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Learning Environments: An Introduction

Research tells us that children learn best in environments where they can have secure relationships with caring and responsive adults, where they feel safe, and where they feel free to explore and learn. A well-arranged family child care environment can help you meet children’s needs during play and routines. This lesson highlights the importance of the environment and provides an overview of what to consider when creating and maintaining a developmentally appropriate environment for a mixed-age group of children.

  • Recognize the effects of environments on children.
  • Identify features of the family child care environment that help children feel secure, welcome, and comfortable.
  • Describe ways to include children's cultures in the family child care environment.
  • Define common activity areas.



How Do Environments Affect You?

When you choose to visit a favorite restaurant, a local park, a sporting arena, or a good friend’s home, you likely feel good about these experiences because you enjoy them. What is it about those places that make you feel welcome or secure? What makes you want to go back? Thinking about these places might ignite certain positive feelings, perhaps based on things you see, feel, hear, or smell.

Now consider places you do not like to go. Environments like the dentist’s office, the airport, or a noisy restaurant. What makes these environments less pleasant for you? In some settings, we feel relaxed and comfortable, and in other places, we might feel tense, overwhelmed, and confused. Environments can affect us in many ways. They can influence how we feel, what we do, and the ways we respond in certain situations. Some of us dislike places where we feel we cannot control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may feel like we do not belong or are not appreciated.

As with adults, children are affected by their environments, even if they cannot yet tell us directly how they feel. As a family child care provider, you can make sure that learning spaces make the children you serve feel welcome, secure, and ready to learn.

Designing the Environment to Meet the Needs of a Mixed-Age Group of Children

As a family child care provider, the ages of the children in your care may vary widely; from infants, toddlers, preschool, to school age. Additionally, your home must serve your own family members. This can present challenges when designing the environment to serve the children in your care. An advantage to family child care environments is that they feel like home because they are a home. Many families choose a family child care setting for their children because they prefer the home setting that this type of care provides. It is important that you keep the “family” in family child care.

Think about your family child care home from the perspective of a child.

  • Is it a good place to be?
  • Can I grow, learn, and be independent in this place?
  • Is it a safe place, physically and emotionally?
  • Can I find the things I need? Are they in the same place each day?
  • Does my caregiver know me and what I enjoy doing?
  • Is my culture represented in the environment?

A supportive, caring environment is:

  • Well-organized: orderly, planned, safe.
  • Dependable: a stable home base for children who need it.
  • Flexible: able to adjust to meet the needs of different children.

Designing a responsive and developmentally appropriate family child care environment takes thoughtful reflection and careful planning. The environment includes furniture, materials (e.g., toys, games, equipment), a food preparation and serving area, a schedule and routines, and a family welcoming area. Safety considerations should be made when choosing what to include and how to include it in your space. The careful choices you make as a family child care provider affect the positive experiences that families and children have in your home every day. These choices also affect your daily work experience and your family members. It is important to spend time getting to know each family. Understanding the child and family’s background, diversity, culture, and life experiences will enable you to provide the proper care that each individual needs. This also provides each family with the opportunity to share learning goals, values, and experiences that may have made an impact on their child’s development (such as deployment or a child with special needs).

Places for Play and Learning: Activity Areas

When you walk into a retail or grocery store, how do you find what you need? If you are looking for grapes, you probably feel confident that you can find them with other fresh fruits and vegetables. If you want to find a new pair of socks, you probably have a good idea about where to look. Obviously, some stores have better designs than others, but many retail establishments make the most out of simple design principles: Objects with similar uses are stored near each other, and there are signs to guide you.

Now think about an infant, toddler, child, or youth in your care. How does the individual know where to find toys and materials? How does the individual use the environment to make decisions?

Organizing materials by their purposes makes sense in both of these environments. In stores, we might call groups of similar items “departments.” In learning environments, we use the term “activity areas” to describe spaces that are designed for certain purposes.

