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 purpose of space

As an early years practitioner, it is important to ‘read’ spaces and learn to look at the different ‘layers of meaning’ within them (Gandini, 1998). We ask you to analyse your physical space carefully and most importantly consider what is happening in it:

  • how easy is it for children to explore?
  • how does it help the relationships between adults and children?
  • what kind of learning goes on for the children and adults?

Dudek (2001, p. 8), an architect specializing in school and early years buildings, believes that good architecture must consider the practical aspects, but also create possibilities for something ‘less tangible; a sense of delight in the spaces which make up a building as a whole, which may even modify the moods of its users in a positive way.’ Strozzi (2001, p. 58), who was involved in the Reggio Emilia nurseries, echoes this idea, suggesting the importance of ‘making palpable what is usually invisible: joy, curiosity, interest, affection, autonomy, possibility, desire, expectation, tranquility, satisfaction, intimacy, individuality, belonging. These aspects become visible not because we list them but because we appreciate them and practise them in our daily life.’

She considers how the messages at the beginning of the day have a profound impact on what is to come and gives an account of the first few hours of the day at a Reggio Emilia school when the setting opens and the children begin to arrive. In this time, ‘preceding the traditionally more visible start of the school day, we can find many of our declarations concerning the meanings of education’ (Strozzi, 2001, p. 60). She describes the awaiting environment and its aesthetics: the effect of the light filtering through the windows, the colours and surfaces, the displays and how the environment invites children, parents and staff in. As children and adults arrive, there is a link between the inside and outside, an opportunity to exchange information not only about the children but also about the different environments from which they come. How children arrive and are welcomed, how they say goodbye to parents and carers, how children who have been away are welcomed back, all these gestures go towards creating an ethos where children can ‘enjoy and achieve’. Strozzi (2001, p. 63) suggests, for instance, that although children and parents saying goodbye may be part of the routine, and often happens very quickly, ‘it is still full of meanings and emotions that have an impact on the children’s sense of well-being as well as that of their parents.’

Langston and Abbott (2004, p. 70) suggested that the environment is ‘everything that is encountered from the point of entry to the setting to point of departure.’ How you exchange information with parents, children and colleagues, what your displays say, how children are encouraged to talk together, share ideas and help prepare and move into activities all ‘declare’ your understanding and appreciation of the children and their families. Adults and children will recognise from your ethos whether it embraces diversity, respects differences and treats everyone as an equal member of your ‘community’. Think about how your setting reflects differences, but also offers possibilities for coming together in the space; how you communicate verbally and non-verbally; how you show visually through the children’s and your own recordings what happens when you are active together.

Activity 3: The beginning of the day

Timing: Allow about 1 hour


The objective of this activity is to critically reflect on your setting at the beginning of the day as children and parents arrive.

  1. First look at the aesthetics of your setting as it opens its doors. Make notes on the light, the colours, even the smells.
  2. Read again the words that Strozzi uses for making palpable what is usually invisible:
    • ‘joy, curiosity, interest, affection, autonomy, possibility, desire, expectation, tranquility, satisfaction, intimacy, individuality, belonging’ (2001, p. 58).
  3. Choose three of these words and give examples of how you observed children experiencing this feeling at the beginning of the day.
  4. How, if at all, were adults involved in developing opportunities and spaces for children to experience these feelings.
  5. Finally, record where you think you could make improvements or changes to your environment and/or your interactions with children at the beginning of the day.

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