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?

Following the Rhythm of Nature in Early Learning Curriculums

There is a chill in the air this morning, a distinct feeling of fall in the crisp breeze whispering in through the open classroom window. It is the time of the year when we begrudgingly say goodbye to bare feet and bundle up in our warm sweaters; we practice the buttons and zippers on our coats and make sure our cubbies are stocked with extra socks and mittens.

As summer fades and begins to make way for autumn Mother Nature paints our learning with a brush of orange and red and brown. The children will soon begin to notice the beautiful leaves scattered on the ground like confetti and I wonder, will we sort them or gather them in to piles for jumping?

The rhythm of the seasons ignites the children’s interests with its myriad of changes and materials; it is a more rich curriculum than any you could plan or buy.

In the spring the children noticed all of the plants bursting to life and they were filled with questions! How did seeds sprout? What do plants need to grow? So we planted a garden, sprouted seeds in cups and sketched the roots, we made prints on fabric and the natural dyes from dandelions, we read stories and made discoveries together.

There were little birds in nests and tiny baby creatures scampering about during our forest trips and we were filled with wonder. We researched how birds hatch, what types of homes little creatures make, and documented our discoveries in drawings.

Water was our focus in the balmy months of summer; the cool stream in the woods became a welcome escape from the heat. We watched the gentle current guide little ships of wood and leaves, laughing as we chased them, our feet displacing the water and making big splashes as we ran through the shallow brook.

We used our tattered wilderness guide book to identify different plants and tiny beasts we found in the wilderness. We practiced pronouncing the big Latin names of species of trees as we climbed and explored together in the depths of the forest.

Then, one day, like magic there is a sudden frostiness in the air that feels like autumn and the leaves begin to change; green fades and orange and red takes its place in the towering trees. We find acorns and pinecones at our feet as the plants prepare to settle to sleep beneath a blanket of snow.

Winter brings with it frozen adventures as we explore in the beautiful sparkling snow and climb the branches of bare trees. We will wonder how the little creatures store food in the winter and talk excitedly about the animals that slumber through the cold months. The children will direct their learning, guided by their discoveries in this lovely icy wonderland, and every learning journey (even the familiar ones) will bring with them something new and wonderful.

Mother Nature is a creative and patient teacher, always carefully preparing the outdoor environment with rich and inviting materials for little hands to discover.

When we allow the pleasant cadence of the natural world to guide our curriculum, and give children the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in outdoor play, the opportunities for learning are endless!

Let Them Play! Messy Play in Early Learning and Care

A toddler sits on the edge of a puddle, grinning as she digs her toes deep into the welcoming mud. Another child joins her and uses the damp soil to paint his arms and face, he is filthy and absolutely beaming with joy as he explores this wonderful stuff with his peer.

At the table not far away a pair of little ones are squeezing gobs of paint on to a log cookie and swirling the colors together with their hands.

“What color will it make?”

“I wonder what will happen if we add water?”

There is no right or wrong way to play in messy explorations.

One child might turn a mud puddle in to a paint palette while another may find a leaf and make a boat to sail across the surface of the water. Everyone can participate in messy play because there are no expectations; the materials are open ended allowing children to use and explore them in a variety of different ways which fosters creativity and innovation.

Take a step back and give the children the opportunity to get messy, discover new things, make mistakes and try again. According to author and early childhood expert Bev Bos, “Our flexibility and willingness to follow a child’s lead will allow remarkable things to happen, if we let them.”

As a fledgling early childhood educator messy sensory play used to make me flinch. The classroom would be a disaster! The horror! Yet, when I let go and began to really allow children to explore the process without focus on an outcome or a product I discovered their learning was much more rich and deep.

Children are naturally driven to learn through messy or sensory play. Though it can sometimes look destructive and, well, messy, allowing children the opportunity to discover new things in this hands on, concrete way is invaluable. Research shows that children build cognitive skills through play experiences in which they have the opportunity to use all of their senses (K. Butcher & J. Pletcher, 2016 – Cognitive development and sensory play).

In my program most of our messy play activities take place outside, especially during the warmer months. Nature provides so many sensory experiences, different materials, and space for exploring. The indoor environment takes a bit of preparation but messy play in the classroom can be just as engaging … just be sure to get the mop and wash cloths ready!

Some ways to support messy play for young children in the classroom learning space include:

  1. Tarps, lots of tarps. Lay them down where you will be allowing children to explore messy materials like paint or clay.
  2. Make sure you use art supplies that are easily washable. Putting a bit of dish soap in paint, for example, can make clothes easier to tidy after exploring with process art.
  3. If you’re worried about stains use smocks to help limit them.
  4. Give out materials in small amounts, allowing more as children request it. This way children get what they need and aren’t overwhelmed with stuff (and you aren’t overwhelmed by mess!)
  5. Seal the messy materials in bottles or Ziploc bags for tidier sensory play. For example, squeeze a little hair gel and sparkles in to a zippy and tape it shut! This can be really beneficial for children who aren’t fond of the icky-sticky stuff.

