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Learning Environments: An Introduction

Your program’s physical space is a component of curriculum that provides a foundation for teaching and learning. You have an important role in ensuring these environments are high quality and developmentally appropriate for the children who use the spaces. This lesson will focus on ensuring that staff members provide high-quality environments. You will also learn to observe and provide feedback on environments.

  • Teach staff members about developmentally appropriate environmental designs for learning.
  • Model how to design effective environments and help staff brainstorm solutions.
  • Observe and provide feedback on learning environments.



What messages do you want your environment to send? How do you want staff members, children, and families to feel while they are in your space? What do you want them to learn?

There are several things to keep in mind as you help staff design or redesign their classroom or program spaces. As an instructional leader, you have the opportunity to help guide staff members’ decisions about their environments. To be effective, you must stay up-to-date on the latest theory and research on high-quality learning environments for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and youth. You can read the age-specific Learning Environment courses for a review. These lessons stress the importance of the physical environment, how the environment sends messages to children, youth and adults about how to appropriately use the space, and how arrangement of the environment can hinder or facilitate staff’s work with children and families. The lessons include information on developing and communicating predictable schedules and routines. In addition, the lessons provide information on constructing indoor and outdoor environments that are:

  • Designed to support the interests and development of children and youth, including information on relevant interest or activity areas that could be included based on child age
  • Organized to support independence, easy use, and learning
  • Full of materials that are developmentally appropriate, culturally relevant, open-ended (i.e., materials that can be used in a variety of ways), and that support a variety of learning goals for children or youth
  • Simultaneously engaging, with interesting experiences, and calming with home-like attributes
  • Supportive of all children and youth

You must also be able to communicate this information to staff members. This lesson will help you identify high-quality environments and provide suggestions for helping staff members continuously improve their learning environments. Although many staff members view the environment as an expression of their creativity and approach to teaching, you hold the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that environments are designed for learning.

Many staff members may need you to provide them with information about child development. Make sure staff members understand the unique needs of the age group with which they work:

  • example of a learning environment for infants including stuffed animals and dinosaurs and more
    Infants use their senses to explore the world around them. The environment should be set up to encourage this exploration, but safety and supervision should be primary concerns. Infants can do a lot! As infants learn and grow, their needs change. After 6 months of age, children are ready to explore a bit more broadly.
  • toddlers and their care-giver finger-paint at a round table
    Toddlers are also explorers, but their new mobility has broadened the world of exploration possibilities. Toddlers take risks and test their own limits. The environment should maintain safety while allowing toddlers to practice their new independence.
  • preschoolers draw and color outdoors
    Preschoolers are making sense of the world around them. They are able to explore more independently, and they can move confidently and quickly. They need a variety of objects and settings to explore, manipulate, and create. The environment should spark their creativity, but it should also help them practice important independent skills, such as hand washing and dressing.
  • school-agers play with legos
    School-age children need many of the same experiences as preschoolers, but they are ready for more sophistication, independence, and challenge. The environment should allow them to identify peer groups, work alone or with others, and select materials and experiences that interest them.

You must be prepared to teach staff members about the role the environment plays in the curriculum and in child behavior. Talk to staff members about how their environments are designed to support engagement and active learning. Also be prepared to encourage staff members to look at their environments first when challenging behaviors occur.


You are the content specialist in your program, so it is your job to be a role model for effective practices. You should have an active role in designing environments. Help staff members arrange their spaces. As you do so, talk about why it is important to arrange environments in systematic ways (separating loud and quiet spaces, providing boundaries, etc.). Spend time talking about the space, sharing organization tips, and helping move furniture. Brainstorm together when problems arise. Model looking at the environment first when challenging behaviors occur. Ask questions like:

  • What do you think this environment is communicating to the children or youth?
  • What are your goals for this space?
  • How do you think children or youth should use this space?
  • Is it easy to do what needs to be done here? Why or why not? What would make it easier?
  • What problems are children having? What messages do you think they are trying to send with their behavior?
  • For older children and youth, what do the children themselves say about the environment? What are their ideas and dreams about the space?

Model curiosity and problem solving as you work with staff members. When a space needs to be arranged or rearranged, help staff members list all the activities, events, and materials that the space should accommodate. Use that list to set goals for the space and clearly define spaces that serve different functions. Also, keep open lines of communication among staff members who work different shifts in the same space. It is important that all staff members understand the purposes behind environmental arrangement.

