- Distinguish between spaces for group activities, privacy, storage and display.
- Learn ways to make environments feel “home-like” and create provocations.
- Describe how to organize materials for independence, easy use and learning.
- Design engaging and well-organized indoor environments for preschoolers.
As discussed in the Introduction lesson, environments send powerful messages. A carefully planned environment can help preschoolers feel calm and secure, while at the same time, engaged and inquisitive. In the first lesson, we introduced general ideas to consider when designing environments for preschoolers, and key classroom interest areas that foster learning. However, when designing or redesigning your classroom space, it is also important to consider logistics, aesthetics, organization and the needs of all children in the space.
Designing for Logistics
In your preschool classroom, you will need spaces for group activities, privacy, and storage and display.
Places for Group Activities
Although children learn primarily through play, it is also important to plan areas for large-group meetings or activities. Morning meetings and story times build classroom community and literacy skills. Having designated spaces for these activities and designing them to minimize distractions can help you make the most of these times. This doesn’t mean you need a spot just for group activities. In some smaller classrooms, this simply is not possible. Teachers in such classrooms can get creative! The block area can be a perfect space for large-group activities. Simply covering the shelves with sheets, or flipping around shelves on wheels, or adding a stop sign can help minimize distractions and support children’s successful engagement with the group. In other classrooms, the library or music and movement area is a natural home for large group activities. Just ensure there is enough space for everybody to sit comfortably.
Regardless of where you meet, it is important to think from a child’s point of view. We all feel better when we know how to be successful. For a preschool child, this might mean knowing where and how to sit, where to focus attention and what to do. Nametags, seat cushions and mats or other simple markers can help define children’s individual space within the group.
Places for Privacy
Preschool classrooms are high-energy places. Similar to adults, children sometimes need time and space to relax on their own. You can help children meet this need by offering spaces that are limited to one or two children. The library, a cozy corner, quiet games or other spaces of your room can help children calm themselves. Consider how the use of sheer fabrics or the placement of furniture can help create these cozy nooks and still provide good visibility.
Places for Storage and Display
Preschool classrooms require many materials! Toys, books, games, 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 a preschool classroom: open storage for children to access, closed storage for teacher materials and storage for personal belongings (Dodge et al., 2010). It is also important to plan for storage and display of children’s assessment materials and artwork.
- Open Storage: For materials that are in active use, teachers should store them on open, labeled shelves. As discussed next, open storage promotes accessibility.
- Closed Storage: Tools such as office supplies, cooking utensils or cleaning fluids should 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: Children and adults need spaces to store their personal belongings. Children’s personal storage should be labeled with pictures and words. This helps send the message that each child belongs here. It can also help ease drop-off and pick-up routines. Personal storage spaces for children also allow them to easily access their personal items (e.g., a blanket, or gloves in preparation for going outdoors) when needed, supporting their autonomy. For adults’ personal storage, it is important to store items out of reach, as items such as purses or backpacks could contain materials unsafe for children (e.g., make-up or medicine).
- 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. It communicates to children this is a place to test their ideas and helps you more easily track children’s developmental progress.
Watch this video to see examples of ways classrooms have been designed for group activities, privacy and storage.
In the introductory lesson, we addressed that high-quality preschool 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.
Inviting Engagement: Provocations
You can also offer items of beauty or wonder in the classroom that invite children’s 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” 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 and their learning goals. Provocations could be:
- Pictures: Including pictures of children’s interests can help extend exploration of certain concepts and sends 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 field trip, a nature walk outdoors or host a “tea party” 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 robots next to a bin of recycled materials.
- 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, adding a child-safe mirror in the block area, laid flat with some toy boats on top, could help children think more about water transportation and spur them to create different ships and barges out of blocks.
Consider the placement of your provocations. What are you hoping children will do within each interest area? What concepts are you currently exploring 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 children 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 a restaurant scene with corresponding props in the dramatic play space, but today, the children are using it as their home kitchen. That is alright; not every provocation will interest every child. If children consistently ignore certain provocations that can be a sign they are no longer interested in that particular concept or idea.
