order, Nature and Reality, the Social Environment, the Emotional Environment and finally, Beauty. As Montessori said, “The child should live in an environment of beauty.” This ideal of classroom beauty leads me another approach that is often associated with placing great importance on the environment: The Reggio Approach. While those interested in early childhood have always put thought into the settings in which children learn, the educators of Reggio Emilia have really taken this to a new level and articulated this importance in much greater detail.

Loris Malaguzzi, the father of the Reggio Emilia approach, famously described the environment as the third teacher by saying, “There are three teachers of children: adults, other children and their physical environment.” While the Montessori approach (and environment) places value on independence of the individual child, the Reggio Approach values collaboration and offers environments that celebrate participation and collectivity. The schools in Reggio Emilia are created so rooms flow together, connecting students and activities. Rooms lead to a central piazza where students can meet and exchange ideas freely, further supporting the values of interaction and community. In a Montessori classroom, materials have specific functions and uses; however, in the Reggio environment, materials and furniture are multi-functional. Both the physical space and the created environment can be changed and adapted to follow the interests and learning of the children who inhabit the space. The space in many ways is a blank canvas as children enter each September and it develops over the year as the children make it their own. By allowing the children to independently and easily manipulate the environment, we can see the value placed on the children to lead their own learning and explorations. The classroom space and furniture should not impede their exploration but instead foster autonomous discovery.


All spaces in a Reggio school foster communication and collaboration. I learned from my colleague Julianne Wurm that even the bathrooms in Reggio Emilia are seen as meeting places for children and are designed accordingly. To help cultivate relationships, the bathrooms are welcoming, child-friendly environments. In one Fours classroom in Reggio Emilia, the bathroom included documentation on the walls, a shell collection, plants, mirrors and even a big over-sized chair where kids could curl up with friends and read. Given how much time our children spend in the bathroom, it makes sense to put thought into this environment as well! Creating such a space communicates an understanding, on the part of the adults, of how (and where) children want to connect and a desire to facilitate that.

As you think about your learning environments – whether they are home enrichment spaces, a local preschool classroom or a larger public school space – it is important to make sure your space reflects your values. This first means getting in touch with your true values as an educator, not just what you have inherited from your school culture but what you as a teacher or parent really believe. Once you have that set, you can take a truthful look around your leaning space. Think about the choices you made as you set up the space and why you made those decisions – Are those choices rooted in your values or are they arbitrary? Think about what your space communicates to those that work, play and learn within it and always make sure that this is aligned with what you hope for your children!

I hope everyone enjoys their first week of school! Take in your classroom during this first week, think about the care you put into setting it up and then remember to do the same thing on the last day of school many months from now. It will be amazing to see just how much has changed and how much learning has taken place within those walls!


Are you laughing enough?


I recently came across this Psychology Today post from 2011 that claims the average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day; meanwhile the average 40-year-old, in comparison, only laughs 4 times a day.  While the author, Pamela Gerloff,  admits she couldn’t find any conclusive citations to prove that these figures were accurate, there is a still a worthy message beneath the stark difference in how often adults laugh…However much we do it, we need to do it more!

Studies have shown that laughter really is the best medicine, boosting our bodies’ ability to heal itself. Gerloff references Norman Cousins who self-prescribed a “laughing cure” for his painful inflammatory arthritis. Cousins claimed that just 10 minutes of watching the Marx Brothers and laughing out loud each day allowed him to sleep pain-free for two hours and that, in general, his inflammation and overall pain were significantly reduced. Cousins chronicled his experience in the book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient which is available on Amazon.

Other studies have shown that laughter can produce a host of positive effects on the brain. One such study was conducted at Loma Linda University in California where researchers sought to find out if laughter had an effect on the stress levels and short-term memory abilities of older adults in their 60s and 70s. Their experiments found that adults who were subjected to “funny videos”, as opposed to sitting quietly, were able to perform significantly better on memory tests and had higher improvement over time when it came to later memory recall tests.

Just as noteworthy is the impact laughter can have on reducing the level of stress hormones, such as cortisol, in the brain. As we now know, cortisol can have a significant impact on learning – simply put, stress greatly impacts learning. So not only is laughter the best medicine but it may also be one of the best learning tools we can provide in the classroom. Laughter fosters joy and a joyful classroom is a space where children are comfortable and open to learning. Laughter also brings us together. There is such a great bond that comes from doubling over in laughter with your friend, tears streaming down your face, joined in the shared experience. Laughing with a friend is contagious, spreading your joy to those around you, inviting them in on a joke. Laughter in a classroom can have the same effect by binding the group together, adding to the sense of the community that we as educators are trying so hard to facilitate. I also think laughter simply makes you human, it shows your students you are a person with a range of emotions and someone who doesn’t take everything so seriously.

