- Distinguish between spaces for group experiences, privacy, storage, and display.
- Identify characteristics of a well-designed indoor learning environment.
- Learn ways to arrange an indoor learning environment to promote infant and toddler growth and development.
- Describe how to organize materials for independence, easy use, and learning.
What is Your Perspective?
Infant and toddler caregivers make many decisions each day: which books to read, what questions to ask a toddler’s family, which experiences to offer, which materials to place where, etc. In many instances, these decisions are the result of careful advanced consideration, in addition to a personal understanding of how an infant and toddler learning environment should be, feel and look.
Infants and toddlers, like most of us, are drawn to inviting and engaging environments. Thinking about the ways to create a safe, flexible, and playful indoor learning environment requires planning and exploring ideas from multiple perspectives.
Arranging the Indoor Learning Environment
The space and furnishings should come together to create an indoor learning environment that is tailored to meet the needs of developing infants and toddlers. They need close supervision, positive guidance and stimulating experiences during this period of rapid growth.
When considering the physical space of play areas, it is important to create a space that is not too open or too crowded. Young infants need protected areas with enough room to practice their growing abilities and movements, such as rolling over and crawling. Mobile infants and toddlers need space as they explore and learn to crawl, walk, dance, jump and build with blocks. Space is important for both active and quiet play. Well-designed areas provide both physical boundaries and visual cues that support individual and peer play.
Caregivers will need space for infant and toddler caregiving routines: greetings, departures, eating and feeding, sleeping, diapering and toileting. Separate sleeping areas for young infants are recommended so the children can keep their individual schedules while still being monitored. The diapering and toileting area should contain changing tables, sinks, and storage for supplies. These caregiving spaces also provide opportunities for learning. For instance, a mobile placed above a changing table can provide visual stimulation and distraction for an infant during diapering. In addition, eating areas for toddlers who are able to feed themselves encourage the development of fine-motor skills. When planning these areas, caregivers must use preventative measures to ensure safe and healthy learning. Please see the Safety and Healthy course for further information.
When designing spaces for infants and toddlers, it’s also important to consider logistics, aesthetics, organization and the needs of all children in the space.
Designing for Logistics
There are several things to keep in mind as you design or redesign your learning space. We will distinguish between spaces for group experiences, privacy, places for adults, storage, and display, all of which are critical for a successful indoor learning space.
Places for Group Experiences
Although infants and toddlers learn primarily through exploration and interactions with caregivers, spending time in groups is an excellent way to begin to build an understanding of learning communities. For instance, a brief (5 minute or less) daily group time can encourage infants and toddlers to share their ideas and notice the ideas of others (e.g., a caregiver notices an infant kicking and encourages everyone to kick their feet together, or a toddler says “ice cream” and the caregiver suggests that everyone pretend to eat ice cream together). Caregivers can also lead infants and toddlers in songs with corresponding motions that can help develop motor skills and awareness of the sounds and patterns of language (Lang et al., 2010).
Having designated spaces for these experiences and designing them to minimize distractions can help you make the most of these times. This doesn’t mean you must have a spot that is used just for group experiences. The block area, or the book and language area can make a natural home for larger group experiences. Just think about having enough space for all the children to come comfortably together.
Places for Privacy
Constantly being with other people for a whole day can be emotionally draining for anyone, and especially so for infants and toddlers who are still developing the ability to regulate their emotions and calm themselves. Just like adults and older children, infants and toddlers sometimes need time and space to take a break from the group. You can help infants and toddlers meet this need by offering spaces that are limited to one or two children. A cozy corner with pillows and soft toys or books, or quiet play area can help children calm themselves. Remember you can create these private spaces, while still ensuring good visibility and children’s safety (see the Safety course; e.g., think about the use of sheer fabrics or creating nooks that you can easily see into).
