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Enabling Environments

Spaces that boost learning

Spaces that boost learning

Author: Tania Swift

Subject: Learning environments

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Truly enabling environments, be they indoors or out, allow children to experiment free from the fear of failure

Enabling environments should be age-specific, appealing to children’s interests, making them feel happy, challenged, safe and secure. They should be places where they can confidently play and learn. However, some of the best spaces will provide enriching and exciting spaces for children (and adults) of any age, either due to their nature or how they have been organised by professionals or a combination of both.

As children learn so much through exploring the environment and child-led activity, it is important that we create an environment that is interesting, exciting and poses challenges. With a well-thought-out or chosen environment, children will be able to experiment, problem-solve, push themselves, use mathematical concepts, use their communication skills and be active with a minimum of input from adults.

Some questions to ask yourself when thinking about the environment include the following:

• Is it accessible for all?
• Do children feel cared for, safe and secure?
• Is the environment inviting to children?
• Will children experience many things without prompting from adults?
• Will children be stimulated by the environment?
• Will the environment challenge children to experiment, problem-solve and push themselves?
• Is the environment safe whilst still being challenging?
• Does the environment allow children to be flexible, and is the environment itself flexible?
• Is the environment interesting for children?

Margaret McMillan, pioneer of the British nursery school, said, ‘We are trying to create an environment where education will be almost inevitable.’ (Hay, 2014) This is a simple explanation of an enabling environment. If it is interesting, exciting, enticing, and encourages exploration, creativity and experimentation, it will enable learning.

When considering creating an enabling environment, you will need to take into account the emotional environment, the indoor environment and the outdoor environment.

The emotional environment

The environment is not only the physical areas that children are exposed to but also the people who are in it: other children, parents/carers and staff. The emotional environment is affected by how parents/carers and staff interact, whether children feel safe, secure and cared for, and if there is an underlying feeling of positivity or negativity in the space. In effect, relationships are what constitute the emotional environment, which includes the relationship between the parent/ carer and staff, the relationship between staff and children, how people behave and speak to each other, how they are treated and how inclusive it is.

When children feel, safe, secure and happy in an environment that responds to their individual needs they are more likely to feel comfortable trying new things, push themselves and generally relax into enjoying their day. This will open them up to learning so many new things and allow them to be challenged physically, emotionally and cognitively.

One of the best ways for children to learn is for them to feel able to make mistakes and persevere until they get it right. Children will only be willing to do this if they are in a setting that has an emotional environment that encourages and supports all to explore and try new things.

It is therefore important for settings to have an ethos that supports positivity about failure, that nothing is wrong unless it will lead to someone getting hurt, and trying something new is more important than sticking to your comfort zone. Much of this ethos will be discovered through adult role-modelling: we should allow ourselves to make mistakes, learn from them and try again, always be positive, allow children many opportunities for self-directed play and learning, respect each other and be inclusive.

The indoor environment

Indoor spaces need to be interesting, accessible and flexible to accommodate children’s changing interests and needs. Ensure there are spaces where children can be active and allow children to have an input into how the space is organised. If space is limited, consider activities such as dancing, active stories and yoga as they do not require a lot of space yet significantly raise the heart rate and allow children to learn at the same time.

The outdoor environment

Children should be outdoors as much as they are indoors, if not more, and have a balance of self-directed and adult-led activity time. When children are outdoors they can play and explore without many of the restrictions that are so often placed on them. What they will encounter in nature is generally open-ended and will spark their imagination, encouraging them to discover and learn through their senses, leading to natural physical and cognitive development. Children can experience many things they are exposed to indoors, but often on a larger scale. This can be great for little hands that have not developed dexterity and fine-tuned their fine motor skills and for children who struggle to sit still and concentrate.

Creating an effective outdoor environment does not mean creating a pretty, tidy environment. Children love to explore wild spaces, enjoy messy play and be inspired by an array of what might appear to be junk. It is important not to place our aesthetic value on a space that has been created for children’s exploration and enjoyment. We also do not need to create different learning areas for subjects such as mathematics and literacy as children will constantly be learning if they are exposed to an enriching outdoor environment. When children play outside they learn about the effect they have on the world around them and how to be good to the environment. They will learn all kinds of mathematical concepts from outdoor activities, from playing with sticks, to water play, to building dens. They will develop their language and communication when role-playing or problem-solving with their peers. And when they have finally built that bridge out of tyres and planks, they will feel so very good about themselves! The provision of open-ended, non-prescriptive and adaptable resources will open up children’s learning experience and encourage them to use their imagination, problem-solve and experiment, and you will find some ideas of what to use in the panel on this page.

Outdoor inspiration

Inexpensive resources to enhance play…

• Blackboard paint to use as permanent fixture
• Chalk to create games on cemented surfaces
• Strong cardboard packaging to create shelters
• Pieces of fabric/old sheets to make tents and dens
• Guttering to create a water play area
• Tyres – these can be free from local garages
• Planks, logs and pieces of wood
• Signs of all kinds
• Boxes and crates to build with
• Old CDs hanging at different levels
• Old pots and pans strung on a strong line between trees with spoons to play them
• Trellis for weaving thread or vines through
• Shallow trays for water
• Old Wellingtons to plant in
• Spare hosepipe wound along the fence with a funnel at each end to use as a telephone
• Plastic drinks bottle filled with different substances and objects to hang or to create skittles
• The wonderful array of natural resources such as sand, water, mud, all types of earth, pebbles, stones and rocks
• Bird feathers
• Sea shells
• Containers of various shapes and sizes
• Painting equipment
• Woodwork, gardening and DIY tools

This article is an edited extract from Learning Through Movement and Active Play in the Early Years by Tania Swift (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £14.99), which explains the importance of physical activity for promoting young children’s learning and wellbeing.

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