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

Opportunities to explore and develop

For many reasons, the opportunity for children to play freely at home and in their immediate environment is frequently restricted, both indoors and outdoors. Your setting, therefore is a crucial place for them to explore and develop skills and abilities. Creating an environment where this can be achieved may require much imagination and creativity on your part. Even in purpose-built settings, there can be barriers to overcome: space, staff ratios, or the design of the building. Landscape architect Simon Nicholson, writing a seminal article ‘How NOT to cheat Children – the Theory of Loose Parts’ in 1971, highlighted the lack of involvement children usually have in designing their environments. The article, with its idea of ‘loose parts’, highlights the important consideration that children need opportunities to alter and change their spaces (Dudek, 2005). The more open to possibilities the environment is, suggested Nicholson (1971), the more children can be creative and inventive.

This does not necessarily require obtaining more materials and equipment but creating opportunities for children to talk, try new ways of doing things and change activities so that they have meaning for them. This meaning could well be different from how adults see it. A designer of children’s play equipment, Laris (2005), influenced by this theory of loose parts, sees children as the ‘inventors’ and the designers as ‘translators’. Observing children try out his models is a learning process for him. As a result of ‘listening’ to them through his observations of what they do and say to each other, he alters and improves the design so it is flexible enough to suit a range of age groups and abilities and allows children to use it in different ways.

Nicholson’s ‘loose parts’ theory directly influenced Helen, a playgroup leader in a church hall. After learning about it, she decided to let the children choose the resources and the hall’s layout when they came the following week. She opened the large cupboard, asking the children what they wanted to play with. Many of the same resources came out of the cupboard, but Helen was surprised in the decisions the children made in where to play with them. They mixed the treasure basket materials with the Lego and wooden building blocks, creating a circular tower with a wooden spoon as the flag at the top of the turret. Helen reflected that allowing the children to have freedom in the space revealed creative responses to using the materials and connections with symbolic play that she wouldn’t necessarily have recognized or encouraged if the resources had been ‘zoned’ around the church hall.

Brown (2003), in his theory of compound flexibility, posits the idea that children’s own flexibility and adaptability will be affected by how flexible and adaptable the environment is. This, in turn, develops children’s self-confidence and independence. A cardboard box could give more potential to a child’s inventiveness and creative play than a fixed slide or climbing frame. However, just leaving a cardboard box around is obviously not enough. The practitioner has a role in this, offering children materials or space that have potential for exploring and discovery and putting things in the children’s way that interest them and that they can make use of. Russell (2008) suggests that practitioners need to be aware of the environment’s complexity and its many possibilities so they can respond in different ways to children’s play. The challenge is to develop an approach that is neither chaotic, where staff do not involve themselves with the children or reflect on the type of environment they provide, nor over-ordered with the agenda always set by the adults.


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