Finally, work with your program’s management to make sure that your program’s shared spaces communicate the same messages as individual classrooms. Just as staff members carry the responsibility of designing and maintaining their classroom environments and assuring they are safe, you can model many positive environmental strategies by creating shared spaces that embody the qualities you want your classroom environments to express. For the program's shared spaces consider the following questions:

  • How do you communicate to children, youth and families that this space belongs to them?

    • Consider posting pictures of the children, youth or families from your program in the program entrance way, perhaps photos taken at a recent program event.
    • Ask classrooms to share recent artwork or pictures from a recent project or activity in the hallway outside their classroom.
    • Ensure that materials are posted at child and adult eye-level.
    • With trainers or coaches, coordinate a display board near your program’s entrance that showcases the work of a different classroom or youth project each month. This can also be a great way to highlight the great work of your staff.
    • If space permits, include some adult-sized and child- or youth-sized chairs.
    • Incorporate a “family profile” space where each week a different family in your program is featured with a picture and they answer questions (e.g., things they enjoy doing together, favorite foods, toys).
    artwork is displayed on a wall
  • How do you create a calming, home-like environment?

    • Incorporate nontoxic plants.
    • Add decorative touches that represent the children, youth or families in your program. Ask families to donate items, rotating every so often.
    • If space permits, include soft furniture, like a small couch or rocker. Your program entrance can offer a transitional space for families, giving them a chance to read a book or sing a quiet song together before departing or to reconnect at the end of the day.
    • Offer soft and natural lighting and neutral paint colors.
    home-like environment with plans, soft neutral colors, and natural light from windows
  • How do you communicate this is a space for learning? In addition, how do you make visible the learning that is happening every day in your environments?

    • Offer a small library with books accessible to children, youth and adults that reflect current interests in your program, and perhaps offer relevant resources for families (e.g., recipes for play dough or directions for simple science experiments to conduct at home).
    • Share the work occurring in your programs (e.g., by incorporating the display board idea offered above).
    • Share information about interesting activities and experiences coming up in the larger community (e.g., poster for a local high school play, opportunities at nearby libraries or museums).
    • Create inviting spaces that evoke wonder. Consider slight changes in display every so often (e.g., cover one window with colored cellophane, place a small, child-safe mirror under the potted plant on the floor, or hang a new mobile by the door). These small environmental changes can spark new conversations and interest from children and families.
    An example of a book display on a bookshelf
  • How do you communicate this is a place you can trust?

    • Ensure that the materials in your shared spaces are clean and in good repair.
    • Confirm that there is a clear pathway through all shared spaces and that they are easy for all children and families to navigate, including those that may use special equipment such as a walker or a wheelchair.
    • Verify that if any materials are stored in the hallway (e.g., children’s belongings), these are neatly put away.
    An example of a nice center lobby and entryway
  • How do you communicate this is a space that supports all learners?

    • Ensure that the pictures, displays and resources you provide represent the diversity of children, youth, or families in your program in terms of race, cultural background, abilities, family composition, etc.
    • Make certain that the materials available in your shared spaces are free from bias.
    A book display shows the center supports all learners with titles like "Visual Supports for People with Autism"


It is your responsibility to ensure that staff members provide high-quality, engaging environments. As with safety, your program may have tools to evaluate the quality of indoor and outdoor environments. You may use the competency checklist housed within each direct-care track of the Virtual Lab School Learning Environments course, or several environmental rating scales are commercially available (ITERS-R, ECERS-R, SACERS). You can also use the National Association for the Education of Young Children environment standards or other tools developed for school-age programs. These tools can provide valuable information to help focus a staff member’s professional development around the learning environments and materials they provide.

Observing and talking with staff members are the best means for assessing the strengths and meeting the challenges of their learning environments. It is important for you to know each staff member’s individual strengths and challenges. You may need to support consistency across different shifts among staff members who work in the same classroom.

Let’s begin by taking another look at a classroom that you first were introduced to in the Safety Course. Making simple improvements to an environment often can have a major impact on the overall classroom experience—including safety and learning. You’ve already watched this video and thought about the safety implications. Now, take some time to think about how this space affects learning.

Infant & Toddler Learning Environment

How does this toddler environment impact learning?

