Written by Trena Hudson, M.A.
Yikes Tikes! Director
“A High Quality Early Education Program takes “special care” to ensure that their program meets the environmental, social, emotional, familial, cultural, economic, intellectual, physical, safety and health needs of each child in their program by continuous: professional development, innovative & holistic curriculum, meaningful assessments, family involvement, cultural sensitivity, resourcefulness, community support, comprehensive decision making, commitment to excellence and the celebration of diversity.”
-Trena Hudson, M.A from “What is a Quality Preschool”
The best way to introduce this topic is already eloquently stated by Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy.
There are three teachers of children: adults, other children, and their physical environment.” – Loris Malaguzzi
Based on this statement alone, the environment is not just fundamental, it is necessary when it comes to the overall development of children. With anything this important, we are obligated to treat it with special care”. All of the nature versus nurture enthusiasts can breathe a sigh of relief because I am going to discuss (from a quality early education perspective) the intricate details of how “environmental” factors influence the experiences of young children.
When I use the term environmental, I am referring to everything in our world, thus, in the world of a child. I am talking about their mental environment, their physical environment, and their natural environment.
If you walk into any “quality” early education classroom you will see child-sized furnishings and materials that are easily accessible by the children. This scenario plays on the importance for people (regardless of age) to have a certain level of comfort in their environment. Even as adults, when we walk into a space that doesn’t meet our standard of cleanliness, we tend to behave differently. When we enter an area that is over-stimulating or confined, we are inclined to react to the setting. Children are sensibly the same. The role of adults is to create an environment that is conducive to a child’s natural exploration, socialization, and reflection.
Quality early education programs go beyond the premise of just having the right sized objects within a child’s reach. They utilize a thoughtful design process that brings the children into the process. They acknowledge the fact that since the children will be occupying the space, they need to have a say so in the design. Quality programs, also know that the needs of the children and families can alter at any time, so the classroom is always ready to evolve to meet the needs of the classroom community.
So now what? We have the right objects in the classroom and they are the appropriate size, how do we ensure that the environment is the third teacher of children? Well, the answer is quite easy, the early educators and parents. As early education professionals, we know that the environment is a third teacher and in order for children to get an optimal early education experience, we need to be facilitating and provoking higher order thinking and problem-solving in reference to the environment that the children occupy. We also need to ensure that parents understand the importance of the third teacher and support them by offering tips and discussion prompts that can take place at home.
Remember that the environment can be indoors or outdoors and can be relative to each person. Some simple environmental prompts/provocations that can happen in school and/or at home are:
- I see that you keep bumping into that desk when you walk by, let’s brainstorm how we can make a change that will allow you to walk without getting hurt.
- Where should we display your artwork?
- What is that bird doing with all of those sticks right outside of our window?
- It seems the sun is shining really bright into our classroom (or any other space that you may be occupying, like a car), we keep having to squint. What can we do to make it less bright in here?
- Where can we sit to have a quiet story time while the other half of our group does an art project?
- It started raining on our walk outside today and our shoes and socks got all wet. What can we do the next time it rains to keep our feet dry?
- Normally on the way to school we hear birds chirping. Why do you think we didn’t hear any today?
- Earth day is coming up, how do you think we should celebrate?
- What do you see when you look out the window?
These are just a few examples of how adults can engage children in authentic and dynamic discussions that will help them to learn and understand the world around them. It’s important to approach discussions with children with an open mind and open-ended questions. Learn WITH the children. Even if you have an answer for yourself, do some investigating to get an answer that reflects both yours and the child’s idea of what is happening.
Educating young children about their environment is an art. Meaning, there is no formula or equation that early educators or parents can use to ensure that children get all of that they need to know about their surroundings or anything else for that matter. We can, however, make them aware of forces that are shaping the everyday experiences that they have. We can encourage them to ask questions about what’s going on around them. We can promote their confidence to explore and get answers for themselves. We can value their curiosity. We can celebrate their discoveries and adore each child’s unique way of processing the environment around them. So it’s not a matter of what can you do, it’s a matter of your willingness to do it. Quality Education programs, such as Yikes Tikes are willing, excited, and serious about doing everything I’ve outlined in this blog and more. Stay tuned for my next blog post where I talk about how Quality early educations programs meet the Social Needs of the children that they serve.