People spend most of their time in environments created by other people. Some of these are well thought-out, while others seem to be organized rather haphazardly. According to Greenman (2017), spaces are usually designed with some purpose or intent, whether it is obvious or not. Each of them implies some values or beliefs about those who use it and things that occur there. Moreover, environments affect people being in them in subtle or substantial ways. The latter is true for children in the United States, who spend days, weeks, and months in early childhood programs. Greenman (2017) notes that there are currently valid assessment tools to determine quality spaces; however, most American programs have not used the experience of those who specialize in space design. Meanwhile, it is essential for early childhood programs environments to be organized with conscious, deliberate attention to the values they convey and the influence on people spending time in them.
Early childhood is the period between a child’s birth and the age of six years old. As per Conti and Krever (2021), it is the most crucial phase in a person’s postpartum development and learning. During this time, speech is developed, movements are acquired, senses are substantiated, and body is accustomed to sensory input. With such enormous advancements occurring, early childhood environments – that is, environments in which children spend most of their time – must reflect the ever-changing childhood needs. These environments are typically considered to consist of rooms’ or spaces’ physical layouts, materials accessible to children and their shared sense of belonging.
Children in the early childhood period unconsciously absorb from the world around them and learn from the spaces they find themselves in, effortlessly and spontaneously. This stage of extreme mental activity slowly leads to them absorbing more consciously, which allows for activities chosen more intentionally. According to Conti and Krever (2021), at the same time, there is a great desire for both independence and order. Therefore, optimal environments for young children are to enable them to acquire the self-help skills to build their self-confidence and self-reliance while maintaining order in physical arrangement, materials, and proposed activities. Conti and Krever (2021) state that it is the role of an educator to prepare spaces to meet the needs of a particular group of children under their supervision. Unfortunately, many caregivers and practitioners are not sure about how do it properly.
Granted, there are licensing standards and regulations that must be met by childcare providers for them to operate legally. These regulations constitute a basic standard and are aimed primarily at protecting kids from harm and not at promoting child development and early learning. Among the variety of tools evaluating program equality, there are a few that are most often used and widely recognized in American preschool settings. As per Peterson and Elam (2021), first of all, it is the Environment Rating Scale (ERS), which consists of four levels depending on learners’ age and assesses process quality. Process quality includes the interactions happening in a classroom between children, children and staff, staff and other adults, and children and activities/materials in the environment. Then there is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), a tool offering different strategies for educators to implement to advance quality classroom interactions. It evaluates creative and cooperative learning experiences and looks at the teacher’s role in letting children actively participate in their learning processes. Additional measures to assure high-quality practices are program accreditations, the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), and the Caregiver Interaction Scale (CIS).
However, while all these regulations are critical to reducing the risks associated with inadequate child surveillance, poor standards, and unsafe practices, they do not meet the far-reaching needs of young children. Thus, according to Workman and Ullrich (2017), compliance with licensing requirements is only a basis for providing the essential components needed to operate rather than an indicator of program quality. In addition to that, different American states have different requirements in terms of establishing which practitioners are to be licensed, and there might be exceptions for, for instance, faith-based programs. Consequently, a significant number of children attend programs exempt from licensing that do not meet even minimum standards.
Therefore, quality in early childhood education is defined not only and not so much by licensing regulations. Workman and Ullrich (2017) state that the foundation for high-quality programs is the happenings inside the classroom, specifically, the interactions between the educator and children. High-quality programs are those in which educators promote learners’ development with age-appropriate strategies and use a suitable curriculum to structure the process. A number of key factors is needed to further such advancements to ensure excellent teaching and learning, and, as per Workman and Ullrich (2017), there are three main ones doing that. These are interpersonal interactions, program support structures, and physical environment.
First of all, children’s experiences in their first years define their subsequent development, and teachers play a major role in shaping these experiences. According to Workman and Ullrich (2017), a highly qualified teacher adapts their interaction to the needs of learners. That is, one uses responsive language, strengthens independence in students, and attempts to engage them all in classroom activities. Moreover, competent early childhood educators actively prevent problematic behaviors and respond to kids’ desires and needs warmly, respectfully, and empathetically. It is interesting to note that children’s experiences with teachers at an early age might become the basis for their interaction with educators later. Therefore, these are critical to shaping positive school attitudes and approaches to learning.
Furthermore, a highly effective learning environment requires support that takes various forms. Powerful leaders are needed to provide pedagogical support to educators and competent business management to curate programs as a whole. Such leadership functions are challenging and are most likely to be performed by more than one individual. On top of that, in addition to an immediate program, programs require a number of structural support measures, which includes access to professional development, resources for quality improvement, secure funding streams, and well-trained educators. These supports indicate that early childhood programs are not implemented in a vacuum and count on the broader pre-school system.
Finally, children need physical settings to safely explore, learn, and play. The learning environment is to contain appealing and development-appropriate materials and be designed to foster examination and independence, taking into account the different stages of children’s development. Alongside the indoors learning environment, it is essential for learners to have access to outdoors spaces for them to move and interact with the world. Playing outside positively impacts health and has been reported to help tackle childhood obesity and develop a stronger immunity (Workman and Ullrich, 2017). Furthermore, children spending a lot of time outdoors have reduced stress levels, more vivid imaginations, and bigger respect for themselves and people around them.
When it comes to physical environments, their design – indoor and outdoor alike – requires careful planning and implementation for children to feel calm and safe yet engaged and curious. According to Virtual Lab School (n.d.), in terms of indoor spaces, it is important to take into consideration organization, logistics, aesthetics, and children’s needs. First of all, indoor settings are to be well organized for various activities and have sufficient storage for children’s and staff’s personal items. Environments are to have age- and development-appropriate materials that can be retrieved and returned by learners on their own. There has to be furniture of appropriate size that can be comfortably used. Moreover, it is now recognized that children might want and need to be alone, therefore, a specific area for that is to be arranged. Finally, the space is to feel inclusive and home-like with the help of displaying children’s artworks, photos of their families or other personalized décor.
Outdoor environments do not have a specific standard to them and look different depending on a program. As per Virtual Lab School (n.d.), some spaces might be wide-open and green, with trees and gardens, while others might mostly be paved. If children’s age allows for it, outdoor environments can include play areas at program sites, or nearby ones such as local parks might be utilized. Some may have permanent equipment for climbing and gross-motor, and some may have equipment that is brought out when necessary. Most importantly, one is to understand the strengths and limitations of outdoor environments available to them specifically, so that ideas and materials most appropriate for a particular location could be considered.
In conclusion, early childhood environments are complex arrangements to organize which a lot has to be taken into account. Licensing standards and regulations define the basic standards that need to be met for the environment to function properly; however, they do not address all that children need. What they need is interactions with their educators, age- and development-appropriate learning materials to explore, and enough space that is well-organized for them to interact with the world and one another.
Conti, M., & Krever, M. K. (2021). Preparing the early childhood learning environment. Community Playthings.
Greenman, J. (2017). Caring spaces, learning places. Exchange Press, Incorporated.
Peterson, G., & Elam, E. (2021). Observation and assessment in early childhood education.
Virtual Lab School. (n.d.). The indoor environment: Designing and organizing.
Workman, S., & Ullrich, R. (2017). Quality 101: Identifying the core components of a high-quality early childhood program. American Progress. Web.