- Distinguish between spaces for group activities, privacy, storage, and display.
- Learn ways to make environments feel homelike 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 Lesson One, 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, storage, and display. Consider how to set up your classroom with emergent inquiry in mind. Emergent inquiry can be described as learning that evolves as the interests of the children change and they make new discoveries about the world around them. This type of learning can be supported through learning centers with flexible spaces, open-ended materials, and a daily schedule.
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. Teachers can get creative with these spaces! The block area can be a perfect space for large-group activities. Simply covering the shelves with sheets, 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 make sure 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, mats, or other simple markers can help define a child’s individual space within the group. Space is very important and can enhance or hinder a child’s learning. In some cultures, too much or too little personal space may make a child feel uncomfortable and could cause unwanted behaviors (Kaiser, B. & Rasminsky, J., 2020).
Places for Privacy
Preschool classrooms are high-energy places. Similar to adults, children need time and space during the day to relax on their own. It is important to provide a calming space for them to take a break from the group. This space can be limited to one or two children and created so that there is still visibility to ensure safety.
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., 2016). It is also important to plan for storage and display of children’s assessment materials and artwork. 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. The following video discusses these kinds of storage. Think about the ways your environment already addresses the suggestions and reflect on changes that could be made.
In Lesson One, 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 group.
Children are more likely to feel they can be themselves and have a sense of belonging when their classroom environment feels like home. “The ideal, connected approach is not to simply fill classroom spaces. Rather it is to create an environment that is meaningful to the children,” (Duncan, Martin, and Kreth, 2016, p. 79). There are many ways you can add personal touches to your classroom to create this idea (we will address this more in Lesson Four). For example, you can include:
- Soft furniture, such as a couch or large armchair
- Nontoxic plants
- Natural or soft lighting, through the use of windows or lamps
- Throw pillows, cushions, and blankets
- Other decorative touches, such as area rugs or repurposed furniture
- Family photos of the children and staff
- Inexpensive frames to hang children’s artwork on the walls
- Neutral paint colors
Creating a relaxing, homelike environment is critical for children who may spend several hours a day in your classroom. It can be overwhelming to spend eight or twelve hours in spaces with lots of bright lights or bright colors.
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 the space belongs to the children. When displaying pictures or adding decorative touches, remember to hang or offer many photos or decorative items at children’s eye level to reinforce that they are valued members of the classroom space.
Remember children may spend several hours a day in your classroom. Creating a relaxing, homelike 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 homelike 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
Offering items of beauty or wonder in the classroom invites children’s exploration and engagement. You can accomplish this by using provocations. A provocation is a picture, experience, or item that provokes thought, interest, questions, or creativity (Edwards, 2002). 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 might include:
- 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. Also, when applicable, offer several different pictures. This allows children to recognize that not all trees look the same, or that some dogs have spots and others do not.
- An Event or Experience: For example, go on a field trip or a nature walk outdoors or host a “tea party” in your classroom. You can also take pictures during the event to display later. Using pictures of the experiences with which the children engage with one another in the learning environment communicates that this space belongs to the children. It also provides them with concrete documentation to reflect back on the experience.
- Books: Strategically placing books relevant to children’s current interests around the room can change how they engage in the space. For example, offer a book on robots next to a bin of recycled materials.
- Physical Items of Interest: Adding an authentic item as provocation can support what children already know about their world, or invite them to touch, smell, see or hear something new. This can include items from nature, such as leaves or nuts, or a vase of fresh flowers. Consider asking families to provide items from home, especially ones with cultural relevance like a piece of fabric or a paper lantern. Also, adding things like an old record player or piece of stained glass can elicit new discoveries.
- Simple Changes in Display: Considering a different perspective or design can spark new ideas for preschoolers. For example, placing an architecture drawing on the writing surface, rather than taped to the wall may encourage children to trace, measure, or highlight on the drawing.
