There are many factors to a child’s early learning, including parents, caregivers, and other children. Perhaps the factor with the largest scope is the early learning environment. The learning environment is the mix of spaces and context in which a young child grows and learns. The environment is often referred to as the “third teacher” (after parents and educators) due to its importance in early learning. While the environment can refer to a child’s home, the outdoors, or a classroom, we will focus on the preschool as a learning environment.
Environments should be welcoming and interesting. Unfamiliar surroundings and people can provoke a stress response, which has the potential to be damaging to a child’s learning abilities. Having homey features in a classroom environment helps children feel more comfortable and can help their ability to learn. Once a feeling of comfort has been established, there can also be a variety of new and interesting areas and features – some level of uncertainty and novelty generates intellectual arousal and interest. Different parts of an environment can have different stimulation levels, which have a direct effect on how children play – large areas encourage movement and use of space and closed areas with more soft features lend themselves to reading or discovery activities. With this in mind, it’s clear that a diverse environment creates a variety of experiences and opportunities for a young learner.
An effective learning environment encourages learning through play with a rich set of materials and learning opportunities. An effective environment will also be responsive, containing features that involve all five senses and provoke thinking, open-ended outcomes, and creativity. For example, consider a nature table, an indoor fixture with branches, sticks, leaves, and perhaps some simple dolls or figures. There are textures, smells, things to see, and things to compare and play with in such an environment. A rich mixture of these textures and different objects creates a valuable play experience.
The social nature of the environment is also important. Does the environment contribute to social interaction between children or does it inhibit it? A preschool room should have more open space, collaborative activities, and stations or areas of interest. Social interaction between children gives them access to different perspectives while playing and gives them the opportunity to learn to interact.
So, why is this all important? The answer lies in the concept of brain plasticity. The brain is a complex organ that is constantly physically changing itself. Throughout our lives, the brain re-wires itself based on experiences and different environments. This is why rich environments in these early stages of development are so important. Not only are children learning new things in new environments, their brains are constantly applying knowledge of past experiences to newer ones! This is why the concept of not using learning spaces that are simply a background for learning, and instead creating responsive environments that generate interactive experiences, is so crucial to early learning.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Isell, Rebecca, and Exelby, Betty. Early Learning Environments That Work. Beltsville, Maryland: Gryphon House, Inc., 2001. Print.