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 preschooler enters your room, you should consider what changes need to be made to best support their engagement 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 interest areas or pathways between interest areas to assure children with physical disabilities can easily move around and participate. 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. In the “cool down” space, you could also offer pictures of children expressing different emotions to help children identify what they feel, and pictures with words about different calming strategies (e.g., “take deep breaths”). For children with autism or communication difficulties, it can also be helpful to provide multiple visual cues for how to use the spaces and materials. This could include providing a picture of children safely playing in the space within the “entrance” to each interest area, or offering a small series of pictures showing how a child could pinch or roll the clay with their hands or use the available clay tools next to the clay in the art area. See Kids Included Together (KIT) for more ideas on how to support children with special needs in your setting (https://www.kit.org/who-we-are/our-work/).
Watch this video for more information on creating environments to support all children. You can also see the learn attachment for examples of environmental supports, adaptive equipment and materials for children with special needs.
Imagine walking into your familiar neighborhood grocery store to quickly grab an ingredient for dinner, only to discover the aisles and items have been rearranged or are no longer available. What should have been a quick trip now has turned into a 30-minute scavenger hunt. You would probably feel frustrated and discouraged. Children can also feel frustrated when they cannot find what they need and when materials for play are unavailable.
As teachers, it is your responsibility to make sure 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, we want children to know 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 allows children to see the materials available, make a choice and return the item without adult support. Use low, open shelves to display the toys and materials in a simple and attractive way. Keep in mind, though, that too many choices can be overwhelming.
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 where objects belong. The best labels use written words plus pictures or parts of the object (like a puzzle piece on a puzzle box). Labeling not only helps children learn to 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
Materials should be organized so children want to interact with them. It is important to organize your materials so children can find what they need when they need it. This too helps children know “I can do things on my own.” Organized materials empower children to try out ideas and use new materials. When organizing for easy use, think about storing like materials together. Like materials are things that go together or materials that are necessary for certain activities. Think like a child: If I want to work at the writing center, what will I need or want? Placing pencils, crayons, markers, paper, scissors, stickers, stencils, stamps, letter cards, word cards, name cards and picture dictionaries all together in the writing area can allow children to get instantly involved in their ideas. This means you may have duplicate materials in many areas of the room. Pencils, paper and clipboards are also useful in the construction and dramatic play areas, so a set should be stored there for easy use.
The types of storage you choose, including bins, baskets and containers, can affect how easily children access and put away materials. For example, storing books on a shelving unit that allows children to see the full front covers may spark greater interest in reading and make it easier for children to choose a book they find interesting. 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. Bins should also be made of lightweight material (e.g., plastic vs. metal) and not too large or too heavy that children cannot handle them on their own. Clear plastic bins will allow children to easily see the materials that are inside. Bins should also be large enough to accommodate materials without tipping over. Baskets should not be made of materials that could poke or scratch children, and should not be used to store materials that can fall out through the holes (e.g., crayons). Wheeled carts that can transport books or bins of materials may make it easier to rotate materials.
The steps you take to organize for independence and easy use will also help you keep the space tidy, prevent tripping hazards and ensure clear pathways to exits in emergencies. Children will know where materials belong and they won’t have to carry materials far from their storage spaces. Furthermore, these strategies help children respect the materials and the classroom environment.
Organize for Learning
As discussed above 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 appropriate materials nearby. Displays should be at children’s eye level and should contain their own work, pictures relevant to their interests, or pictures meant to help spark further exploration. They should reflect the backgrounds, knowledge and experiences of the diverse children in your classroom or families in the community. 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.
You can organize your space so children encounter meaningful learning opportunities throughout the day. This means providing well-organized and well-planned literacy, math, science and social studies materials in interest areas. For example, offer a basket of menus, pads for taking orders, shopping lists and cookbooks in the dramatic play area. Keep tape measures, clipboards, blueprints and books about famous structures in the block area. The art area can include books, paintings or other materials from a wide array of cultures.
