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Learning Environments: An Introduction

Research tells us that children and youth learn best in environments where they feel safe and free to explore and learn, and where they have secure relationships with caring and responsive adults. A well-arranged environment can help you support the development of children and youth. This lesson highlights the importance of the environment and provides an overview of what to consider when creating and maintaining developmentally appropriate learning environments for school-age children and youth.

  • Recognize the effects of the learning environment on school-age children and youth.
  • Identify common features of the environment that help children and youth feel secure, comfortable, welcome, and ready to explore and learn.
  • Describe how to design and maintain a developmentally appropriate environment for school-age children.
  • Define common activity areas and important elements found in effective room design for school-age environments.



How Do Environments Affect You?

When you visit a favorite restaurant, a local park, a sporting arena, or a good friend’s home, you likely feel good about these experiences because you enjoy them. What about these places makes you feel welcome or secure? What makes you want to go back? You may be thinking about the people with and around you, the color of a room, whether or not there is sunlight, what you smell or hear, the furniture and accessories, or the temperature.

Now think about places you don’t like to go. Environments like the dentist’s office, a crowded airport, or a noisy restaurant. What about these environments makes them less pleasant for you?

In some settings, we feel relaxed and comfortable, and in others we feel tense, overwhelmed, and confused. Environments can affect us in many different ways. They can influence how we feel, what we do, and the ways we respond in certain situations. Some of us dislike places where we feel that we cannot control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may feel like we do not belong or are not appreciated.

Just like adults, school-age children and youth are affected by their environments. We can ensure that classrooms and other learning spaces for school-age children make them feel welcome, secure, and ready to learn.

Designing Your Space to Meet School-Age Children’s Needs

Creating a supportive learning environment involves time, reflection, and planning. Whether school-age children are in your program for three hours a day after school or twelve hours a day during the summer, the environment plays a major role in helping them develop and learn. Research suggests that a high-quality, after-school environment can help school-age children’s social skills, learning motivation, academic achievement, and it can lower levels of obesity (Durlak, Mahoney, Bohnert & Parente, 2010). Military children are a special group that may experience a great deal of change in their daily lives, and your supportive classroom can be an important source of consistency for them. You must also consider each individual child’s background, diversity, culture, experiences, and abilities through an anti-biased approach. 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 all children
  • Enriching: full of engaging experiences

Supportive environments can send children and youth a variety of positive messages about their learning (Dodge et al., 2016), such as:

  • This is a good place to be.
  • You belong here.
  • This is a place you can trust.
  • There are places where you can be by yourself when you want to.
  • You can do many things on your own here.
  • This is a safe place to explore and try out your ideas.

Environments not only impact how we feel and give us messages about how to act, but they can also impact 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). The Reggio Emilia approach was developed by Loris Malaguzzi and named after an area in Italy. This approach demonstrates that children are powerful learners, and that their interests should guide adults’ decisions surrounding learning, including how the environment is arranged and the materials provided. The Reggio Emilia approach believes that the learning environment plays a critical role in children’s development, and that the intentionality of teachers in the design of spaces and their selection and arrangement of materials, significantly influences children’s level of engagement and learning (Edwards, 2002). We will revisit this approach to early childhood education in future lessons in this course.

school age

Places for Play and Learning: Activity 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 that you can find them with other fresh fruits and vegetables. If you want to find a new pair of socks, you probably have a good idea about where to look. Many retail establishments make the most out of simple design principles: objects with similar uses are stored near each other, and there are signs to guide you.

Now think about a child or youth in your school-age program. How does the child or youth know where to find toys and materials? How do these individuals use the environment to make decisions?

There are many differences between retail establishments and child and youth programs, 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 school-age children or youth, we use the terms “activity areas” or “learning centers” to describe spaces that are designed for certain purposes or that hold materials with similar uses.

When a school-age child enters a well-designed activity area, the individual knows the:

  • Materials that can be found there
  • Type of play (loud, quiet, social, solitary) that may happen there
  • Expectations for how to behave there
  • Ways to explore, learn, and have fun there

As a school-age staff member, you design learning opportunities for children every day, and your indoor or outdoor environment sets the stage for most of these opportunities. Activity areas are key tools for learning in school-age environments. You can use children’s and youth’s interests, goals, and abilities to design your activity areas.

