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.
For 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!