Places and Ways to Support Adults
Although the majority of your room should be designed with infants and toddlers in mind, as discussed in the introductory lesson, caregivers and children’s families are also an integral part of the learning environment. The physical environment should reflect this, by having at least some spaces that “speak to” the adults in the learning environment and make them more comfortable. For example, having one or two “adult sized” chairs in the room (e.g., a rocker or a sofa chair) can visually communicate to family members, who may be less comfortable in a kid-sized environment, that they are welcome too. These adult chairs can serve as a space where family members can read a book to their child during pick-up or drop-off times, or provide a space for mothers to visit and nurse, and helps to build a home-like atmosphere in the room. Remember, children’s own homes are not all child-sized!
In addition, you should have some communication or display boards that provide family members with important information about your room (e.g., the weekly curriculum, special notes from the day, or upcoming events).
As discussed in the introductory lesson, caring for infants and toddlers can be exhausting work. The environment should also help support caregivers’ well-being. Here are some ways to make the environment supportive for caregivers as well as for children:
- Providing a glider or rocker for adults to use during feeding times can help provide a level of comfort and support. This can also help nurture relationships between caregivers and children. Close relationships reflect and promote knowledge of children’s needs, which ultimately makes the caregiver’s job easier.
- Using carpeted risers not only supports infants’ and toddlers’ use of motor skills but also helps caregivers get up and down during floor play more easily.
- Adding steps to the changing table in the diapering area for older toddlers to walk up can reduce the number of times that caregivers need to lift heavier children, while also giving older toddlers a sense of autonomy.
Places for Storage and Display
Infant and toddler learning spaces require a lot of materials! Toys, books, and other resources are regularly rotated in and out of active use. It is important to plan for at least three kinds of storage in an infant and toddler learning space: open storage for children to access, closed storage for caregiver materials, and storage for personal belongings (Dodge et al., 2010). It is also important to plan for storing and displaying children’s assessment materials and artwork.
- Open storage: For materials that are in active use, caregivers should carefully label and store them on open, easily accessible shelves. This will help children build independence, and toddlers can avoid frustration when they are able to find what they want and need.
- Closed storage: Tools such as adult office supplies, cooking utensils, or cleaning fluids need to be stored securely when not in use. Again, it is important to designate and carefully label secure locations for these items. This will help you maintain inventory and ensure children’s safety.
- Personal storage: Infants and toddlers also need individual spaces for their own things, such as diaper bags, clothing, supplies, and creations. Space for favorite items (e.g., stuffed animal, favorite blanket) can help infants and toddlers feel secure. When spaces are easily accessible for toddlers, they can retrieve personal items when needed. Even if young infants do not fully understand having spaces for their own things, providing these spaces makes the learning environment more personal and will help parents feel confident that their child is being treated and cared for as an individual with unique qualities and needs.
- Child display: Storing and displaying artwork and portfolios sends powerful messages to children about the value of their work and helps you do your job more effectively.
There are many ways to design learning spaces. Watch this video to see examples of ways infant-toddler learning spaces have been designed for group experiences, privacy, and storage.
In the introductory lesson, we addressed that high-quality infant and toddler programs send numerous positive messages to children. One of the best ways you can communicate to children that your classroom is “a good place to be” is through the small touches you place throughout the room that express the personality of the class.
Children are more likely to feel they can be themselves and have a sense of belonging when their classroom environment is like their homes. There are many ways you can add personal touches to your classroom to create a home-like feel (we will address this more in the Materials lesson). For example, you can include:
- Soft furniture, such as a couch or large armchair
- Nontoxic plants
- Natural or soft lighting, through the use of window or lamps
- Throw pillows, cushions
- Other decorative touches, such as area rugs or repurposed furniture
- Family photos from the children and staff
- Inexpensive frames to hang children’s artwork on the walls
- Neutral paint colors
Remember children may spend several hours a day in your classroom. Creating a relaxing, home-like environment is critical. It can be overwhelming to spend eight or twelve hours in spaces that are visually overwhelming, with bright lights or bright colors. A home-like environment, in addition to places for privacy and quiet areas, offer children the opportunity to seek calm when they need it.
Including pictures of the children and their families, in conjunction with personal storage and displaying children’s artwork, is another great way to communicate that this spaces belongs to the children. When displaying pictures or adding decorative touches, remember to hang or offer many items at children’s eye level to reinforce that they are valued members of the classroom space. Consider taping pictures to the floor so mobile infants can see them as they move about.
