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

The impact of the environment

In Reggio Emilia nurseries in Italy, great emphasis is placed on the environment, making sure it is a dynamic and changing one so that children react actively to what and who is in it – ‘a sort of aquarium that mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it’ (Malaguzzi in Edwards et al., 1998, p. 177). Malaguzzi’s idea of an aquarium, where fishes of all types swim together, illustrates the richness in the diversity of children who inhabit your setting over the years. Outside influences enter your setting as children and their families bring in their unique experience and cultures, which vary within genders, ethnic groups and social classes. How children and parents are valued will be evident in the messages, both visual and unseen, in the setting such as the way practitioners welcome children and parents, what is displayed on the walls, the way the setting is organized and how the space is used – for example, different age groups playing together outside. Children move in and out of different types of environment; for example, they will have different experiences in their home to in the early years setting, such as visiting extended family to attending community gatherings. These experiences will affect the way they then view other adults and children and how they see their place in society. Children may not be able to articulate their experiences of your setting, their home environment, or indeed the wider world they live in, in words. But, by listening with all our senses, through a ‘dialogue of action (by the child) and our own reflective observation’, we can get closer to what their experience is (Laris, 2005, p. 17).

Activity 2: Exploring a child’s ‘dialogue of action’

Timing: Allow about 2 hours


The objective of this activity is to gain an understanding through reflective observation of how children articulate their experiences through their actions

Observe a child in your setting during an activity. Record how they express themselves through their actions and communicate their preferences. The following questions may help you structure your observation:

  • Who does the child interact with?
  • How is the child expressing their freedom of choice within the activity?
  • Do you think the location of the activity is important? For example, would you observe different reactions from children if they were indoors or outdoors or in noisy or quiet areas of the setting.
  • Could the activity take place anywhere or does it require particular resources?
  • How does the child demonstrate their interest and pleasure or displeasure?
  • How does the child use their senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch) to explore the activity?
  • How do practitioners influence the child within the activity?

Babies and very young children also demonstrate a dialogue through their actions and facial expressions which let you know what they enjoy and what they dislike. All children are individuals and will find ways to communicate differently. Reflect on what you have observed, considering the influences of the environment on the child during the activity. Were you able to identify any ‘unseen’ aspect or feature of the environment that the children interacted with which motivated them?

Completing this activity should give you a greater insight into how a child makes choices within their environment. Nassrin, a children’s centre worker in the baby room, reflected:

‘I observed Hassin, an eight-month-old who recently joined the baby room, during a treasure basket activity where he showed his pleasure by banging a wooden spoon on an upturned saucepan. He banged the saucepan, looked up to me and smiled, then went back to repeating the noise. He kept looking around to see if anyone else was interested in what he was doing. He reached out to Amid sitting opposite, banged the saucepan and then reached out again, almost like he was inviting Amid to join in. I felt that Hassin was trying hard to make a connection with Amid so that he could share his enjoyment in making the noise. His dialogue of action clearly expressed his desire to create attention to what he was doing through his eye contact, his deliberate search for others and the way he tried to engage another child. Next time, I’m going to position the babies next to each other so they can explore the treasure basket together, rather than opposite each other, to encourage greater interaction between them.’


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