It’s important to organize your space and materials for independence, easy use and learning. Watch the following video and look at ways preschool teachers organize their materials to meet these three goals.
Classroom arrangement is an art and a science. It is an art for you to make your classroom feel welcoming and like a home. It is a science as you use knowledge of developmentally appropriate practice to plan your classroom’s floor plan.
- Make the Classroom Feel Like Home: Use suggestions in this lesson to make your classroom feel comfortable yet engaging.
- Give Children What They Need: Recognize that children spend a lot of time in your program, and everybody needs a break sometimes. Provide a variety of ways children can take a little time for themselves; a quiet book area, a computer center or the art area can all provide a brief break from the busy, social day. This can be especially important for children with special needs.
- Plan Ahead: Consider how you will use spaces for group activities, storage and display. Then identify the resources you need to make those spaces work. For example, ensure you have storage for items you use every day in your group spaces. A rolling cart that holds the day’s books, CDs or finger puppets can be very useful. 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.
- Keep Safety A Priority: When designing your space, ensure you can supervise all areas, including private spaces. Make sure that you have secure storage for all items that are unsafe for children. A well-designed classroom will also keep children engaged in appropriate play and help prevent undesirable, unsafe behaviors (e.g., jumping, running). See the Safety course for more information.
Remember your classroom sends messages to children. We want the classroom to help children say, “I can do things on my own here” and “this is a place I can trust.” There are simple ways your classroom sends these messages. By organizing for independence, easy use and learning, you can make your classroom a more effective space and prepare children for learning.
- Make sure shelves and classroom materials are clearly labeled and materials are stored where they are easy to use. You can use drawings or photographs to make labels.
- Store board games or puzzles close to the table or carpet at which they should be used.
- Store play-dough and utensils together. If children use trays or placemats with the dough, store those underneath the boxes of dough and utensils.
- Store art materials (beads, cotton balls, feathers, ribbon) in clear containers on a shelf near the art table. Keep glue, scissors and paper handy.
- Store all your outdoor toys in a large bag or basket near the door (if you do not have outside storage for these items).
- Consider how children will access smocks for art, water and other messy play. Store the smocks strategically, so children can get them when necessary.
- Trays can be a teacher’s best friend. They help organize materials and define each child’s space. If children only need a certain set of materials for an activity or game, consider preparing a set of trays with the necessary materials and storing them on tables or shelves for the children.
- Think about the materials you currently need to support the children’s interest, current skill level and learning goals. Remove and/or rotate materials to avoid overcluttering and to support focused engagement.
It can be helpful to see how other teachers organize their spaces. Download and print the How to Better Organize or Prepare activity. Watch the videos and answer the accompanying questions. Then share your responses with a trainer, coach or supervisor. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Download and print the Tools to Use document and keep it as a resource. It provides a list of room arrangement tools that can help you design your classroom—without any heavy lifting!
Label the materials in your classroom if you have not done so already. You can download and print the Labels below to help you get started, or use a camera to take pictures of your own materials and use those as labels. You can also invite children to assist with this process, by asking them to draw the items or to help write the words. Whatever you use, cut the labels out and use them to identify the places you store each item.
|Aesthetics||Attractive or pleasing in appearance. In this lesson, we discussed aesthetics in terms of creating a home-like, yet engaging classroom environment|
|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|
|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|
|Low, open shelves||Designed so adults can see over or through them at all times and children can access the materials they need|
|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|
Bredekamp, S. & 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.
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.
Dodge, D. T., & Kittredge, B. (2009). Room Arrangement as a Teaching Strategy DVD. Washington, DC: 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 https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=famconfacpub
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.
McWilliam, R. A., & Casey, A. M. (2007). Engagement of Every Child in the Preschool Classroom. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.