Learning Environments: An Introduction
Research tells us infants and toddlers 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 environment can help you meet the needs of infants and toddlers. This lesson highlights the importance of the environment and provides an overview of what to consider when creating and maintaining developmentally appropriate infant and toddler learning environments.
- Recognize the effects of learning environments on infants and toddlers.
- Identify features of environments that help infants and toddlers feel secure, comfortable, welcome and ready to explore and learn.
- Describe how to design and maintain a safe and developmentally appropriate environment for infants and toddlers.
- List potential learning areas found in infant or toddler classrooms.
How Do Environments Affect You?
There are certain places you like to go: maybe a favorite restaurant, a sporting arena or a good friend’s home. What about those places makes you feel welcome or secure? What makes you want to go back? Thinking about these places, you might remember the people around you, the color of a room, if there is sunlight, the smells and sounds, furniture and accessories or temperature.
Now consider places you don’t like to go: maybe 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. In other places, we might feel tense, overwhelmed and confused. The environment has a powerful effect on us. It influences how we feel, what we do and the ways we respond. Some of us dislike places where we feel we cannot control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may feel like we don’t belong or are not appreciated.
Just like adults, infants and toddlers are affected by their environments, even if they cannot yet tell us directly how they feel. It’s our job to ensure learning spaces make infants and toddlers feel welcome, secure and ready to learn.
Designing Your Space to Meet Infants’ and Toddlers’ Needs
Families are infants’ and toddlers’ first and primary teachers. However, many infants and toddlers spend time in care settings outside of their homes. Experiences during the first few months and years of life are critical because they set the stage for the child’s future development and learning (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The quality of these early experiences is shaped by the individuals and environments with which infants and toddlers spend their time. Ronald Lally states that, “In high-quality infant-toddler programs, the interests of the child and the belief that each child has a curriculum are what drive practice” (Lally, 2000, p. 6). Thus, the infant-toddler learning environment must provide a flexible climate that supports child-directed practices, spontaneous exploration, curiosity, motivation for learning and the creation and maintenance of positive relationships between adults and children. As such, the learning environment is an essential component of curriculum for infants and toddlers.
Creating a supportive learning environment requires time, reflection and planning. An emotionally supportive environment helps prepare infants and toddlers for learning (Bagdi & Vacca, 2005), and may be especially important for at-risk children who may not have high-quality relationships outside the learning space. Military children are a particular group that may experience a great deal of change in their daily lives; your supportive learning environment can be an important source of consistency for them. A supportive environment is:
- Well-organized: orderly, planned and safe.
- Dependable: a stable “home base” for children who need it.
- Flexible: able to adjust to meet the needs of different children.
Such supportive environments send children a variety of positive messages about their learning (Dodge et al., 2010), such as:
- This is a good place to be.
- You belong here.
- You can trust this place.
- There are places where you can be yourself when you want to be.
- You can do many things on your own here.
- This is a safe place to explore and try out your ideas.
Watch the video to see examples of ways these messages appear in learning environments.
Environments not only affect how we feel and send messages about how to act, they can influence what we learn. The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education recognizes the tremendous impact of the environment by referring to it as the “third teacher” (with parents and teachers as children’s first and second teachers, respectively). The Reggio Emilia approach was developed by Loris Malaguzzi and named after an area in Italy. This approach states children are powerful learners and their interests should guide adults’ decisions surrounding learning, including how the environment is arranged and the materials provided. The Reggio Emilia approach believes the learning environment plays a critical role, and that intentionality (thoughtful planning and action) on behalf of teachers in the design of spaces and the selection and arrangement of materials significantly influences children’s level of engagement and learning (Edwards, 2002). We will return to these ideas in future lessons in this course.
Special Considerations for Working with Infants and Toddlers
The infant and toddler learning environment includes many different relationships:
All of these relationships affect infants and toddlers. Although adults often assume infants and toddlers are too young to understand what happens between adults in their environment, recent research shows that they can quickly recognize tension between adults (Du Rocher Schudlich, White, Fleischhauer, & Fitzgerald, 2011). Any such tension could mean some infants and toddlers spend eight or more hours in stressful environments. Positive, respectful relationships among all adults in a program affect the emotional climate for everyone—children, staff and families (McMullen & Dixon 2009).
Safe and secure environments elicit more positive and less restrictive interactions with caregivers (Howes, 1983). Caregivers can devote their time to playing and developing relationships rather than keeping children away from hazards. In a safe environment, attentive caregivers, aware of infant and toddler needs, can help them move about freely, explore and play with materials that are sturdy, in good repair and a safe size. Mobile infants develop rapidly, and their increasing motor skills require caregivers to be alert and anticipate their actions and possible new hazards, such as reaching things they could not reach before. Toddlers are incredibly curious and not fully aware of what is dangerous. Caregivers must support and balance exploration and curiosity with a careful eye and use simple language to explain what is safe and unsafe. Caregivers must also complete ongoing safety checks and provide families with information about safety checks at home. For more information on safe and appropriate materials for infants and toddlers, please see this section’s Materials lesson and the Safety Course.
