The learning environment is the physical embodiment of our beliefs about education, young children and our values. Nature-based programs often vacillate between indoor and outdoor spaces. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. You can't organize materials without thinking about aesthetics. Plastic bins have a very different feel than woven baskets. Everything we use, including organization aides, sends a message and sets a mood. Opt for natural, rustic, or recycled containers for organizing instead of plastic ones. Consider apple crates, wicker baskets, wooden bowls and trays, canvas bins, or galvanized pails.
2. Materials should be stored in a way that is accessible and available for young children to independently choose and put away on their own. This empowers children to make choices about what they need, and makes it easier for children to help with clean up. This is a natural way for young children to learn responsibility.
3. Commercial products for early learning environments are often an explosion of bright yellows, reds and blues. Go for shelves and containers that are wooden or in subdued neutral tones. A room can feel more cluttered than it is simply by having too many bold and contrasting colors everywhere.
4. Keep a small shed or storage bench for outdoor tools and materials. A wagon is also a great alternative. You are sure to have helpers pull the wagon when you head out for some nature play!
Author Sandra Duncan published a wonderful book, Rethinking the Classroom Landscape: Creating Environments that Connect Young Children, Families, and Communities in 2016. It features the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, as well as many other outstanding early childhood centers.
We communicate the value of learning and our learning materials when they are organized. Young children come to understand this as one way we show respect. When we give care and attention to materials by organizing them and storing them neatly, we demonstrate that we value them. By making materials accessible to the children, we also communicate that we value a child's right to make choices about learning, and that we trust children to use materials properly. A learning environment full of things that are off limits and not to be touched sends an underlying message that children are not trusted or respected.
When you look at the way you currently store your materials, what do you think you are communicating to young children? Staff? Families? What is one small thing you can do today to improve in this area?