Reflecting on Strengths and Needs in the Learning Environment

What did you notice about this environment? Did it maximize opportunities for learning? Did it provide a strong foundation for the curriculum? As a trainer or coach, it is your responsibility to provide supports so the answers to the last two questions are “Yes!” Think about what specific strategies a trainer, coach, and classroom team might discuss to help maximize learning in this environment. In the Safety Course, the trainer, coach, and teachers discussed creating “zones” for easy supervision, developing a role-by-responsibility matrix so adults knew what to do at all times in each zone, and taking data on “hot spots” in the classroom. These same steps can be powerful ways to promote learning. In this case, we would begin to provide the staff members with some rationale for why and how zones and active supervision promote learning. Here is an example of what you might say and do to support this team:


You Saw:

  • Toddlers running in a circle around the furniture
  • Adults reminding children to walk


What you might say:

  • “I noticed that the transition after breakfast seemed especially difficult today. In a perfect world, what would you want to have happen during that time?”
  • “It’s so important to think about how our environments are set up to help kids learn—and to make our jobs easier. Let’s brainstorm some ways that your environment could help you out after breakfast.”
  • “How did today compare to other days? What do you think would happen if we broke up the circle the children were running around today?”
  • “You two are working so hard to provide positive directions to the kids. I think there are some ways your learning environment can provide some of those directions for you. Let’s take a walk around your room and brainstorm together.”


What you might do:

  • Gather sample classroom designs from curriculum guides, videos, and online. Arrange for staff to observe in other toddler classrooms. Identify strengths and weaknesses of the space with the team.
  • Make a “zoning” plan with the adults. Arrange furniture together to ensure zones are clearly defined, open spaces are broken up, and children and adults know what to do in each space.
  • Review weekly lesson plans to make sure that meaningful learning activities are available in each zone, and adults know how to support children in those activities.
  • Continue taking data on “hot spots” in the classroom.

Resources to Strengthen Learning Environments

All of us need the right tools to do our jobs. Use the information you have gathered to connect staff members with resources they need. You might model a skill, arrange for a staff member to observe in another classroom or program, bring in materials from a lending library, or brainstorm new ways to arrange a space. For example, a variety of commercial vendors offer free sample classroom blueprints—the company that sells your program’s furniture may have resources you can find online. You could compare the strengths and weaknesses of each and brainstorm ways you could apply designs with the furniture and materials you already have. You might also help connect staff members with resources about teaming, or working with each other to solve problems. The University of Minnesota REACH program ( has a variety of resources for developing your coaching skills and helping support adult learners. You may also complete the Virtual Lab School Focused Topics course Using the VLS: Coaching to Enhance Practice.

To help you think more about the learning environments you want to foster in your program, look briefly at some examples of learning environments developed for young children and school-age children and youth. Take some time to think about how these spaces affect learning.

Additional Examples of Learning Environments

As a trainer or coach, you will likely see a range of environments across a range of age groups with varying levels of quality. The first video you saw in this lesson represented an infant and toddler setting. Watch the following videos that represent preschool and school-age settings. Each video ends with a summary of how you might follow up with the staff members.

A Range of Preschool Learning Environments

Watch a variety of preschool learning environments




You Saw:

  • Several children are playing in the block area.
  • Two girls walk through to gather art materials.
  • Door to the playground is located within the block area.
  • Several types of blocks and play accessories are stored on low, open shelves.


What you might say:

  • How do children use the block area? Have you noticed any patterns of problems?
  • Which areas of the room seem to have the most conflicts or problems with children wandering around?
  • How do you feel about the way children use the space and materials?
  • I noticed the girls needed to cross the room to gather art supplies. Is that pretty typical? What does that do to the flow of the day?


What you might do:

  • Observe and provide feedback on how children access the materials they need for each interest area.
  • Help the staff members rearrange the materials, so all the materials children need are close at hand.
  • Help the staff member rearrange furniture and interest areas, so children can play without interruption.
  • Encourage the staff member to visit other classrooms or spend some time using online classroom design programs for ideas.


You Saw:

  • Block area has clear boundaries on all sides, and space is dedicated to building during this time of day.
  • Children and teacher are building a large structure. It is large enough (and there are sufficient materials) for children and teachers to sit in it.


What you might say:

  • How did you decide how to arrange the space in your room? What were your priorities?
  • How does this arrangement compare to other arrangements you have tried?
  • What are your learning goals for the space? How do you change the space for different learning goals?
  • What seems to be going well? Are there any challenges?
  • How do you feel about the way children use the space and materials?