Understanding what is developmentally appropriate
Caregivers can support the natural desire of infants and toddlers to actively explore their environment with their whole body by knowing about this age group’s development. Having this knowledge helps caregivers better understand and predict what interactions, materials and experiences will be safe, engaging and most supportive to best promote learning and development. The courses on cognitive, physical, social emotional, creative and self will help build and strengthen teachers understanding of infant and toddler development.
Knowing individual characteristics
Caregivers can be most responsive when they understand the strengths, interests and needs of each individual child in their care. Knowing the individual needs of infants and toddlers enables caregivers to offer adaptations essential for children with disabilities and other special needs.
Connecting with families
Caregivers should take time to connect with families to better understand their cultures, values, beliefs, expectations, hopes and dreams. This offers caregivers the opportunity to create learning environments, including interactions and experiences that are respectful, supportive and meaningful for infants, toddlers and their families. Children’s experiences at home and in their community influence their reactions to care and learning environments. An environment could seem familiar to a toddler, or it may be unfamiliar and even frightening. Understanding the infant’s or toddler’s home culture and language can help caregivers create a more familiar and comfortable care and learning environment.
Although the focus of supportive learning environments for infants and toddlers is on the children, supportive environments also consider and accommodate the needs of caregivers. Caring for infants and toddlers is rewarding but can be tiring. The environment should be set up to make the caregiver’s job as easy as possible. For example, adult-sized rocking chairs allow caregivers to provide responsive care while feeding infants or rocking them to sleep. Storage space for adult personal items (e.g., purse, coat) may help reduce anxiety about children’s safety. If possible, caregivers should have a quiet space (e.g., lounge) in which they can spend breaks from their work and recuperate their physical and emotional energy. Such space can also be used for private conversations between caregivers and parents. Talk to your trainer, coach, or supervisor if you feel the learning environment is contributing to feelings of stress or burnout.
Caregivers, along with their trainer, coach, or supervisor, can consider methods and processes for reflecting on and further examining infant and toddler environments. For example, many programs use environmental rating tools. Environmental rating tools are surveys completed by observers that examine and help provide an overall picture of the environment that has been created for the infants, toddlers and adults who share an early childhood setting. These tools, such as the Infant-Toddler Environmental Rating Scale (ITERS; Harms, Cryer, & Clifford, 2003), can be used by staff to gather information about an environment to support caregivers, improvements, and approaches to infant and toddler development and learning. You can ask your trainer, coach or supervisor for more information on the kinds of tools your program uses to assess or provide feedback on classroom and outdoor environments.
Creating Developmentally Appropriate Spaces for Infants and Toddlers
Infants and toddlers grow and develop both quickly and at their own pace. Environments must be created to meet their current developmental and emerging skills while keeping in mind the appropriateness and safety of the space and furniture.
Young infants react to the new world around them and need to feel secure in order to engage in exploration and learning. Caregivers can provide spaces and experiences that encourage trust and strengthen bonds, such as cozy spaces for caregivers to hold and care for infants. For example, looking at board books together is an activity that promotes literacy and language learning and the development of attachment between infants and their caregivers.
Mobile infants have a strong desire to move and explore. Caregivers should provide spaces that are safe, clean, and stimulating. Soft, thick floor coverings, such as vinyl mats, will help mobile infants feel comfortable moving on the floor. Adding features such as tunnels to the environment will encourage further development of motor skills and exploration. Offering safe furniture upon which infants or toddlers can pull themselves up and cruise or creep along is also helpful.
Toddlers are learning to focus their attention on desired experiences. Caregivers can offer a variety of materials and sensory experiences to support toddlers (e.g., sand and water table, sound area). Learning areas should be organized to support toddlers’ developing independence. Materials should be placed on low, open shelves and labeled with pictures and words. Toddlers will avoid frustration when they can find what they need and want.
For rooms with only young infants, setting up specific learning areas may not be appropriate, as the entire room forms the “learning area” for infants. However, caregivers should offer a variety of experiences and materials for infants and toddlers, and should be prepared to rotate materials and experience, or rearrange spaces when children’s developmental needs change. Keep in mind, though, that offering too many materials at one time may overstimulate children. It is important to explore the environment from the perspective of infants and toddlers, e.g., crawl around on your hands and knees or lay on the floor, to understand how well it functions for very young children.
