Workspace for play: Setting up early childhood classrooms for success

Jennifer Fernández
Jennifer Fernández
Jennifer Fernández is the national early childhood subject matter expert at School Specialty. She has a BA in elementary education and Spanish and a MA in bilingual education. She taught in a variety of classroom settings, primarily early childhood, for 23 years and was a professional learning specialist for the city of San Antonio’s PreK4SA program for seven years. Jennifer provides professional development throughout the U.S. and has presented at regional, state, and national early childhood conferences. She can be reached at [email protected].

After more than 20 years as an early childhood educator and seven years as a trainer and coach for early childhood teachers, I became frustrated with the fact that many people regarded those first years of education as merely a babysitting service. What others saw as children “just playing,” I understood as true learning.

Fortunately, I feel that attitude has become less prevalent as more people recognize those early years as critical. Decades of research, including the landmark Perry Preschool Study, provide data on the long-term benefits of high-quality early education. These benefits include being more likely to graduate from high school, committing fewer crimes, holding a job, and gaining higher incomes.

One important area of early childhood education that is easily overlooked is the classroom itself. According to the Reggio Emelia approach, the environment is the “third teacher.” This idea refers to creating an early childhood environment that is purposeful and intentional, so it supports children’s learning as much as their parents and teachers do.

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For children to succeed in learning from their environment, it must be set up to foster independence and take into consideration their development as well as their individual needs. Here’s how schools can create supportive, developmentally appropriate classrooms that help young students build the foundation for a successful academic trajectory.

What does a developmentally appropriate classroom look like?

Young children use their five senses to learn about the world around them, so the environment must be engaging, hands-on, and appealing to the senses. They are very curious and enjoy discovering and interacting with all elements of a classroom. Creating an environment conducive to play and exploration can help satisfy that curiosity and scaffold learning.

Something simple but often forgotten is the need for properly sized furniture. Ensuring that chairs and tables are at appropriate heights for the age level of the children in the room helps provide a safe and welcoming environment. Many early childhood furniture companies provide charts to guide the selection of these furniture pieces.

Furniture arrangement is also key. Open sight lines allow teachers to see all students from anywhere in the room. Placing tall pieces of furniture against walls and clearing tops of shelves and cabinets are ways to keep children in view.

Keeping tops of furniture cleared also keeps the room neat and organized. When teachers declutter and tidy up the environment, they help create a safe, inviting space. Research tells us when a child feels safe, both physically and emotionally, the brain is more ready to learn.

Currently, mobile, flexible furniture is a trend. Educators like the ability to reconfigure student groupings to enhance collaboration and communication. While this is appropriate for older students, teachers should be careful when thinking about these options in an early childhood classroom. The youngest students, particularly in prekindergarten and kindergarten, are still developing physically. Sturdy, stable furniture helps support their developing core and other muscles as well as providing safety as they move around the room. Remember, children are trying to make sense of the world around them and movement is one of the ways they do so.

How administrators can support developmentally appropriate classrooms

It’s important that teachers have autonomy in setting up their classrooms, but, ideally, an administrator should be able to visit a classroom where the teacher can explain why the room is arranged the way it is. It goes back to the need for an environment that is purposefully and intentionally planned.

Administrators come from all walks of education and may not necessarily have experience nor expertise in early childhood education. Their role in setting up the classroom will most likely be supportive. One fundamental way to provide support is remembering that early childhood encompasses birth through 8-year-olds and that those age groups learn differently than older students.

Learning more about early childhood education, especially about how children learn through play, is an excellent way for administrators to support developmentally appropriate classrooms. A good place to start is with their own early childhood teachers. Simply asking, “Why are you doing this?” or “Why are students doing this?” allows teachers the opportunity to explain what is really going on in the classroom. Don’t assume children are “just playing.” You may find that there are some pre-algebra skills being honed in the block area or some pre-writing skills developing at the art easel.

