Understanding early years environments and children’s spaces
Understanding early years environments and children’s spaces

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Understanding early years environments and children’s spaces

What is the environment?

Your environment is, as Langston and Abbott (2004, p. 70) suggest, ‘more than simply the planned space in the setting; it is everything that is encountered from the point of entry to the setting to the point of departure’. There are many ‘invisible’ influences in the environment, such as the way children are welcomed, are encouraged to learn from and within the setting, and the nature of the relationships between their peers and with other adults. Whether you work in a purpose-built or adapted early years setting or in your own home, the choices you make, such as the materials presented or staff’s attitudes, will reveal both the priorities of the setting and the underlying values of those in it.

Whatever the situation – and there are likely to be constraints of space, time and money in most settings, children need an environment where they have opportunities to explore the world through all their senses, in order to develop. Nicholson (2005, p. 50) sees the physical building as a ‘second skin’ where children are at the centre of what is happening, and communication and collaboration takes place easily. Laevers (2005, p. 22) suggests that the ‘richness’ of the environment can be tested through two principles, those of diversity (how broad is the horizon of possible experiences?) and depth (how much is there to be discovered?). He highlights the adult’s role in setting up an environment where such exploration can happen. Consider, in relation to your early years setting, the question he poses: ‘Is the reality brought into the setting complex enough or is it processed by the adult up to the point where the joy of discovery, adventure and serendipity altogether is banned from the daily life of children?’ (Laevers, 2005, p. 22).

It is important to reflect on the possibilities in your setting for children to explore and discover for themselves and to consider what you can do to offer an environment where this can happen. The following activity will help you think about changes in your environment and the impact they might have on children in your care.

Activity 1: Changes in the environment and their impact on children

Timing: Allow 1 hour 30 minutes


You will need a notebook in which to record your thoughts and reflections.

The objective of this activity is to critically evaluate how your environment impacts on children’s responses and/or learning.

  1. Choose one area of your environment to observe for ten minutes (ideally during a child-initiated period of play): e.g. dressing-up area, story corner, literacy area or a space outside.

    Record in your observation:

    • who uses the area: boys/girls? How many? Age groups?
    • how the children use the resources provided in the selected area;
    • how long their attention is sustained;
    • examples of the children’s verbal and non-verbal reactions.
  2. Having first negotiated with your colleagues, make a small change to the area you observed. You might, for example, re-arrange the furniture, or add or remove particular resources.
    • Although the activity will be child-initiated, write down what you think might happen by making this change in the child’s space.
    • Now carry out a further ten-minute observation of how children use the area, using the same prompts as you used in Step 1.
    • Evaluate the effectiveness of the changes you made in terms of the children’s responses and record your conclusions. Remember to include evidence from your observations to support your assertions.

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