Authentic Learning & Authentic Learning Environments

A few weeks back a professional colleague asked what I thought an authentic learning environment looked like, this is my rather long winded answer 😊

Authentic learning “… is a pedagogical approach that allows for the construction of meaning grounded in real-life situations and the learners own personal experience” (Authentic Learning Environments). An environment allows for authentic learning when children have caring,  authentic relationships with educators and space to experiment and explore.

An authentic learning environment begins with authentic relationships between children and educators. Authentic relationships with children are hugely important because “[n]o significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  (Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry) When a classroom culture cultivates positive relationships and a sense of belonging and inclusion children have the security to learn in authentic ways.

In authentic learning environments children are allowed to make discoveries through concrete, hands on experiences rather than attempting to force them to understand a concept by filling out a worksheet or participating in a teacher planned lesson. As Bev Boss, early learning expert said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and body it can’t be in the brain!”

Giving children the space and time to play and to construct their own understanding of the world is crucial if we want their learning to be meaningful to them. Educators in authentic learning environments are co-learners and play partners, scaffolding the children’s learning with open ended questions and gentle guidance.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.  – Alexandra K. Trenfor

Children are designed to learn, motivated to discover and understand the world around them. From the moment babies enter the world they are eager explorers visually mapping the faces of those closest to them, communicating with cries and smiles, and learning through interacting with their environment. As educators we must support that natural drive to discover by creating welcoming environments that inspire children to learn.

Reflecting children’s interests and individual needs creates a rich and meaningful classroom environment. Because teachers in authentic environments cultivate close relationships with children and their families they genuinely understand what topics will ignite their students’ curiosity and are able to weave them into the fabric of play.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats.

When teachers are sensitive to each child’s individual needs, interests and temperaments and the environment is conducive to exploration and play, authentic learning is a natural process that occurs organically. Authentic learning is distinctly meaningful to each individual child and it is the things that have meaning to us that linger in our minds and our hearts for a lifetime.

13 Signs That You Might Be a Crunchy Childcare Provider

I’ve been called crunchy a time or two as a parent and I’m also a bit “granola” in my practice as an early childhood educator.

Now I can hear a few of you asking, “What does crunchy even mean?”

Well,  Wiktionary defines crunchy as “Having sensibilities of a counter-culture nature lover or hippie; derived from the concept of crunchy granola.”

Even though some people use the term crunchy with a sigh and an eyeroll, I’ve fully embraced my crunchy/granola/neo-hippy leanings. I think the kids in my class really benefit from the gentle approach I use as well as the close connection we share with nature.

Think you might be a crunchy childcare provider? I’ve compiled this handy list of signs below just for fun. Thanks for the help with it Lesley!

  1. Wearing a baby is your favorite fashion accessory, in fact you occasionally wear more than one!
  2. There is a jar of coconut oil in your medication box.
  3. You regularly meditate with 3 year olds.
  4. Kale chips are a treat.
  5. When you clean the guts out of a squash you save some of the seeds to grow in the spring.
  6. You’ve made your own yogurt for snack.
  7. You’ve also made your own granola and bread, often with the help of small people.
  8. Many of your students’ favorite toys are recycled materials or thrift store rescues.
  9. You’ve taken the children on foraging adventures.
  10. You’re not a farmer but you have (or want) backyard/play yard chickens.
  11. Single use plastics make you cringe so you make your own beeswax wraps for food.
  12. You have an essential oil for every occasion and know how to use them safely.
  13. You can sew or crochet just about any curriculum material.

What are some ways that you embrace your crunchy side in your program?

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?