While children are small every moment we spend with them we are planting seeds.

We plant seeds of self-esteem when we share our love with them; seeds of confidence when we acknowledge their work; seeds of gentleness when we guide them through a tantrum or meltdown with kindness and understanding.

Those wondrous little beings take the very best parts of our souls and turn those seeds we share with them into beautiful blossoms.

Wouldn’t It Be Easier …

When the children and I are out on our adventures we occasionally need to stop to get our shoes on or take them off, to have our lunch, or wash our hands.

These are things my little friends try to do on their own, some with complete independence, some with a little support, always within the age appropriate expectations for their development.

Sometimes while the children work on their shoes, or their coats, or eating their lunch independently (oh the mess independence can make sometimes!) someone will comment: “Wouldn’t it be easier if you … fed them … did it for them? Wouldn’t it be faster?”

Yes, it absolutely would.

But what am I saying to them when I hurry to do up their shoes for them? When I take the spoon away because they are too messy?

“You can’t do it.”

“I can do this better, faster, than you.”

These aren’t things I want to say to my little friends who are working so hard to master a skill, to learn and to grow.

I want them to know that I believe in them, that I’ll help them if they ask, but I know that they can be successful as long as they keep trying.

Maria Montessori said, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

So I stand back and let them work and support them when they need it.

We make a mess, we take our time.

Sometimes it’s hard to wait for those little hands to zip that zipper, but the results are so worth it.

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?

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.