• Kate Hodgekiss

Space Design In Early Childhood - 5 things to think about...

The focus on early childhood environments is nothing new, but the approaches evolve as research increases. Trends have changed from the bright cartoonish colours of the past to more natural tones. Plastic toys are being replaced with natural resources and loose parts. This is an area which continues to draw interest. Like with anything else in Early Childhood, we should be intentional in our environment set ups, always reflecting and questioning. Central to our answers should be best outcomes for children. It took me years to refine my philosophy on play space design and in this blog I am going to give you a little introduction to five factors which have stood out to me over this time. If you’re interested in learning more, join us at one of our upcoming “Inspiring Play Spaces and Materials” workshops (link at the bottom of the blog).

1. What is ‘fluidity’ and why is it important?

When discussing early childhood play spaces, you may have heard the term ‘fluidity’ being used. A fluid environment simply means an environment which has a flow to the spaces. It is a simple concept but can have a profound effect on learning. When placing spaces around the room, think about how each space will work. Is it going to be a busy (and probably louder) space such as a block area? And if so, how would that go next to a space where children would be undertaking more solitary, quiet tasks such as reading? Are the areas which encourage literacy close to each other? These sorts of questions will ensure you are creating an environment which encourages children to sustain learning and transfer it from one context to another.

2. Accessibility is key.

Accessibility is a fairly new concept in mainstream early childhood services, but this has been a part of Montessori philosophy for over 100 years. Montessori considered three things particularly important when designing early childhood environments and those were beauty, order and accessibility. All three are important to consider, no doubt, but when it comes to encouraging sustained learning and autonomy, accessibility is fundamental. In a TEDx talk from Dr. Georgeland called "The Failure of Success" it is revealed that a NASA test in to imaginative thinking showed the decline in creative genius as children move through school. Part of the reason children lose their creative skills as they move through school is because education often tells them how they should solve a problem, never allowing them to find their own innovative solutions. This was something Bruner recognised in his theories also. Allowing children access to all the resources and materials on hand, will give them the opportunity to explore concepts in their own imaginative, unrestricted ways, in turn also maintaining their interest.

3. Creating an atmosphere for learning

When it comes to creating an atmosphere for learning there are a few important points I like to consider. The first is the busyness of the environment. Going back not too long, we used to have bright colours everywhere and children’s artwork covering every spare inch of our walls. But as time passes and research, particularly in to neuroscience, emerges we have found that a stripped back approach is more conducive to learning. I talk about this more in my blog “Strip it Back - Why I choose a calmer classrooms approach”. Essentially the more sensory data there is in a space, the busier the child’s mind will be simply processing their environment, and thus taking away from the learning at hand. This is a very trauma informed approach and also links with Montessori’s emphasis on the order of the environment.

I also am a big believer that details make all the difference when designing spaces with an atmosphere for learning. Thinking about children’s identities, home lives, the local culture, interests and more, is integral to creating an environment which promotes a sense of belonging. It is more than just have pictures of the children and their families on a wall. Making a home corner space really resemble a home with realistic or miniature furniture, proper kitchenware and spotting little details around like curtains or table clothes. These details add a thoughtfulness to the spaces and make them more inviting. Stand back (preferably on your knees at the child’s height) and ask yourself “Do I want to play here?”.

4. Utilising Light and Shade

I was lucky enough in my career to spend some time with the lovely women from Boulder Colorado Journey School, focusing on the utilisation of light and shade in the early childhood environment. Needless to say this is a concept I became slightly obsessed with and have explored over the years in many, many ways. Using projectors (digital or overhead), light boxes, lamps and material (calico sheets being my favourite to use in this way), can alter landscapes and inspire creative play. Simply hanging a calico sheet near an art table and projecting nothing but light on to it, will cause shadows and shades from the furniture in the room and children walking past. It’s a wonderful way to alter perspectives.

5. Careful Material and Resource Selection

This is a huge area and probably deserves a blog on its own. As mentioned we have been moving away from the ‘plastic fantastic’ environment to the selection of more natural and open-ended resources. Most mainstream services are influenced heavily by Reggio Emilia approaches to material selection. I look for materials which provoke interest, motivate sustained learning, and encourage collaboration. Loose parts and junk modelling are used to inspire children to tinker, create and problem solve. Our material selection (like accessibility) will have a great impact on the child’s ability to think ‘outside the box’. If we limit children to the resources and materials we believe they will need to solve a problem, then they will more than likely solve it our way, rather than finding a new innovative solution.

As you can see there is a lot to consider in space design, and this is just a very brief introduction. The important thing is that we are looking at our spaces through the critical reflection lens and are intentional and thoughtful with our design. There are many theories you can draw from - Montessori, Steiner and Reggio being a few of my favourites when it comes to environments. You will need to develop a philosophy on environment design which reflects your personal philosophies of education, as well as the lives and identities of your stakeholders. We will be exploring all of this in depth (and visually) at our upcoming workshops “Inspiring Play Spaces and Materials”. Click here for more information.

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