What you might do:

  • Help the staff member document the experiences children and staff members have in the space and the learning that is achieved.
  • Encourage the staff member to discuss the benefits of their room design at a staff meeting.

A Range of School-Age Learning Environments





What a coach saw:

  • There are plenty of options for play.
  • All play options are lined up around the walls of the room. There is a large open space in the middle.
  • Materials are set up so children can access them on their own.


What a coach might say:

  • How do children use the space? Have you noticed any patterns of problems?
  • How do you think children would respond if the materials were arranged into clear areas with entries and exits?
  • How do you feel about the way children use the space and materials?


What you might do:

  • Observe and provide feedback on how children use the space and where "hot spots" for problems exist.
  • Help staff rearrange the furniture, so the space in the middle of the room is minimized.


What a coach saw:

  • Large space with clearly defined program areas for different activities.
  • Quiet activities (homework) and loud activities are separated.
  • Comfortable areas for relaxation are provided.


What a coach might say:

  • How did you decide how to arrange the space in your program? What were your priorities?
  • What seems to be going well? Are there any challenges?
  • How do you make changes based on learning goals?
  • How do children respond to all of the choices? How do you support them?


What you might do:

  • Continue to observe and help staff members problem-solve if issues arise.
  • Provide feedback and support around planning activities within the space.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Training & Curriculum Specialist Learning Environments Course Guide

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


Take some time to evaluate how your program’s environment supports learning. Complete the Utilizing The Environment To Support Learning activity to help you.  Discuss your reflections with your team. 


Observations should be anchored in some sort of measurement system. This will help ensure that you coach consistently across staff members and settings. It also helps you provide objective, factual feedback to staff members about their learning environments. The Tools for Observing the Learning Environment guide provides a brief annotated list of common environmental observation tools. This list is not exhaustive. Check with your administrator for tools your program recommends.

Use the Organizing Spaces for Development and Learning Best Practices Checklist as a focused observation tool to support staff that have completed the Learning Environments course but may need additional support or follow up on creating spaces that promote learning. This checklist provides an easy way to follow up on goals set around this topic and specific feedback to staff members about what you observed. 


Developmentally appropriate:
An item, toy, or activity suitable for a child’s age and general level of development; it is safe and provides an appropriate level of challenge
Toys or materials that can be used in a variety of ways (e.g., blocks, boxes, dramatic play items)


Janae has noticed that children in Robyn’s preschool classroom engage in a lot of challenging behavior, frequently wander around the classroom without engaging in any interest areas, and congregate in certain areas of the room. What may be the problem?
Why might a program use an environmental rating scale or other observational tool as part of professional development for staff members?
True or false? As a supervisor, trainer, or coach you play an active role in designing and arranging environments.
References & Resources

Afterschool Alliance (2020). Resources to promote belonging and inclusion.

Anti-Defamation League (2012). How can you create a learning environment that respects diversity?

Barton, E. E., & Smith, B. J. (2015). The preschool inclusion toolbox: How to build and lead a high-quality program. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Out of school time supports students’ health and learning.

Childcare Aware (2021). Brain building tips for early childhood environments.

Cultivate Learning (2021). Circle time magazine big kids edition season 4: Creating safe environments.

Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Inventory of practices for promoting children’s social emotional competence. (2010).

Curtis, D., & Carter, M. (2014). Designs for living and learning: Transforming early childhood environments (2nd ed). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2017). The creative curriculum for preschool (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.

Greenman, J. (2017). Caring spaces, learning places: Children’s environments that work (2nd ed). Redmond, WA: Exchange Press, Inc.

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2017). Blended practices for teaching young children in inclusive settings (2nd ed). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

Harms, T., Cryer, D., & Clifford, R. M. (2019). Family child care environment rating scale, (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Cryer, D. and Clifford, R.M. (2014). Early childhood environment rating scale, (3rd ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., D. Cryer & R.M. Clifford. (2017). Infant/Toddler environment rating scale, (3rd ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Harms, T., Jacobs, E. V., & White, D. R. (2013). School-Age care environment rating scale (rev. ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

IRIS Center (2021). Early Childhood Environments. Accessible from:

McMullen, M.B., & Brody, D. (2022). Infants and Toddlers at Play: Choosing the Right Stuff for Learning and Development. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children

New York University. (2017, November 6). Afterschool program environments linked to academic confidence and skills.

Teaching Strategies (2021). Five reflective questions for evaluating your physical environment.

University of Minnesota REACH. (2020). Supporting families through research and outreach