Creating Learning Areas for Infants and Toddlers
Using the environment to support development for infants and toddlers helps caregivers concentrate on specific experiences. A learning area is an area within an infant-toddler room that allows caregivers to offer children nurturing and learning experiences; each learning area is typically planned to support particular developmental domains (e.g., a climbing or grasping area to assist with gross or fine motor development) or exploration of certain ideas (e.g., a block area to explore cause-and-effect and balance). Although learning areas may be designed to support particular aspects of development or interests, they should not be used exclusively for one purpose. Rather, learning areas should include many engaging possibilities, with each area serving multiple functions. Sensory exploration by infants and toddlers, for example, will happen in all care and learning areas, and need not be contained to a learning area with that label. In addition, a cozy book area, not only provides young children with early literacy experiences, but also provides a quiet, calm space to relax alone or with a caregiver.
The learning environment should connect to all that infants and toddlers do rather than using categories appropriate for older children, such as art and science. Learning areas must also be accessible and adaptable for children with disabilities and other special needs. Young infants will need caregivers to bring them materials. Mobile infants and toddlers will likely take materials (e.g., stuffed toys, foam blocks) with them across the entire room and that is appropriate.
Possible learning areas to consider when creating infant or toddler rooms:
- Cozy spaces to safely take a break from the group.
- Reaching, grasping and kicking area (various hanging materials).
- Climbing area (stairs, platforms, risers, low cubes).
- Mirror area.
- Blocks and building, construction area.
- Soft toy area.
- Books and language areas.
- Dramatic play area (play kitchen, dress-up materials).
- Messy area (art and expressive materials, sand and water table).
- Sound area (chimes, instruments, music, CDs and player).
- Sensory area (scented items, natural materials).
- Animal area (fish, bird).
Carefully consider how learning areas are arranged next to one another. For example, it can helpful to think about placing quieter learning areas next to one another, or near the napping space, or anticipating how infants and toddler may want to use materials across learning areas. Freedom to move materials from one learning area to another provides infants and toddlers an opportunity to take charge of their learning and make their ideas come to life. For example, moving a dinosaur from the block area to the dramatic play area to be “washed” in the play sink offers a toddler a way to express their budding imaginative play.
What to Expect in this Course
You will complete four more lessons in this course. Upcoming lessons will cover topics to help you think about the learning environments you create for infants and toddlers. In these lessons, you will learn about:
- Creating developmentally appropriate indoor and outdoor environments for infants and toddlers and the importance of design.
- Using key organizational strategies.
- Selecting quality materials appropriate for infants and toddlers.
- Establishing effective schedules and routines for infants and toddlers.
- Developing an environment that is culturally relevant and represents the diverse children and families in your care, as well as the broader community.
- Adapting your environment to best support children with special needs.
As you work through the content in this course, your trainer, coach or supervisor will use the attached competency checklist to assess and provide feedback about your practices. This competency checklist outlines the essential practices for creating and maintaining supportive learning environments in your work with children, families, and coworkers; it offers a guide about what you should be able to do after completing this course.
When creating supportive indoor learning environments for infants and toddlers, there are many factors to consider. Watch this video for examples of different learning areas to consider for young infants through older toddlers. What do you notice?
When designing and arranging learning environments to benefit infants, toddlers and yourself, you should:
- Ensure safety and health by making sure physical spaces and materials are appropriate for infants and toddlers.
- Observe the children in your care closely so you become familiar with their likes, dislikes, needs and interests. Getting down on the floor and viewing the learning area from the perspective of infants and toddlers can help inform your design with respect to safety and stimulation.
- Provide a variety of materials and experiences for infants and toddlers. Periodically rotate materials and/or rearrange the room as children’s developmental needs change. Take care not to overstimulate children.
- Arrange the environment to support caregivers’ well-being, which will ultimately also benefit the children in your care.
- Design learning areas that promote making choices and allow for freedom of movement between areas.
Think about how environments affect you and the children in your care. Download and print the Environments Affect Behavior activity. Answer the questions about each space in your learning environment and share your responses with your trainer, coach or supervisor. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.
This list of room arrangement tools can help you design your learning space—without the heavy lifting! Download the Tools to Use document and keep the websites as a resource.
|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|
|Environmental rating tool||A tool, such as a survey completed by an observer, that helps examine and provide an overall picture of an environment created for infants, toddlers and the adults who share that setting|
|Fine-motor skills||The ability to use fingers and hands well|
|Gross-motor skills||The ability to move and coordinate large muscle movement (e.g., crawling, walking, jumping)|
|Learning area||An area within an infant–toddler room that allows caregivers to offer children specific nurturing and learning experiences and includes 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|
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Infant/Toddler Caregiving; A Guide to Setting Up Environments, 2nd ed. (1990), Sacramento: California Department of Education and WestEd.
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