Inviting Engagement: Provocations
You can also offer items of beauty or wonder in the classroom that invite infants’ and toddlers’ exploration and engagement using provocations. A provocation is a picture, experience or item that provokes thought, interest, questions or creativity (Edwards, 2002). In the Materials lesson ahead, we will address different considerations when selecting materials for your classroom. Provocations can help “provoke” young children to use, think about or see materials in new ways. When designing your classroom, it can be useful to think about how you will incorporate provocations. Your inspiration for what provocations to offer will often come from children’s current interests, their emerging developmental skills (e.g., crawling or grasping) or their learning goals. Provocations could be:
- Pictures: Including pictures of their interests can help extend exploration of certain concepts and send the message that children’s ideas are valued in your classroom. Use pictures of real items as much as possible.
- An event or experience: For example, go on a nature walk outdoors or host a “picnic” in your classroom. You can also take pictures during the event to display later. Pictures like these, in conjunction with personal storage and children’s artwork, also communicate that this space belongs to the children.
- Books: Strategically placing books relevant to children’s current interests around the room can change their play and engagement. For example, offer a book on construction sites next to the blocks, or on taking care of babies next to dramatic play.
- Items from nature: This includes items you have collected from outside, such as leaves or nuts, or a vase of fresh flowers.
- Simple changes in display: For example, add a child-safe mirror on the floor for children to see themselves as they crawl over, or set up the doll babies in dramatic play with small bowls and spoons, which can invite the older infants and toddlers to “feed” the dolls. For infants and toddlers, changes in display can also include rearranging climbing equipment to offer new challenges or incorporating different textures and colors on the floor.
Consider the placement of your provocations. What are you hoping infants and toddlers will do within each area of your classroom? What concepts are you currently exploring, or developmental goals are you working towards, and how might a provocation in certain areas help extend or focus children’s play? Provocations are meant to be a guide or a point of inspiration for how infants and toddlers can engage with certain materials or spaces, but remember they are not meant to be an ultimatum for what children are supposed to do in each area or with the materials. For example, perhaps you set up some empty paper towel tubes and scarves for children to explore pushing the scarves through the tubes, but instead the children enjoy throwing the scarves in the air and watching them fall. That is all right; not every provocation will interest every infant or toddler or provoke the kind of play you expect.
Designing for All
When you look to design or redesign your classroom, you need to consider the needs and learning goals for all children. Each time a new infant or toddler enters your room, you should consider what adaptations are needed to best support their engagement and safety in the classroom. For children with special needs, it is important to speak with the child’s family and your trainer, coach or supervisor so you know the child’s particular needs and what supports will help them. As we will discuss in the Materials lesson, assuring that your classroom is welcoming to children from diverse cultural backgrounds is also critical to supporting the success of all children in your room.
In terms of environmental design, you may need to consider the physical space within learning areas or pathways between areas to ensure that infants or toddlers with physical disabilities can easily move around and participate, or caregivers can comfortably move them throughout spaces and participate with them. In addition, all children, but particularly children with social or behavioral needs or certain developmental disabilities, may benefit from a designated “cool down” area, where they can easily access materials that help them soothe themselves and where they can spend some minutes alone. See this resource from eXtension about adapting the learning environment for children with special needs: https://childcare.extension.org/adapting-the-child-care-environment-for-children-with-special-needs/.
Watch this video for more information on designing spaces and selecting appropriate materials for all children in your program space. Listen as one teacher reflects on how she adapts the environment and experiences to meet the needs of children in her classroom. Also review the Learn attachment for some visual examples of environmental supports, adaptive equipment and materials for children with special needs.
Imagine walking into your familiar neighborhood grocery store to quickly grab one necessary ingredient for dinner, only to discover the entire store has been rearranged. What should have been a quick trip now has turned into a 30-minute scavenger hunt. You would feel frustrated and discouraged. In a learning environment, caregivers and children may also feel frustrated when they cannot find what they need or when materials for play are unavailable.
As a caregiver, it is your responsibility to ensure materials are easily accessible and well organized. When organizing your materials, you should think about three goals: independence, easy use and learning.
