The Environment as the Third Teacher in ECE
We often overlook the role of the environment in an early childhood education program. Environments, when crafted with intentions, take an influential role in how the child manages their day, and how the teacher/instructor/caregiver enhances their educational plans for the day. When environments respond to children’s needs, it provides security, activates the curious mind of a toddler, and entice an infant beginning to move forward with more reasons to do so. And preschoolers to advance in their thinking abilities, and negotiation skills and strengthen passions like building, drawing, and using their imagination.
For instance, an infant classroom, having low-positioned materials, semi-soft textures, and visually appealing but not overwhelming aesthetics creates a sense of calmness. It helps children regulate their emotions, frustrations, and triumph from being an infant. When the environment adds to the frustration of waiting for feeding or being held by a caregiver or difficulties managing the noise in the classroom, we see children unable to trust the environment and others in it.
Toddlers are risk-takers, they are testing their limits, and they want to find out what their legs, hands, mouth, and body can do. And the world is the best place for such a trial. Giving them wide open spaces, physically challenging activities, and providing opportunities for exploration without too much directional input supports their development. Environments designed with both hard and soft surfaces are adequately measured for safety because toddlers are built to use spaces in a very creative manner, often in ways, adults never imagined or considered.
Preschoolers use the environment to fully realize their imagination. During this period of development, children are capable to use the environment in a way that advances their cognitive, social-emotional, and physical development. The environment needs to be interesting, age-appropriate, and attentive to their ever-changing needs.
Outdoor play is not only critical but a necessary environment to include to promote optimal development. The natural world by itself is the perfect curriculum. Children love playing in water, dirt, pebbles, leaves, and anything on the ground. Building on this curiosity children have with nature, we can extend the learning outside, using the world as a classroom for all.