So laugh more grown-ups!

Laugh to create bonds, laugh for your brain and your memory, laugh to reduce stress, laugh for your students – and if all that isn’t enough then laugh to lose a couple of pounds. A Vanderbilt University study estimated that just 10-15 minutes of laughter a day can burn up to 40 calories, so there’s always that to motivate you!

Whatever your motivation, just do it!

Laugh like a four-year-old, laugh with a four-year-old…. Just laugh!


Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

old dog

I’ve been thinking recently about the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” How depressing! Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I really don’t want to be that dog!

Multiple brain studies confirm that during our lifetimes there are two great bursts in brain development. One is between birth and age 3 – during this time the brain is dense with neurons and primed to make synaptic connections. As the young child gets older, the brain begins its pruning process by getting rid of the connections it doesn’t routinely use. As another famous saying goes, “If you don’t use it you lose it”…very true for young brains. During adolescence, there is another great period of brain development. Last year I wrote a post about the Adolescent Brain with information from Dan Siegel’s recent book Brainstorm. Feel free to check it out for more information on teenage brain development.

But what about our adult brains? I love learning about education and what we (as educators and parents) we can do to optimize our children’s learning. But sometimes it makes me reflect on my own education and wonder what did I miss out on? What else could I have done if I had known more about learning & brain development? My goodness, how much smarter could I have been!?

So I’m left wondering, is there hope for us grown-ups? Can you actually teach an old dog new tricks?

Some recent studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists suggest that aging brains might actually remain more malleable and plastic than previously thought. Neuroimaging studies suggest aging brains can actually reorganize and change, and not necessarily for the worse. Instead aging brains may just need to activate different parts of the brain to complete the same task – for example using parts of the left and right brain combined, as opposed to just one-side. Given this new potential for aging brain plasticity, logic would suggest that in fact, it is important for an old dog to at least attempt to learn new tricks. This could potentially stimulate the growth (albeit slow and small) of new neurons in old age. As we get older, new skills should be learned in immersive, engaging experiences. So don’t sit at home with a book expecting to learn how to knit – go out, join a class or a group of others interested in learning a new skill. One great option is groups like Skillshare – classes taught by regular people who want to trade their knowledge with others – learn anything from design to cooking to photography.

Learning a new skill can only bring positive changes to your life. In addition to keeping your brain active, studies show that it can also help your creativity, positivity and happiness. While I can’t guarantee it will spark the growth of new neurons, nor promise that picking up a new skill won’t take longer than when you were a kid, I can promise that no matter how old the dog, you can learn a new trick!

So what shall it be…Balancing a ball on my nose or learning guitar?

Hmm. Stay tuned!

We’re going on a toy hunt…

bear hunt

Yesterday, I started seeing commercials for “holiday shopping”. I swear they keep starting earlier and earlier each year! I barely put away (aka threw out) my Halloween costume from this weekend! But as always, it has started my brain thinking about toys for kids. People often ask, “What are the best toys I can give my child to promote learning at home?”

In truth, for young children, some of the best “educational toys” are things you can find around your house. Sure, technology is exciting and we are seeing it more and more in our classrooms, but I still believe in the learning power behind using your imagination to transform ordinary objects into something spectacular. While I was working in a classroom with two year-olds several years ago, I discovered the power of a simple cardboard box. Instantly it became the most exciting and most play-provoking item we had in our classroom. On your next rainy day (aka this coming Thursday for NYC), might I suggest going on a “toy” hunt around your house?

Here’s a list of popular items you can use in your search: 

large beads (the non-choking hazard type!)

old clothes for dress up

jar lids (great for stacking, sorting etc)

cardboard boxes

plastic tubs and tubes



old magazines

measuring tape

magnifying glasses or binoculars

Let your child take the lead, see how they use the objects and take note (figuratively but also literally!) Your child may be interested in using the items to extend their dramatic play or they may be more interested in using the items to create/build something new. Let their natural tendencies guide you.

I have long been a fan of the “Not A…” book series by Antoinette Portis. Her books inspire us to push our imaginations and realize that a simple objects can transform into anything through the power of play. You can find Not a Box and Not a Stick on Amazon. I highly recommend them for reading with your child (or on your own!) Hopefully they will inspire you to see the creative potential behind the simplest and possibly overlooked items in your home.

Happy Hunting!

Educational Justice

Last year, I attended a discussion based around the theme of Justice. I was curious to attend because the discussion was facilitated by 3 members of the Harlem Children’s Zone administration – their goal was to look at justice through the lens of education. I received my masters degree from an institution that prides itself on training teachers to go out into the world and pursue social justice through education. So this was right up my alley!