Organize for Independence
First, as children develop we want them to learn that they can find and use materials on their own. The best way to accomplish this is to store materials on low, open shelves. This lets children see the materials available, make a choice, and return the item with less adult support. Keep in mind, though, that too many choices can be overwhelming. Low, open shelves should display the toys and materials in a simple and attractive way. For young infants who are not yet mobile, materials will have to be brought directly to them. But, as soon as children are able to creep or crawl to materials, they should be encouraged to select and access the materials they are interested in playing with on their own.
Second, we want children to learn to use signs and symbols in the environment to support their independence. The major way we help them do this is by carefully labeling objects or the places the objects belong. The best labels use written words plus pictures or parts of the object (like a puzzle piece on a shelf that contains wooden puzzles). Labeling not only helps children learn to access toys and eventually clean up independently, it also creates a print-rich environment. As an added benefit, you may find yourself giving fewer directions and reminders. When children can engage independently with materials, you have more time for interacting and expanding learning opportunities.
Organize for Easy Use
It is important to organize learning and play materials so that you and the children in your care can find what is needed. As infants develop into toddlers, this helps them realize “I can do things on my own.” It also empowers children to try out ideas and use new materials. When organizing for easy use, think about storing similar materials together. Similar materials are things that go together or materials that are necessary for certain activities. For example, baby dolls could be stored near blankets, or other dramatic play items like play dishes and spoons. Soft blocks could be stored near other materials like nesting cups or stacking rings so that infants and toddlers can combine these materials in their exploration.
The types of storage you choose, including bins, baskets and containers, can affect how easily children can access materials and put them away. For example, storing books on a shelving unit that allows children to see the full front covers of books may spark greater interest in reading and make it easier for children to choose a book in which they are interested. Storing simple wooden puzzles on a puzzle rack will also make it easier for children to choose a puzzle and return it to its place when finished playing. Storage bins should be open (without lids) for materials that you want children to access themselves. They should also be made of lightweight material (e.g., plastic vs. metal) and not too large or too heavy so that children can handle them on their own. Clear plastic bins will allow children to easily see the materials that are inside. Use bins that are large enough to accommodate materials without tipping over. Baskets should be free of material that could poke or scratch children and should not be used to store materials (e.g., crayons) that can fall out through the holes. Wheeled carts that can transport books or bins of materials may make it easier to rotate materials, just make sure the locking mechanisms on such carts are safe for infants and toddlers.
Organize for Learning
It is important to keep the space clean, which involves both adults and children. The steps you take to organize for independence and easy use will also help you keep the space tidy. Children will know where materials belong, and they won’t have to carry materials far from their storage spaces. Furthermore, children will learn to respect materials and the learning environment.
As discussed previously with the concept of provocations, you can organize your space to spark or build upon children’s interests. Displays (e.g., pictures, posters or wall hangings) can be arranged that help children explore ideas or try new things with the materials (e.g., pictures of nearby construction activity next to the blocks and plastic trucks). Displays should also reflect the backgrounds, knowledge, interests and experiences of the diverse children in your learning environment. To maintain children’s engagement in play and learning, you will want to rotate materials regularly so children have the chance to use different kinds of materials.
It’s important to organize your space and materials for independence, easy use and learning. Let’s look at a few ways infant and toddler caregivers organize their materials to meet these three goals.
Learning space arrangement may seem like an art and a science. It is an art for you to make your room feel welcoming and like a home. It is a science as you use knowledge of developmentally appropriate practice to plan your room’s floor plan. Remember that developmentally appropriate means that the environment you create for children should fit their stage of development, while still being flexible to allow for differences between children in skills, interests, and characteristics.
- Make Safety A Priority: Be sure to supervise infants and toddlers closely. Check toys and materials for safety every day and remove broken toys or play materials. Make sure that you have secure storage for all items that are unsafe for children. This includes your personal belongings, cleaning supplies, office supplies, etc. Many of the storage recommendations already described (e.g., open storage labeled with words and pictures) will help ensure safety by providing opportunities for children to access their own toys and materials safely and encouraging them to clean up after themselves. A well-designed learning space will also keep children engaged in appropriate play and help prevent undesirable, unsafe behaviors (e.g., jumping, running). See Safety course for more information.
