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Learning Environments: An Introduction

Research tells us preschool-age 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 environment can help you meet preschool-age 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 developmentally appropriate preschool learning environments.

  • Recognize the effects of learning environments on preschool-age children.
  • Identify features of environments that help preschool-age children feel secure, comfortable, welcome, and ready to explore and learn.
  • Describe how to design and maintain a developmentally appropriate environment for preschoolers.
  • Determine common interest areas and elements of effective room design for preschool environments.



How Do Environments Affect You?

There are certain places you like to go: maybe a favorite restaurant, a local park, 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 can’t control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may also feel we don’t belong or are not appreciated.

Just like adults, preschool-age children are affected by their environments, even if they cannot yet express these feelings in sophisticated ways. It’s our job to ensure classrooms and other learning spaces for children make them feel welcome, secure and ready to learn.

Designing Your Space to Meet Preschool Children’s Needs

Creating a supportive learning environment requires time, reflection (thinking) and planning. Whether children spend three or twelve hours a day in your program, the environment plays a major role in helping children develop and learn. Research suggests that a high-quality classroom environment can help close the achievement gap (Mashburn, 2008). That is, children who enter school less ready to learn are those that benefit the most from supportive classroom environments. Your supportive classroom can also be an important source of consistency for military children (a group that may experience a great deal of change in their daily lives). 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 by 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.
Flexible, supportive environment

Watch the video to see examples of ways these messages appear in classrooms.

Messages our Environments Send

What messages does your environment send to children?

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 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.

Places for Play and Learning: Interest 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 you can find them with other fresh fruits and vegetables. If you want 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 use simple design principles: objects with similar uses are stored near each other, and signs guide you.

Now think about a child in your classroom. How does he or she know where to find toys and materials or use the environment to make decisions?

There are many differences between retail establishments and classrooms, but organizing materials by their purpose makes sense in both environments. In stores, we might call these groups of similar items “departments.” In environments for young children, we use the terms “interest areas” or “learning centers” to describe spaces designed for certain purposes or that hold materials with similar uses.

When a child enters a well-designed interest area, they know:

  • The materials that can be found there.
  • The type of play (loud, quiet, social, solitary) that might happen there.
  • The expectations for how to behave there.
  • How to explore, learn and have fun there.

As a preschool teacher, you design learning opportunities for children every day, and your classroom or outdoor environment sets the stage for most of these opportunities. Interest areas are key tools for learning in preschool learning environments. You can use children’s needs, interests and abilities to design your interest areas.

There are 10 common interest areas recommended for preschoolers (Dodge et al., 2010). These include:

  1. Blocks: Great block areas contain a variety of materials to spark curiosity and exploration. Children use the block area to explore how things work; they build, tear down, fill, dump, stretch, reach, balance and create. Block areas should be large enough for several children to play at once. You might have a variety of large and small blocks (wooden, cardboard, foam or interlocking). You can also make blocks yourself from cardboard boxes or sturdy fabric. Many block areas include natural or recycled materials children can include in their structures. It is important to include accessories like toy figures, cars and construction equipment. The accessories you offer should change periodically and be based on children’s current interests and learning goals.
  2. Dramatic Play: The dramatic play area allows children to take on roles and try out new ideas. Children use their imaginations as they cooperate with one another and they practice self-care skills as they try on dress-up clothes. A great dramatic play area offers children a chance to act out their own home and family themes with props like a kitchen, table, clothes, food and babies. It’s also important to offer a variety of other play ideas for children to explore as they become interested. Children may use props to create a bakery, doctor’s office, flower shop or nearly any other scenario. Once again, the additional props or dress-up items offered can vary according to children’s current interests, or ideas you are currently exploring (e.g., community helpers such as firefighters or police officers).
  3. Toys and Games: Toys and games allow children to develop important thinking skills, social skills, and fine motor skills (the ability to use hands and fingers well). Your toy and game area can include a range of puzzles, board games and small objects. This area can provide a good opportunity for children to identify and match colors, shapes, sizes and textures.
  4. Art: The art area provides opportunities for children to express themselves and develop fine motor skills. Visual art can include painting, drawing and sculpturing. This is a space for inspiration and creativity. Great art areas include a variety of materials for children to use and explore, such as sponges, rollers, glitter, tape, paint, stamps and recycled materials of all types. They also include commonplace or unique items that can be used in new ways (e.g., “block printing” with paint and different plastic blocks). Many art areas also include displays of famous artwork, books and the children’s creations. Keep in mind that you do not have to have every material or art tool imaginable accessible at all times; you may change out some materials, tools, and displays based upon the experiences of focus that day or week.
  5. Library: The library is a quiet space where children can relax and enjoy reading. A great library includes a variety of books: fiction, nonfiction, alphabet books, number books, nursery rhymes and resource books. It typically includes soft furniture or pillows. Books can be displayed on shelves or in baskets for easy access. The library can also include a listening station, felt board, literacy activities or other materials that introduce children to language and print. Although the library is a great place for supporting children’s literacy development, remember that it’s important to include print materials (such as books, maps or magazines) and writing materials in every interest area (see the Communication course for more information). Some classrooms may also choose to have a dedicated “writing center,” perhaps near the library or art space, with a variety of writing utensils and forms of paper available (e.g., lined and unlined paper, post-it notes, etc.).
  6. Discovery: The discovery area is children’s gateway to scientific exploration. It contains materials meant for open-ended exploration. A wide variety of natural materials are often displayed for children to explore (rocks, pinecones, starfish, etc.). Other materials appropriate for the discovery area include PVC pipe, magnets, weights, etc. Tools for exploration are also provided, such as microscopes, magnifying glasses, balances, ramps and measuring tools. Children can also participate in experiments or care for a class pet here.
  7. Sand and water: Sand and water areas provide opportunities for measuring, pouring, comparing and creating. Although the space is called “sand and water,” you are not limited to providing just sand and water. Many teachers consider this a sensory area. Your sand and water area can offer a variety of materials to explore, such as leaves, snow, packing peanuts, shredded paper, etc. Many children find the sand and water area soothing.
  8. Music and movement: A space for children to engage in large movements allows them to make their own music and respond to the music of others. It’s important to provide a variety of materials here, such as streamers, ribbons, shakers, musical instruments and recorded music. The music and movement area can provide an opportunity for dance and rhythm.
  9. Cooking: The cooking area lets children practice real-life skills and is a great way to introduce a variety of cultures to the classroom. By preparing simple recipes with an adult, children learn important math, literacy and self-care skills. The interest area for cooking need not be dedicated to cooking experiences alone, but rather cooking experiences could take place in a more flexible part of the room, perhaps at the table(s) children typically use to eat morning or afternoon snack, or the tables available to use in the toys and games area.
  10. Computers: Many preschool classrooms provide computers for children to use. The use of computers, or other technology and media (e.g., tablets), can provide developmentally appropriate learning opportunities to children of a variety of ages. Computers and the Internet can expose children to people, animals and places that they cannot experience in person. Children can also use computers and media to document and share their own experiences. Using interactive ebooks and playing games that facilitate learning of letters, letter sounds and numbers are additional ways children can use computers to meet learning goals.


Let’s look at a few classrooms. As you watch, notice the arrangement of the interest areas and the materials in them. How do these arrangements and materials help children learn?

Designing Spaces for Play

There are many options for designing learning environments.


There are many schools of thought on how to arrange preschool classrooms. Some important elements are found in every effective room design:

  • Clear Boundaries: Use shelves, furniture or other barriers to help children focus and avoid distractions. Large, open spaces encourage running and roughhousing. Arrange your furniture and interest areas to break up large, open spaces.
  • Clear Ways to Enter and Exit: Help children know how and where to come into an interest area. If you use a “center management system,”—a system of tags, pictures or symbols to limit the number of children who play in an interest area—make sure children know how to use it and are able to meet their needs and interests throughout the day.
  • Sufficient Materials: Have duplicates of favorite toys. Also, make sure there are enough materials that several children can play in social areas, like dramatic play and blocks. Children are more likely to have meaningful play together if there are enough materials to use together.
  • Engaging Materials that Spark Children’s Interests: Consider what children in your class like. Add materials or rotate materials regularly so children have new experiences. Think about the pictures, displays, print or writing materials that support children’s learning and engagement in each area.
  • Separate Loud, Active and Quiet, Calm Spaces: Examples of quiet interest areas are the library, listening center and writing center. Loud, active centers might include the block area, dramatic play area and the sand or water (sensory) area.
  • Access to Needed Materials: Sand and water, discovery and art spaces should have easy access to sinks. Music and movement, technology and cooking areas might need access to electrical outlets. Soft carpeting in the library and block area can make it easier for children to sit and comfortably interact with materials on the floor.
  • Learning Objectives: Align materials and interest areas to learning objectives.
  • Keep Safety in Mind: Make sure you can see and supervise all children at all times.

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 Preschool Healthy 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 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.


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 a trainer, coach or supervisor. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.


You can use this inventory to help evaluate your own interest areas. Download and print the Interest Area Inventory. Walk around your own interest areas and discuss what you see with a trainer, coach or supervisor.


Achievement gap:
The observed difference between groups of students on educational measures and tests. The groups are usually defined by gender, race or socioeconomic status
The physical separations between interest areas. You can use shelves, furniture or other dividers as boundaries
Center management system:
A system used to limit the number of children who play in an interest area. Usually, each child has a tag, picture or symbol to take with them to a chosen interest area. Each interest area has a sign with a limited number of spaces for children to place their tags
Developmentally appropriate environment:
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
Interest areas:
Defined classroom spaces used for certain purposes or types of play. Examples are toys and games, blocks, dramatic play, discovery, art and science
Natural materials:
Materials that are not man-made. Examples might include tree logs, stumps or branches
Quiet interest area:
Spaces in the room designed for quiet learning and play. Examples include the library, a writing area, a cozy area and a computer space with headphones
Reggio Emilia:
An educational approach named after an area in Italy. It was developed by Loris Malaguzzi as a result of the devastation of World War II. The Reggio Emilia approach believes children are powerful learners and adults should take their lead from the children’s interests. The learning environment plays a critical role and is seen as the third teacher


True or false? Environments can impact what children learn.
You meet with a parent who is new to your program, and he is concerned that his son is spending time in the dramatic play area. How do you respond to his concerns?
Finish this statement: In a well-designed interest area, children know…
References & Resources

Bredekamp, S. and C. Copple, eds. (1997). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (revised ed.). (pp. 152-153). Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Bovey, T., & Strain, P. (n.d.). Using Environmental Strategies to Promote Positive Social interactions. Nashville, TN: Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from

Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments. St. Paul: RedLeaf Press.

Dodge, D. T., & Kittredge, B. (2009). Room Arrangement as a Teaching Strategy DVD. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Dodge, D. T., Heroman, C., Berke, K., Bickart, T., Colker, L., Jones, C., Copley, J., & Dighe, J. (2010). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (5th ed.). Bethesda, MD: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1). Retrieved from

Farran, D. C., Aydogan, C., Kang, S. J., & Lipsey, M. (2006). Preschool Classroom Environments and the Quantity and Quality of Children’s Literacy and Language behaviors (pp. 257-268). In D. K. Dickinson and Neuman, S. B. (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy (Vol. 1). New York: The Guilford Press.

Frost, J. L., Shin, D., & Jacobs, J. L. (1998). Physical Environments and Children’s Play. In O. N. Saracho & B. Spodek (Eds.), Multiple Perspectives on Play in Early Childhood Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Greenman, J. (2007). Caring Spaces, Learning Places: Children’s Environments that Work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press, Inc.

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended Practices for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R.M. (1998). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (revised ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Hyson, M. (2008). Enthusiastic and Engaged Learners: Approaches to Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

McWilliam, R. A., & Casey, A. M. (2007). Engagement of Every Child in the Preschool Classroom. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Morrow, L. M., & Schickedanz, J. A. (2006). The Relationship Between Sociodramatic Play and Literacy Development. (pp. 269-280). In D. K. Dickinson and Neuman, S. B. (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy (Vol. 2). New York: The Guilford Press.

NAEYC (2012). Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Retrieved from