As food for thought, we began our discussion by watching this TED talk by Geoffrey Canada. Mr. Canada gives a great speech, his passion for quality education is inspiring and infectious. That being said, in practice, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has been given very mixed reviews from several of my friends who have worked at the school. I could talk endlessly about different points from Mr. Canada’s speech but I was really interested to hear what my fellow attendees would have to say.

I was most struck by someone’s comment about the lack of justice in current classroom behavior management. While we have been making great strides in terms of progressive pedagogy, behavior management is the area that continues to lag behind. Anyone who has worked in public schools will tell you that yelling remains a key tool for behavior management in classrooms. No matter what strides we make in other areas of education, we are forever held back if we ignore behavior management. This is a key piece in the struggle for justice and if we are truly striving towards justice for all students then we can no longer ignore it.

Truth be told, I started writing a blog post about this conversation days after attending the discussion and only now, months later, have come back to revisit my writing and thoughts on the conversation. I am no closer to answering the many questions I have swirling around my head about behavior management and justice in schools – even the idea itself that the behavior of young people must be “managed” sparks many new questions. But nevertheless, it remains something I am dedicated to thinking more about.

Here are some of the questions I’m pondering at the moment:

What do the environments we create in schools say about how we value children?

If we know, from brain studies, that children cannot learn when they feel threatened, why do we see such little progress in teacher management techniques?

Are teachers fully supported in their own education to practice progressive management strategies?

Are the vast differences in school culture reflective of the social and cultural differences in our larger society?

When you walk down the halls of a charter school like HCZ or a private school in Tribeca or a public school in East New York, what do their differences say about social justice in education?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the above or otherwise!


Books on Separation

I originally posted this blog 2 years ago, but these books are classics and still worth checking out as you begin planning for next month’s first day of school!

Samantha Fair

Before school starts, I want to share some book suggestions. The following is a compiled list of books I personally use in my classroom to ease separation anxiety and discuss feelings during the beginning of the new school year. There are many other great books out there, but I only wanted to recommend ones that I have a personal connection to. Enjoy!

You Go Away by Dorothy Corey 

As Amazon puts it, “this is the classic of all separation books”. I have used this book many times in classrooms. I think it is particularly useful for twos as the concept and text are extremely basic: You go away, and then you come back!

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell  

I read this book every year during the first week of school, as children inevitably find something in it they can connect with. The story is about three owl babies…

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Planning for Separation

Samantha Fair

Summer is in full swing and school is probably the last thought on many children’s minds. However, it is always on mine! As I see happy children running through sprinklers and enjoying special family time, I wonder how many of them will be going to school for the first time this fall. While school may seem far away, it’s never too early to begin thinking about Separation and how your family can prepare.

Separation anxiety is completely normal and to be expected (for children and parents alike!) While this blog is mostly be about preparing your child, I would like to first address any anxiety on the part of mom and dad. Before my own first day of school, my mother had been prepared ahead of time by my new preschool teachers for a potential downpour of tears on my part. However when the time came that first day I…

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Summer Reading

child reading

My last day of school is only a few days away and I am excitedly looking ahead to summer break! One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to pick up my summer book list – I still remember trolling the Scholastic catalogues and visiting the library. In fact, choosing my summer reading is still one of my favorite things to do and my Kindle is full of new books to read (hopefully on the beach somewhere!)

To help you and your child prepare for summer reading, I wanted to share some Reading Resources with you – some will help you choose books to read now, others are great general resources for Literacy throughout the early years of school. Enjoy!

Summer Reading 2014 This NY Public Library supported site has book lists broken down by age – from babies & toddlers all the way up to adult! You can also find book recommendations and ratings (plus provide your own).

Create-a-Reader This site is kid friendly, using online games and exercises to encourage early literacy skill building.

Get Ready to Read!  This site has a wealth to offer – free activity cards, online literacy games and webinars for parents plus much more. It’s worth exploring to see what free resources you can use with your family during the summer and all year-round.

PBS Parents Though the whole site is a great resource for parents on a range of topics, this specific link will bring you to a page with Tips for Summer Reading. I encourage you to look around to find book suggestions and even activity plans!

Early Beginnings This link will bring you to a publication from the US Department of Education on Early Literacy Knowledge and Instruction. It was created for early childhood administrators and professional development trainers but I think it could serve as a resource for anyone interested in the basics of early literacy.