Some important activity areas and corresponding developmentally appropriate materials include:

  • Library: Include books that are of interest to the children and youth in your program. Create a space with a variety of sofas, chairs, and cushions on which children can read comfortably. Ensure that books are available for a wide range of reading levels and interests. Sometimes the library also doubles as a calming, private space. If the library is not available, make sure there is a space for children and youth to play or relax independently when they become overwhelmed with others.
  • Writing: Provide paper, markers, crayons, pencils, and other writing materials. It can be helpful to provide different kinds of paper (e.g., some with wide lines, some thin lined, colored construction paper, and even sticky notes) to help support a wide variety of skill levels and writing ideas. Set up a writing area in a space with a table and chairs. This space can also be used for children and youth to complete their homework.

    A craft table and reading space in a learning environment

  • Science and discovery: Children and youth can use this space for experiments and scientific exploration. Fill this area with a variety of materials that allow for open-ended exploration. Appropriate materials for the discovery area include natural materials, such as rocks and pinecones, and tools, such as magnets, weights, microscopes, rulers, and measuring tapes. This could also be a space to experiment with simple machines like ramps or pulleys.
  • Technology: The use of technology, such as computers and tablets, can provide children and youth of all ages with developmentally appropriate learning opportunities. Computers and the internet allow children to explore people, places, animals, and ideas that they cannot experience in person. The use of interactive e-books and games that facilitate learning of letters, letter sounds, and numbers are additional ways children can use computers to meet learning goals. Refer to the Safe Environments lesson for information on internet safety.
  • Toy and games: Games allow children and youth to develop important thinking, social, and fine-motor skills. This area may include puzzles, board games, and small objects. Many school-age children also enjoy construction with small interconnecting blocks (e.g., Lego bricks) or other more sophisticated building materials (e.g., marble mazes). These could be part of the games area or be an activity area of their own.
  • Arts: Allow children and youth to express themselves creatively and further develop fine-motor skills in this space. Painting, drawing, and collage opportunities are a few of many activities that can be done in the arts area. Provide a variety of materials, such as sponges, rollers, glitter, tape, paint, stamps, and recycled materials. The art area could also include a space for woodworking, sewing, pottery, or other more involved art and construction ideas.A learning environment is set up with crafting tools and spaces
  • Movement and music: Children and youth can engage in large movements, make their own music, and respond to the music of others in this space. You can 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 exploration.

Depending on the age-range in your school-age program, and especially if you have kindergarten or early elementary school children, consider adding a space for dressing up and pretend play. It may be useful to have a dramatic play activity area that includes various props to take on different characters or materials that support pretend play in a flexible way (e.g., the space can be a family home, a restaurant, or a dentist’s office). Depending on how you design this space, this activity area could also be a space for exploring theater, where older children could experiment with enacting real plays or life scenarios.

Keep in mind that, depending on your physical space, these activity areas could all be within one large classroom or spread out over different spaces in your program. The key is making sure there is logic behind the placement of different activity areas and that children and youth know where the various activities are and what the rules are for accessing them (e.g., the “music and movement” area in the gymnasium will open at 3:30, once a staff member is there). In many school-age programs, children and youth use an activity management system—tags, pictures, or symbols used to limit the number of children who play in an activity area and help staff keep track of where children are. We will address this more in Lesson Five.

A chart on the wall visually depicts the schedule for each day of the week.

Promote a Feeling of Ownership

School-age children and youth should be given the opportunity to help design and organize their environment. Allowing children and youth to choose materials will give them a sense of pride and ownership. When children and youth feel a sense of ownership of their learning space, they are more likely to respect the space and feel a greater responsibility to take care of it.

Children and youth feel that they are an important part of your program when they see elements from their lives throughout the learning space. Hang children’s artwork in inexpensive frames and display photos of children and youth with their peers or families. You can further promote ownership by including elements in the classroom from children’s homes (e.g., asking families to donate décor or pictures that reflect their cultures). Doing so allows teachers and children to celebrate their diversity and the various cultures that are represented in your program.

It is important to embrace diversity and to encourage families to share information about their cultures and backgrounds. Invite parents to bring unique materials or culturally specific foods to share with the children and youth of your program. Encourage children to explore others’ backgrounds in a respectful manner. You may have school-age children and youth from all over the world or children and youth who have traveled abroad with their military families. Value their experiences and knowledge by having them reflected in your learning environment.