My last year in the classroom, I taught a 2nd-grade dual language class composed of English and Spanish speakers learning both languages. I often felt like the school clown, since people would stop to peek in my classroom to see what I was doing. Visitors thought it was odd and/or entertaining that my students and I were singing and dancing—until I explained how this was a helpful strategy to support second language acquisition.

As is often the case in education, professional development is key. Teachers learn about child development in their teacher prep programs, but rarely receive training on how to set up the environment. They are largely left to take the knowledge they have and figure out how to put it into practice themselves. This often means that when they get their first classroom, they simply follow the lead of the teacher next door. If they end up with a good mentor, that’s great, but doing what their neighbors do can sometimes perpetuate less-than-ideal practices. Administrators should support teachers’ quest for up-to-date, relevant information on creating developmentally appropriate early childhood environments.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is a well-known resource when it comes to developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education. They have state chapters and recommended resources to help educators stay current or learn more. The National Head Start Association and the First Five Years Fund provide valuable information as well, and the Hunt Institute has numerous webinars on current topics related to early childhood education. Educational companies, like my own organization, also provide helpful resources and articles about setting up a developmentally appropriate classroom.

Challenges to creating developmentally appropriate classrooms

Even if all early childhood educators and administrators in your building are aware of developmentally appropriate practices and appreciative of play-based, multisensory learning, there are a few common challenges to setting up a high-quality environment.

Space is the first hurdle that comes to mind. Ideally, young children need plenty of space to pursue the exploration and discovery mentioned earlier. While different pedagogical philosophies use distinct terms, a typical early childhood classroom is set up to include learning centers or interest areas. Unfortunately, having a huge classroom is a rarity, so teachers must get creative about how they provide a variety of learning experiences and a wide array of materials—no matter the size of their classroom.

One solution is what I call “doubling up.” For example, most classrooms have a large carpet for whole-group activities and large-group gatherings. However, no one is gathering during centers time, so that carpet also becomes the perfect space for block play. The carpet creates a boundary for the area, allows children a comfortable place to sit on the floor and build, and mutes the noise when towers of wooden blocks come tumbling down. Another example is using table and chair sets for mealtimes but also placing a storage unit nearby that allows children to bring learning materials such as manipulatives or art supplies to the table for use during interest areas.

While I touched on clutter previously, keeping the room clean and organized can maximize space for children’s play. I understand early childhood classrooms require a lot of learning materials and classroom supplies, but if those items become clutter, the environment no longer feels safe, comfortable, nor calming. Creative storage solutions like rolling carts that can be tucked away in a closet or nearby room, or sensory bins with built-in storage underneath can go a long way toward maintaining orderliness, but teachers also need to stay on top of their classroom and go through it frequently to decide what they really need.

Also consider decreasing the space that adults use in the room to make more space for students. If teachers can part with bulky file cabinets and giant desks, this will free up areas that could become additional learning centers. A good rule of thumb is to remember the room should be for the students rather than for storage.

Money is, of course, the perpetual challenge for educators. However, allotting funds for classroom furniture and supplies is crucial. Broken or damaged furniture and materials can be a safety hazard. Creating a pleasant environment with nice furnishings makes a welcoming place for children, boosts the morale of the educators working in that room, and helps parents feel good about sending their children to school every day.

Classroom furniture is an investment. It should be around a long time and probably will be, but children are hard on furniture. If you are fortunate enough to purchase furniture for your school, be sure you’re looking at durable furniture made with quality materials. Many furniture vendors even offer limited lifetime warranties helping to guarantee that your money is well spent.

It’s easy to step into an early childhood classroom and see nothing more than children at play with a teacher to babysit them. That play, with the expert guidance of a teacher and a purposeful, interactive environment is the work of childhood education, and it forms the foundation for the learning that those students will do for the rest of their lives. They deserve an appropriate, high-quality environment in which to build that foundation.

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