- Make the Learning Space Feel Like Home: Use some of the suggestions offered in this lesson. Make sure some of your visual displays are at the children’s eye level.
- Plan Ahead: Consider how you will use spaces for group experiences, storage and display. Then identify the resources you need to make those spaces work. For example, enure you have storage for items you use every day in diaper and feeding areas. Think about how you collect and use child assessment information. You might be more likely to keep your records current if they are in a visible location. List all the materials you will need in each space based on the activities, storage and displays that you are planning.
- Organize Materials for Independence, Easy Use and Learning: This includes desired objects and materials as well as materials not in use. When materials are organized, it is easier to rotate toys on a regular basis and find just the right thing for an infant or toddler at just the right time. Infants and toddlers take cues from the way things are organized to help guide their interactions with the environment.
- Place materials on child-size shelves with space between items so children can easily see each piece. Keep materials in single rows on shelf if possible.
- Store like materials together on open shelves to help children make connections, and to make clean up easier.
- Store materials for a specific activity together so children can easily find all the materials needed to complete the activity. (e.g., puzzle pieces in the puzzle board to show a complete puzzle, shape sorters with shape container).
- Use small, clear containers to store like fine-motor pieces, such as rattles, teethers, connecting blocks (with each size and kind having its own container).
- Label shelves and containers with pictures of items for easy clean up and to support early literacy skills.
Using the information you have learned from this lesson, examine your environment while considering the question “If I were an infant or toddler…?” Download and print the Our Indoor Learning Environment Activity to capture your thoughts and ideas. Then share your responses with your trainer, coach or supervisor.
Download and print the Indoor Room Design Activity. Use the grid and labels to help you think about different ways to design or redesign your indoor learning environment.
In addition, download and print the Organizing Materials Checklist and think about information shared in this lesson. Examine each learning area and play space to determine if materials are organized to support ease of use and learning.
|Adaptation||Something that is changed to be more suitable for an experience; for example, in high-quality programs, caregivers understand the needs, temperaments and preferences of each child and adapt their care to meet those individual needs|
|Aesthetics||The attractiveness or pleasantness in appearance of a space; in this lesson, we discussed aesthetics in terms of creating a home-like, yet engaging classroom environment|
|Developmentally appropriate environment||An environment that fits the stage of development the children are in but is still flexible enough to allow for differences between children in skills, interests and characteristics|
|Fine-motor skills||The ability to use fingers and hands well|
|Gross-motor skills||Skills that involve large-muscle movements, including running, jumping, throwing and maintaining balance|
|Learning area||An area within an infant–toddler room that allows caregivers to offer children specific nurturing and learning experiences that include many engaging experiences, but should not be exclusive to the label for that area; for example, sensory exploration by infants and toddlers will happen in all care and learning areas|
|Low, open shelves||Shelves designed so adults can see over or through them at all times and children can access the materials they need|
|Non-toxic plants||Plants that would not cause an adverse or harmful reaction if consumed or touched|
|Provocation||A picture, experience, display or item that provokes thought, interest, questions or creativity; provocations provide children with inspiration or guidance on ways they can engage with materials|
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Greenman, J. (2007). Caring Spaces, Learning Places: Children’s Environments that Work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press, Inc.
Greenman, J., Stonehouse, A., & Schweikert, G. (2007). Prime Times: A Handbook for Excellence in Infant and Toddler Programs, (2nd ed.). St. Paul: Redleaf Press.
Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended Practices for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.
Lally, J. R. (Ed.). (1990). A Guide to Setting Up Environments: Infant/Toddler Caregiving, (2nd ed.). Sacramento: California Dept. of Education and WestEd.
Lang, S. N., Aledia, T., Casey, K., & Kirkbride, K. (2010, April). Infant/toddler group time: A time for creating & sustaining classroom culture. Presentation at Ohio Early Care & Education Conference, Columbus, Ohio.
Petersen, S. H., & Wittmer, D.S. (2008). Infant and Toddler Development and the Responsive Program Planning: A Relationship-Based Approach. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.