Whether inside or outside allowing children the opportunity to explore self-directed messy play is so important.

“One of the most valuable gifts educators and parents can bestow on children is messy play,” explains Lesley Cressman, RECE. “In messy play children are able to push the envelope on their own natural curiosity.”

Messy play allows children to learn concepts organically that we would struggle to teach using archaic methods such as teacher directed activities or worksheets. Through messy play experiences little ones discover the scientific process, mathematical concepts, learn to express themselves creatively, and practice social skills such as turn taking and communication.

As Neil Degrassi Tyson said, “Don’t get in the way of children who find it natural and obvious to explore the world around them – even if it means they make a mess of your kitchen or living room. It’s all about your perspective on these things. Let them play.”

Inclusion in Early Learning Programs: Why Representation Matters

The children in my class absolutely love reading stories; they cuddle in my lap and on cushions beside me as I spin tales in silly voices about princesses and pirates and going off on magical adventures.

I very carefully choose the books that line our shelves each week. I strive to include different people, different languages, different cultures, because every child should see themselves in our stories.  It can be hard to imagine ourselves in these rich literary worlds if none of the characters looks like us or feel like us or have families like us.

Books introduce children to different narratives and life experiences; there can be a princess who is a boy and girls can slay fearsome dragons. Instead of long blond hair Rapunzel lets down her dark and curly locks, Prince Charming has a dark complexion and loves the prince in a neighbouring kingdom, and the hero of the story uses a walker for mobility.

Incorporating culture, race, language, ability, ethnicity, family structure, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression, and socioeconomic differences in the books, pictures and materials in the learning environment ensures it is a welcoming and inclusive space for all children in the program. Children feel a sense of belonging when their individuality and presence are valued in the learning community (How Does Learning Happen? Page 24).

“Most of the books teachers read to classes don’t feature gender nonconforming characters” explains Meaghan Grant, advocate and mother of a gender expansive child. “Students don’t study famous and groundbreaking trans people. They don’t see themselves reflected in the culture being taught. And for trans kids who have a supportive community and family, that might be okay. But the kids who are cisgender or don’t have supportive families are also not getting the exposure that would normalize their gender expansive peers.”

Grant adds, “Representation is key in inclusion and tolerance. Without representation, a person is always going to be “other””

Creating inclusive learning environments in which children with diverse skills, cultures, family structures, and gender expressions play and learn together supports their development of empathy, respect and understanding for one another. “All children benefit from being in inclusive environments where they are able to participate and collaborate in meaningful ways and form authentic, caring relationships.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 25)

An environment can foster a sense of belonging in a variety of ways.

Adapting your space so that children of varying skill levels and abilities can freely play and explore together helps everyone to feel that they belong. Our classroom, for example, is a multi-age group so we must be attentive to the inclusion of all of the little ones as well as their older peers. With this in mind, we have lined our shelves with loose parts because there is no right or wrong way to play with these materials, each child can use them in their own unique way. “Every child should feel that he or she belongs, is a valuable contributor to his or her surroundings, and deserves the opportunity to succeed.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 6)

“We have a family tree (branches) that we display family photos on,” says Ivy Woods, RECE. “This way they can see the varying dynamics that a family can be made up of. We have many children with a Mom and Grandma as parents, 2 same sex parents, Grandparents and Aunt and Uncle playing the parenting role.”

“I personally learn key words for the children whose first language is not English. I also have lots of multicultural books and toys within the program. I sing songs from different languages and I ask the families of songs the kids enjoy so I can learn and sing to them,” says Lena Calheta, RECE. “I also make sure to state when we talk about families that not all are the same and many have different dynamics.”

Modelling respect for everyone in the learning environment is key to creating a sense of belonging in the  learning community according to Kay Kucharzyk, RECE. “A respectful environment is contagious but so is a disrespectful one,” explains Kucharzyk.

Families can be a great resource for materials and information to use to enrich your classroom environment. “Families bring diverse social, cultural, and linguistic perspectives. Families should feel that they belong, are valuable contributors to their children’s learning, and deserve to be engaged in a meaningful way.” (How Does Learning Happen? Page 7)

Little things can make a huge difference for the small people in your classroom. Incorporating pieces of fabric from their culture, family pictures, cooking utensils in the dramatic center like those they see in use at home, and dolls with different skin tones or disabilities, for example, nurtures a feeling of inclusion.

Taking the time to ensure each child can see themselves represented in your program shows them that they fit, they matter, and they belong.

