How Learning Environments Enable Play

I first heard the term ‘enabling environment’ applied to child care classrooms in some of the UK early learning and care circles I frequent on social media. Curious about the meaning I did a little Googling (which is of course a verb now) and I learned that the phrase ‘enabling environment’ originates in the Early Years Foundation Stage document. According to Nursery Resources creating an ‘enabling environment’ “… is about providing a setting in which children can play, explore and learn in a safe, caring and supportive space.”

I took some time to reflect on my practice and I wondered, what do I feel are the elements of an early learning and care environment that truly empower and enable children to play and explore?

The phrase ‘enabling environment’ itself speaks to my soul as an educator; it brings to mind a space that is warm and inviting, filled with beautiful and engaging open-ended materials, where little explorers make eager discoveries each day with the support of caring educators.

Our classrooms are a reflection of our image of the child, “[f]rom the aesthetics of the space, to the type of furnishings and materials available, to the organization of time, the environment communicates a powerful message and contributes to shaping the actions that can be taken within it.” (How Does Learning Happen?) When we view children as competent, capable and curious individuals our classrooms will be intuitively structured as enabling and empowering spaces for young children.

Creating an environment that empowers children begins with educators that respect them as powerful and capable individuals. Both Loris Malaguzzi (founder of the Reggio Emilia schools) and Magda Gerber (developer of the RIE philosophy) expressed that from the moment children are born they are learning and connecting to their world; they are not just empty vessels to be filled with facts, but competent individuals able to construct theories and direct their own learning.

Allowing children to use open-ended materials that may seem challenging (or delicate!) and guiding them as they learn how to use them appropriately, shows them that we trust and respect them. Of course this does means that for awhile glasses may get broken and paint may get spilled, but giving children the opportunity to play in this way supports their learning and growth across the spectrum of development.

The atmosphere of a learning environment also matters. The way that a classroom feels can have a huge impact on the way children play within the space; “When children feel emotionally safe and secure they are able to explore and find out about the place they are in and the things they can see, touch, manoeuvre or manipulate.” (Early Years Matters)

The learning environment should be a safe space for children to express the full gamut of emotions knowing they will be supported in learning how to cope with and express them appropriately (Early Years Foundation Stage). In a classroom environment that is welcoming of all feelings children are comfortable to fail, feel disappointment, and try again.

A friendly, gentle, and welcoming teacher can make all the difference in how children feel in an early learning and care program. When little ones are valued, included, and supported by their educator they are confident and eager to explore. In programs that cultivate caring and supportive relationships children “… are happier, less anxious, and more motivated to learn …” (How Does Learning Happen?)

Encouraging families to participate in the learning environment, in ways that they feel comfortable with, gives children the opportunity to observe a positive connection between home and school which creates a welcoming classroom climate. “Children thrive in programs where they and their families are valued as active participants and contributors.” (How Does Learning Happen?)

The aesthetic of a learning environment as well as its overall emotional atmosphere play a crucial role in children’s learning and development because it sets the stage for their explorations and play (How Does Learning Happen?). Whatever term you use to describe the environment, ‘third teacher’, ‘enabling environment’, or something else entirely, there is no arguing its importance in the early learning framework.

How does your learning environment enable and empower children to play?

One thought on “How Learning Environments Enable Play”

  1. You certainly are amazing. It is so wonderful that children are given the opportunities in learning and play that they so much deserve. I believe this can be carried over into everyday life with children when you are a mother and not just in a child care setting. Thank you so much for all the marvelous information you share.

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