School-age learning environments look different from each other depending on the program. The following video provides examples of safe and organized learning environments that meet the interests and needs of school-age children and youth.  It highlights activity areas to consider in the development of your school-age program.

Learning Environments: An Introduction

Learn about the messages that the environment can send to school-age children and youth and common activity areas to consider.


There are many ideas about how to arrange school-age environments. However, some important elements found in every effective room design include:

  • Clear boundaries: Use shelves, furniture, or other barriers to help children and youth focus and understand the intended use of the space. Large, open areas encourage running and roughhousing. Arrange your furniture and activity areas to break up large, open spaces.
  • Clear ways to enter and exit: Help children and youth know how and where to come into an activity area. If you use an activity management system, make sure children and youth know how to use it. For example, do they need to travel with a staff member to activity areas located in different parts of the building?
  • Sufficient materials: As much as possible, have duplicates of favorite materials. Also make sure there are enough materials so several children can play in social areas, like the toy and games area. Children are more likely to have meaningful play interactions if there are enough materials to use together.
  • Engaging materials that spark children’s interests: Think about what children and youth in your program enjoy. Add materials or rotate materials regularly so children have new experiences. Think about the pictures, displays, print, or writing materials that can support children’s learning and engagement in each area. We will discuss this more in the lessons in this section.
  • Separate loud and active areas from quiet and calm areas: Examples of quiet activity areas are the library, art, or writing centers. Loud, active areas might include toys and games or dramatic play.
  • Access to needed materials: Discovery and science, and art spaces should have easy access to sinks. Technology would need access to electrical outlets. Soft carpeting in the library and the toys and games area can make it easier for children to sit and interact with materials on the floor.
  •  Learning Objectives: Align materials and interest areas to learning objectives.
  • Comfort and safety: Observe children and youth to ensure that all equipment and furniture comfortably fits their needs. School-age children and youth can range greatly in age and size, so it is likely you will need a variety of furniture sizes available. Implement your program’s safety requirements. Always model healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices to children and youth.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, for the Learning Environments Competency Reflection, and for a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the School-Age Learning 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 and youth in your care. In the Environments Affect Behavior activity, answer the questions about each space in your learning environment. Then share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Finally, compare your answers to the suggested responses.


To ensure your environment is designed to offer children and youth valuable learning experiences, use this inventory to help evaluate your own activity areas. Complete the Activity Area Inventory. Walk around your own space and talk about your observations with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Activity Areas:
Defined spaces used for certain purposes or types of play; examples are discovery and science, art, writing, and toys and games
Activity Management System:
A way to keep track of each child and of the number of children in an activity area; often includes tags, pictures, or symbols that children use to indicate which activity area they are at
Physical separations that create distinct activity areas; examples include shelves, furniture, or other dividers
Developmentally Appropriate Environment:
A flexible space that fits the stage of development children are in but allows for differences in children’s skills, interests, and characteristics
Learning Environment:
The physical space and relationships that create a positive and supportive place for every child’s development
Natural Materials:
Naturally occurring materials, not made by people; examples include tree logs, seashells, or pebbles
Quiet Activity Area:
Spaces designed for quiet learning and play; examples include library, writing area, cozy area, or computers with headphones
Reggio Emilia Approach:
An educational approach that believes that children are powerful learners, that adults should take their lead from the interests of the children, and that the learning environment plays a critical role (and is considered the “third teacher”)


Your coworker asks for suggestions for activity areas to include in their school-age program. What do you say?
True or false? As a school-age staff member you are solely responsible for designing and organizing the learning environment.
Which of the following methods does not promote a feeling of ownership for school-age children and youth?
References & Resources

Biermeier, M. A., (2015). Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent curriculum in relationship-driven learning environments. Young Children, 70 (5). 

Council on Accreditation. (2018). Standards for child and youth development. Out-of-school time (CYD-OST). Council on Accreditation.

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.

Durlack, J. A., Mahoney, J. L., Bohnert, A. M., Parente, M. E. (2010). Developing and improving after-school programs to enhance youth’s personal growth and adjustment: A special issue of AJCP. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45, 285-293.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). Where we stand on responding to linguistic and cultural diversity. NAEYC.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). Learning environments: A 21st century skills implementation guide.

Schaefer, R. (2016). Teacher inquiry on the influence of materials on children’s learning (Voices). Young Children 71 (5).