The Importance of Nature Play in Early Childhood Settings

By Natasha Kocher, RECE & Ryan Hasbury
originally published in The Holistic Parent Magazine in August 2018

The forest is alive with laughter and joyful little voices as the children make their way down the path and into the trees. Huge logs quickly become balance beams and climbing structures to the imaginative explorers. Shoes are discarded, tossed with haphazard enthusiasm, to feel the squishy mud between their toes.

“Look a bug! He’s huge!” cries an excited preschooler. “I wonder where he lives?”

There are always new opportunities for wonder in this magical place.

A toddler nearby has discovered a stick that is perfect for scratching marks into the earth while another child lines up smooth stones from largest to smallest at the serene edge of a stream.

An infant, the youngest of the group, babbles happily as he freely explores leaves and twigs on the forest floor with chubby baby fingers. Tummy time at its finest!

Mark making, early math skills and literacy skills, observation, experimentation, risk taking and messy play; there are so many learning opportunities in this natural space.

This is a snapshot of nature based education.

Play in nature is truly one of the best ways for children to learn. It is unhurried and messy and sparks the imagination because there are so many materials freely accessible to use.

When contrasted with the asphalt playgrounds of some schools and childcare facilities, play in green, natural spaces is more engaging and exciting because it is always different. Even if you return to the same physical location or just use an unmanicured green space in your play yard, the changes with the seasons and weather can make it feel like a new place.

In the forest or any other natural space you have to rediscover the landscape with each visit. The children must build a relationship with these places, taking time to learn their nooks and secret spaces, and there are always new discoveries to be made.

With this in mind, many early learning programs are beginning to embrace nature play as an important element in their curriculum and this choice has had huge benefits for children.

“Children are happier and healthier! They have less stress. They learn to manage risk. They have opportunities for adventure! They are fitter and leaner. They have better eyesight,” says Diane Kashin Ed.D, RECE, author and nature play advocate. “Childhood is increasingly becoming an indoor culture. Never before in history has this been the case. The implications are scary.”

Kashin adds, “Children need to learn to love nature so that they can take care of it – they need to become stewards of the environment. It is important to them and it is important to us and it is important to the planet. Teachers can be leaders to reverse this trend.”

As educators in early learning and care we must advocate for nature play. We must become enthusiastic explorers, eager co-learners, wondering and discovering and playing with our students.

Don’t shrink away from spiders, don’t shy away from mud, and most importantly don’t say no when you can say yes!

Yes, you can splash in the puddle!

Yes, you can play in the mud!

Yes, you can search for fairies among the mushrooms and flowers!

Richard Louv, author of  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, writes “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole.”

Teach the children in your care to find beauty in the warty old toad and to bask in the welcoming shade of ancient trees, to follow their wonder wherever it leads them, take risks and learn with hearts filled to the brim with joy.

As our time in the forest draws to a close I watch my young students splashing in the stream, clothes dripping and damp, smiles wide and eyes bright, and I hope that I have given a glimpse of the splendor all around us. The splendor that they are an important part of.

I hope that I have taught them to love the little creatures, to care for the little plants and for each other.

I hope that one day they will be the stewards of the environment, driven in part by the memories of this special place.

We gather our things and slowly begin our journey back home. No one is ever eager to leave the forest, but naptime is calling us and everyone is ready for a rest.

Well, almost everyone.

A preschooler who never seems to tire dashes ahead of the group as we make our way down the path. They’ve found a stick-sword to slay a fallen tree that they’ve imagined in to a fearsome dragon.

One last adventure before we return to sleep at our little school.

“Can we come back again soon?” a very sleepy child asks, rubbing their eyes with dirt smudged fists.

Of course we can.

It Feels Like Autumn

One of my child care little ones is dozing on the couch, snuggled in a blanket that has followed me from home to home since college. She has an early start and I’m glad she can have some rest before the business of our day begins. My son is happily chomping a cheese stick and practicing his signs, following along to the cheerful songs of the show Signing Time. I am in the kitchen sniffing out the perfect seasoning for a vegetarian version of chicken noodle soup; I settle on thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf or two. It’s a cloudy and cool day that feels like rain, soup is like a warm hug in this dreary weather. The end of August is always a difficult time; when my big kids head off to other adventures, each taking a piece of my heart with them. I hope I have prepared them for all of the things that await them in this next exciting chapter and that they will always carry with them a thirst for learning. It’s an exciting time too. Brand new little ones will step through the door as the warm weather fades and summer makes space for fall. They will become acquainted with the quiet nooks and crannies of the Monarch Woods during our forest adventures, learn the joy of singing with our music instructor, and listen with rapt attention to stories I have told a thousand times before. With the fall comes conflicting feelings of joy and sadness. Despite the goodbyes that break my heart, the new hellos always manage to mend it again.