When an infant, toddler, child, or youth enters a well-designed activity area, the individual knows the:

  • Materials that can be found there
  • Type of play (loud, quiet, social, solitary) that may happen there
  • Expectations for how to behave there
  • Ways to explore, learn, and have fun there

You design learning opportunities for children every day, and your indoor or outdoor environment sets the stage for most of these opportunities. Activity areas are key tools for learning within the family child care environment. You can use individual interests, goals, and abilities to design your activity areas.

Some important activity areas you should consider including in your space are:

  • Library/ Writing
  • Science and Technology
  • Toy and games
  • Arts
  • Movement and music

Quality Rating Scale

The Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale is often used to rate the quality of family child care environments. It is used in many state child care quality rating and improvement systems. The Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale contains several major areas that all family child care providers should intentionally focus on:

  • Space and furnishings
  • Personal care routines
  • Listening and talking
  • Activities
  • Interaction
  • Program structure
  • Parents and provider

As you see from this list, the term “environment” encompasses all aspects of your family child care program. It is much more than just toys and furniture. A trained observer can use the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale to rate your program in each area. This is a useful tool for setting goals for any changes you may want to make within one or more areas. The lessons in this course will help you reflect on these components of your family child care.


The following video discusses important design elements of family child care homes. Consider how you are currently incorporating these ideas into your own family child care environment. What other ways could you support children and families in your home?

Designing Your Environment

There are many options for designing learning environments.


The Family Child Care Environment and Children’s Cultures

As a family child care provider, you are in control of all aspects of your child care environment. When you focus on your family child care environment, you think about the needs and interests of the individual children you serve. Their interests, and family cultures and diversity, should be reflected in the materials and furnishings you provide. Creating strong relationships should be an important element of your environment.

Children and youth feel that they are an important part of your program when they see elements from their lives throughout the learning space. Be sure to include the following:

  • Family welcome area- this space should be a warm, welcoming spot for parents and children to depart and come back together.
  • Pictures of families- include pictures of the children and their families within your environment. Since it is your home, be sure to include your family as well. You can also include a space for special announcements such as birthdays or cultural celebrations.
  • Elements from home- ask families to share their favorite books, foods, toys, and games. A family may also choose to bring in materials from their home that are of particular interest or cultural relevance such as clothing or musical instruments.
  • Children’s artwork- you can use inexpensive frames to display artwork. This helps promote ownership of the space.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Learning Environments Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Learning Environments Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete the lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Complete the attached questionnaire, A Day in the Life of Your Program. What aspects of your program are you most proud of? Are there any areas you would like to improve? Reflect on your answers with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator.


As you think about your family child care home environment, there are online resources you may want to use to help you plan or rearrange spaces for age-related and developmental activities, food prep and snacks, outdoor play, a quiet area, a homework space, etc. You may want to create a scaled floor plan of your home and think about where activities may take place. Focus on safety first and be sure you can always see all the children in your care. Read and review the Designing an Ideal Floor Plan activity to follow steps for designing your floor plan and make lists of your activity areas. Seeing this on paper can help you think about how you arrange your environment.


Developmentally Appropriate Environment:
A flexible space that fits the stage of development children are in but allows for differences in children’s skills, interests, and characteristics
Environmental Rating Tool:
A survey completed by an observer that helps examine and provide an overall picture of an environment created for child care centers and homes


True or false? Environments can affect what children learn.
Which area is not included in the Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale?
Which of the following is not an element that helps make the family welcome area an inviting spot for parents and children?
References & Resources

Armstrong, L. J. (2012). Family child care homes: Creative spaces for children to learn. Redleaf Press.

Biermeier, M. A., (2015) Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent curriculum in relationship-driven learning environments. Young Children, 70 (5).

Friedman, S. (2020). From good guidance to trauma-informed care: Meeting all children's behavioral support needs. Young Children, 75(3).

Ginet, L.M, & Masterson, M.L. (2018). The essentials: Providing high-quality child care. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., and Clifford, R. (2019). Family child care environment rating scale (3rd ed.). Teacher’s College Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (4th ed.). The National Association of Education of Young Children.

Osborn, H. A. (2001). Designing the family child care environment. Child Care Information Exchange, 46-49.