- Recognize the effects of the 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 for school-age environments.
How Do Environments Affect You?
You probably have places where you like to go: a favorite restaurant, a local park, a sporting event, or a good friend’s home. What about those 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. Maybe it’s 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. In others, we feel tense, overwhelmed, and confused. The environment has a powerful effect on us. It influences how we feel, what we do, and how we respond. Some of us dislike places where we feel that we can’t control or predict our experiences. In some spaces, we may feel like we don’t belong or are not appreciated.
Just like adults, school-age children and youth are affected by their environments. It’s our job to make sure 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 (thinking), and planning. Whether school-age children are in your program for three hours a day after school or 12 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 can help 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. 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
- Enriching: full of engaging experiences
Such supportive environments can send children and youth a variety of positive messages about their learning (Dodge et al., 2010):
- 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, 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 believes that children are powerful learners and that children’s 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 and that the intentionality, or thoughtful planning and action, 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 return to these ideas in future lessons in this course.
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. Obviously some stores have better designs than others, but many retail establishments make the most out of simple design principles: objects with similar uses are stored near each other, and signs help you find what you need.
Now think about a child or youth in your school-age program. How does he or she know where to find toys and materials? How does he or she 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 a lot of 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, he or she 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 learning environments. You can use children and youth’s interests, goals, and abilities to design your activity areas.
School-age learning environments should contain a variety of developmentally appropriate materials and activity areas. Some important activity areas include:
In addition, depending on the age-range in your school-age program, especially if you have kindergarten or early elementary school children, children may enjoy dressing up and engaging in 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.
Keep in mind that, depending on your physical space, these activity areas could all be within one large classroom or spread out over different physical 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 5.
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, create a hangout space, or pick out books for the library 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. In addition, giving the children some freedom to adjust the space depending on their interests can create amazing learning opportunities. For example, if a group of children is interested in a particular sport or book, providing opportunities and spaces for them to create items and carry out these interests (e.g., creating an indoor hockey arena or constructing a wizarding school from a book series) can provide opportunities for researching ideas, applying “real world” math by measuring and planning, and working together as a team.
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 items 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 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.
There are many schools of thought on how to arrange school-age environments. Some important elements are found in every effective room design:
- Clear boundaries: Use shelves, furniture, or other barriers to help children and youth focus and avoid distractions. Large, open spaces 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 together if there are enough materials to use together.
- Engaging materials that spark children’s interests: Think about what children and youth in your program like. 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 quiet, active and calm spaces: 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 toy and games area can make it easier for children to sit and interact with materials on the floor.
- Materials and activity areas aligned with 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, the Learning Environments Competency Reflection, and 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. Download and print the Environments Affect Behavior activity. Answer the questions about each space. Then 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 activity areas. Download and print the Activity Area Inventory. Walk around your own activity areas. Talk about what you see with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
|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|
|Boundaries||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, cozy area, or computers with headphones|
|Reggio Emilia||An educational approach developed by Loris Malaguzzi and named after an area in Italy; it is based on the beliefs 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”)|
Council on Accreditation. (2018). Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs. Out-of-School Time (CYD-OST). New York: Council on Accreditation. Retrieved from https://coanet.org/standard/cyd-ost/
Dodge, D. T., Heroman, C., Berke, K., Bickart, T., Colker, L., Jones, C., Copley, J., & Dighe, J. (2010). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (5th Edition). Bethesda, MD: 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.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). Learning Environments: A 21st Century Skills Implementation Guide.