Consider the placement of your provocations. 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 dictate what children are supposed to do in each area or with the materials. Children might be inspired or provoked to create ideas that take them in other directions. “The thinking and learning that emerge from the children as they engage with provocations will reveal potential threads of inquiry,” write Broderick and Hong (2020, p. 28). 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 of 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 as well as the individual’s previous experiences. For children with developmental disabilities, it is important to speak with the child’s family and your trainer, coach, or administrator so you know the child’s particular needs and what supports will help them. As we will discuss in Lesson Four, ensuring 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 ensure that children with physical or mental 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 calming area, where they can easily access materials that help them soothe themselves and where they can spend some minutes alone. 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, for example, how a child could pinch or roll clay with their hands or use the available clay tools next to the clay in the art area. Within the References & Resources section, you can find more ideas on how to support children with developmental disabilities in your setting.
Watch the video below 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 developmental disabilities.
Consider how you might feel if a familiar store has been completely rearranged when you walk in to make a quick purchase? Children can also feel frustrated when they cannot find what they need and when materials for play are unavailable. As a teacher, 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. 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. One 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, but it also creates a print-rich environment. Encourage preschoolers to help write the labels, giving them both a literacy and a community-building opportunity. As an added benefit to labels, 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 also 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).
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, and direct children where materials belong. These strategies help children respect the materials and the classroom environment.
Organize for Learning
As discussed previously, using provocations can help to spark or build upon children’s interests. 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 equity, diversity, knowledge, and experiences of the 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 thoughtful 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, pottery, or other materials from a variety of cultures.
It is 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. While designing your indoor learning environment, always consider the following:
- Make the classroom feel like home: Use suggestions in this lesson to make your classroom feel comfortable yet engaging including neutral colors, soft furniture, and framed art.
- Consider the needs of all children: 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. 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 keep children engaged in appropriate play and help prevent undesirable, unsafe behaviors (e.g., jumping, running).
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.
- Use trays to 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.
- Remove and/or rotate materials to avoid over cluttering and to support focused engagement, current skill level, and learning goals.
It can be helpful to see how other teachers organize their spaces. In the How to Better Organize or Prepare activity, look at the images of each area and make notes of the possible problems and their accompanying solutions. Then share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.
Use the Tools to Use attachment to help you arrange and rearrange your environment—all without breaking a sweat! Take a moment to review the resources below and revisit as needed to ensure you are creating a safe, comfortable, and stimulating space for the preschoolers in your classroom.
Additionally, you can download and print the Classroom Materials Labels below to help you get started labeling the materials in your classroom if you have not already done so, 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.
Broderick, J.T, & Hong, S.B. (2020). From children’s interests to children’s thinking: Using a cycle of inquiry to plan curriculum. 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. (2016). The creative curriculum for preschool (6th ed.). Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Duncan, S., Martin, J. & Kreth, R. (2016). Rethinking the classroom landscape: Creating environments that connect young children, families, and communities. Gryphon House, Inc.
Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1). https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=famconfacpub
Erdman, S. & Colker, L.J. (2020). Trauma and young children: Teaching strategies to support & empower. The National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Farran, D. C., Aydogan, C., Kang, S. J., & Lipsey, M. (2006). Preschool classroom environments and the quantity and quality of children’s behaviors (pp. 257-268). In D. K. Dickinson and Neuman, S. B. (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy (Vol. 1). The Guilford Press.
Greenman, J. (2007). Caring spaces, learning places: Children’s environments that work. Exchange Press, Inc.
Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended practices for teaching young children in inclusive settings. Brookes Publishing Co.
Kaiser, B. & Rasminsky, J. (2020). Valuing Diversity: Developing a Deeper Understanding of All Young Children’s Behavior. Teaching Young Children. 13(2). https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/dec2019/valuing-diversity-developing-understanding-behavior
McWilliam, R. A., & Casey, A. M. (2007). Engagement of every child in the preschool classroom. Brookes Publishing Co.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2022). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (4th ed.). The National Association of Education of Young Children.
Nicholson, J., P.S. Driscoll, J. Kurtz, D. Marquez, & L. Wesley. (2020.) Culturally responsive self-care practices for early childhood educators. Routledge.