Dave Levin’s 5 Minutes

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A few small steps can be the beginning of a grand journey and it similarly takes just a few small changes to start a revolution. This is the message that Dave Levin, Co-founder of KIPP schools, is spreading in his effort to change our education system. I was lucky to hear Levin speak this past week. In addition to his charming and funny delivery, he presented one simple idea that stuck with me.

According to Levin, we can begin to revolutionize the education system by providing each student with 5 minutes of structured academic feedback from their teacher everyday. Teachers would touch base with each child in their class daily and give them direct feedback on their strengths & weaknesses. Levin revealed that in his work, talking to teachers, he could not find one that said this was a current practice in their classroom. They were conferencing with students and spending one-on-one time, but they couldn’t honestly say they spoke to each student, each day. This was surprising! Our schools are wrapped around the individual needs of our students, there is no one-size fits all model. Schools will thrive when our students are taught on an individualized basis. Teachers are already getting to know their students, the next step is providing the direct feedback Levin so passionately spoke of. This feedback can and will link back to the character skills necessary for success. In fact, character skills are the Yin to the Yang of traditional skill based education.

Five minutes with each child is a doable goal – it’s achievable. While sweeping change may be overwhelming, small steps can feel empowering. I was fully inspired by Levin’s talk – I could have listened to him for an hour. I can only hope others are listening too.


Daniel Siegel and the Adolescent Brain

I’ve spent much of my adult life studying how young children develop and learn. The world of early childhood can feel like a beautiful rainbow-colored, idealistic bubble. It is full of rapid development and snuggles, what could be better? But the children we teach do not just exist in this bubble; each of the young children I cherish continues to grow long after they’ve left my preschool. One day they will even become teenagers (gasp!)

During the teenage years the brain goes through a second major phase of development. So to learn a bit more about what the next decade will bring for my students, I went to hear brain expert and author Daniel Siegel speak about his new book Brainstorm.

According to Siegel, current science and pop media provide conflicting reports about the adolescent years. Many of the popular ideas about teens are actually myths and can be destructive to the relationships between the teenagers and their parents. For example, one of the largest myths about teens is that adolescence is a period of immaturity.  While it is true that this can be a very dangerous time for young adults (accidental deaths etc.) it is not due to immaturity, nor from raging hormones. In actuality the brain is going through a period of remodeling. Similar to the pruning process that occurs in the brain around ages 3-4, the teen brain is also pruning unneeded synapsis and neurons. The teen brain is also becoming a more specialized brain through the process of myelination. Myelination makes existing brain connections stronger and more balanced. The myelin allows the neurons to communicate up to 100x faster! This process of remodeling the brain is not just through the teen years however, longitudinal studies have shown that this process continues into our early twenties; which to me, explains a great deal. Think about any kind of remodeling, in your house or otherwise. It is an exhausting process and it costs a lot! This is what the teen brain is working against: the stress and exhaustion of remodeling the part of your body that makes your decisions and attempts to regulate your emotions. It’s no wonder that for teens everything can seem like a life or death situation!

Siegel wants us to look at adolescence not as a period of chaos but instead as one of untapped creativity and potential. In order to help us reframe our view, he has created an acronym that he calls the ESSENCE of adolescence. This essence is made up of the following:

ES = Emotional Spark

Adolescents undeniably have big emotions, in both directions. On the positive side this spark is about passion, vitality and a spice for capturing life. On the downside, there is the classic teen moodiness and emotional outbursts.

SE = Social Engagement

During the teen years there is a shift in the majority of social engagement being with parents to being with peers. Teens feel they need to hang out with their friends; it’s a must! This is positive because social engagement has been shown in numerous studies to have positive benefits on our physical and mental health. But of course, the relationship to your peers needs to also be positive to have these benefits. On the other side, the importance of social engagement can include negative peer pressure with a need to impress your now hyper-important peer group.

N = Novelty

As adolescents’ brains begin squirting dopamine, novelty-seeking behavior emerges. This is where teen risk-taking comes into play. On the positive side this can lead to a willingness to try new things, move away from the home and become comfortable with the uncertain. However, this can also lead to a risk of injury, addiction and other new, exciting and dangerous behavior.

CE = Creative Expression

This expression allows for a push against the conventional, not necessarily accepting just what is but challenging everything to come up with something new. One downside of this is that challenging conformity can be a stressful experience, one that even feels isolating. However, on the positive side, creative expression is so much of what we want life to be. Discovering the new thing, following our passions, this is what we strive for and adolescents have that natural drive within them.

As Siegal says, “The ESSENCE of adolescence turns out to be the essence of how to live a full and vital life as an adult.” So as much as I tend to look at my 3 year olds for inspiration about a fulfilling adult life, I now realize maybe I should be taking a cue or two from the teens!

What do you think about the teen ESSENCE?