One of the may things that I always appreciate about our classrooms at Thistleoaks is the thoughtful effort that is put into each of our learning environments by our educators, children, and families. The environment plays an incredibly significant role in children’s overall development, and in creating a sense of belonging, wellbeing, engagement, and expression. We see the environment as a “third teacher”. It mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space (HDLH). The environment invites experiences in which children explore ideas, investigate their theories, and interact with others in play. We aim for our environments to be engaging, spark interest, provoke learning, and enrich language and communication, while supporting social interactions.
From 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.(HDLH). The Spruce Room educators swag cloths and string twinkling lights up in the ceiling. They add nature-inspired elements and real plants to the space, all to create a calming, cozy, and nostalgic atmosphere for children to engage within. In the Willow Room you will see everything intentionally brought down to the children’s level, giving toddlers the ability to notice, recall, wonder about, and further explore what they are seeing. There are always interesting things dangling from the ceiling or stuck on the floors and windows in the Applewood Room that infants can touch and be intrigued by or explore while being held, or while independently making their way around the room. Pedagogical documentation is posted throughout the Cedar Room, which reflects and offers insight to the learning that is happening, from multiple perspectives. A plenitude of visuals can also be seen throughout the environment that support language and communication, and act as cues for children in their daily activity and routines. In the Pine Room, there are labels on bins and shelves that help organize the space and enable children to access materials independently, allowing for autonomy and self-efficacy. The Birch Room boasts an environment rich in language and cultural diversity with materials and displays that are responsive to and reflective of the children and families within our community. In the Maple Room, you will find evidence of children’s awareness of the world, and their role in making choices that help the animals, plants, and people within it. Children have a strong leadership role in designing the environment in the Redwood Room. Its design reflects the things they are interested in and what’s important to them.
A common thread in all programs and throughout the centre is the inclusion of photographs. There is a wide array of photos incorporated within our environments including photos of families and pets and of children engaged in learning experiences. Photos used as visuals cues and labels matched with words, and other various photos that prompt language, interaction, and inquiry.
One of the most important things for children is seeing their family reflected in their environment. It provides them with a keen sense of belonging and well-being. Including photographs of families in our environments sends the message “My family is present. My family is important. My family is valued.” It inspires connections and interactions between children and their educators and peers, with “family” becoming the focal point of conversations. Through those conversations, educators can learn more about the complexity of each child and his/her family. This knowledge can be used in our curriculum planning to prompt, deepen and extend children’s learning experiences. Since September, many of our programs have been requesting family photos to help support that sense of belonging, well-being, engagement, and expression that every child deserves. Please be sure to send in a photo of your family, if you haven’t already done so... it’s so valuable!
Pedagogical documentation helps to find meaning in what children do and what they experience, and is used as a means to value, discuss, and make learning visible. It often contains photographs, and reflections from the educators, children and sometimes families. Pedagogical documentation continues to adorn our bulletin boards and classroom walls. It’s seeped into the children’s individual developmental portfolios and emails between our educators and families. When children have opportunity to review this documentation, it helps them to recall those experiences and reflect on the learning that occurred. This reflection can often lead the educators to extend or deepen that learning experience by providing more time, space, and materials to further delve into an emerging interest or skill. Much of what children reflect upon are the photos that capture those moments. Those moments in photos say “I am capable. I am competent. I am curious, and rich in potential. My adventures in learning are important.”
Children gain a stronger sense of self-esteem as they experience success in communicating their wants, needs, likes, dislikes, and ideas. Photos of everyday things and visual cues can help support the development of language, literacy, and communication. Children, even in the infant stage, make connections between the things they see and the words they hear. This explains why you will see an abundance of photos of things children are interested in posted at their eye-level throughout our programs. Once children’s expressive language skills begin to emerge, they can point to and label many familiar things, and their vocabulary continues to grow. This is a BIG DEAL for children, as they are finally able to express what they know, and what they want to know. Christopher wants to build something with the Lego. He looks for inspiration from the hand-made book of photos of the worlds largest buildings that’s hanging in the construction area. He then creates something that looks sort of like the CN Tower and continues to tell his educator how he went to the CN Tower in the summer with his family. When we incorporate a lot of photos, books, print in various languages, and verbal and non-verbal communication, within the environment and throughout the day, we are supporting a provocative interest-based and language-rich environment. These pictures say, “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you like and don’t like. Tell me or show me what inspires you. Show me how you can represent your ideas, knowledge and experiences.”
Visuals can also support children’s ability to self-regulate their attention, emotions, and behaviours. Educators create visual schedules for children to follow the routine and transitions of the day. In the above photo, Nicole sees the “snack time” photo being removed from the visual schedule, she knows that it is now time to tidy up, and then indoor play time is next. She can be an active participant in that routine.
In the above photo, the children engage in problem-solving as the three approach to tool bench and recognize the visual indicates that only two can play. Meanwhile, Kayla and Paige engage in similar problem-solving because they know by looking at the visual that four children can play in the dramatic play area, and since there’s only two children in the area, they are able to join in.
Elsewhere, Jasper is excited to go outside and when he’s ready he rushes to the door and stops to wait for his educator and peers when he sees the stop sign visual. Cassandra is beginning to recognize the emotions of others. Her educators created sensory bottles with facial expressions on them, and she is able to connect Max’s facial expression to the sensory bottle and recognize that he is happy. When getting ready for outdoors, Billy doesn’t have to ask for help because he sees and he knows his boots come next, based on the posted visuals. He gains a strong sense of self-esteem when he can be independent. These photos say, “Take my hand and I will lead you towards independence and help you gain a positive self-image”.
When the environment supports children’s growing autonomy and independence, challenging behaviours are reduced and educators can focus more fully on observing, interacting, and extending children’s learning and development in meaningful ways (HDLH). Reducing clutter and things that cause children anxiety within the classroom sets children up for optimal learning, where they are calmly focussed and alert. As educators, we aim to design environments where children can access and use materials in their play, independently. Visual labels paired with words help children to both learn language and understand the organization of the space. Cindy and Lauren help to clean up the art materials and can take pride in putting them all back in their rightful place. They can see the picture of glue and the word glue on the container and they know the glue goes there. These photos say “This is what goes here. This is me in many languages. You are taking an important role by helping to keep the room tidy and organized.”
A picture says a thousand words, not only by the image presented, but by how each person interprets it, and the wonder inspired by that interpreter and that interpretation.
Please note: This blog is based on real experiences and the names of children have been changed for privacy.