As the so-called “third teacher”, the Early Years learning environment reflects our growing understanding of child development. It facilitates the latest approaches to play-based learning, inspiring and enabling children to become active learners from the very start, and throughout their future education.
Those “awe and wonder” moments, when children make steps forward in their learning, are absolutely fascinating, and a delight to observe. After the recent lockdown, I watched as a “working from home” station was created in an Early Years role-play corner – the children recognised it immediately and began to re-enact their parents’ efforts to balance home and work life through this difficult time.
“I watched as a ‘working from home’ station was created in an Early Years role-play corner.”
Observing them was extremely enlightening and reassuring, but of course Early Years practitioners have long understood the importance of creating opportunities for children to make sense of their experiences by using their learning environment. It was a poignant example of positively building a learning environment that fuelled creativity and supported emotional learning through play.
We know that when children of all ages are given the freedom to explore and question as active learners they learn far more effectively, and “the third teacher” has a key role to play in this. In recent years there have been exciting innovations in the development of Early Years learning environments which are now being carefully designed to encourage self-access, ownership, independence and collaboration – all vital to a successful contemporary Early Years education.
One thing I love to delve into is the use of light and the natural environment – as an example, the use of natural fabrics, soft tones and atmospheric lighting are all ways in which we can enhance the learning environment.
“As care for the natural world is an essential theme in education, the use of sustainable resources is a key priority.”
Other impactful changes include the creation of low-level noise and sensory areas, as well as true self-access areas that promote “flow”. Loose parts that lend themselves to open-ended play opportunities are now more widely used as well as being found in nature and therefore increasingly more sustainable. Acorns and sticks as well as blocks and buttons are all examples of a tool kit for creating so-called “loose part havens.”
Moving forward, aspects of Forest School and Beach School learning opportunities are increasingly woven into Early Years provision. As care for the natural world is an essential theme in education, the use of sustainable resources is a key priority. Furthermore, careful thought is now given to matching the rich quality of both the outdoor and indoor learning opportunities with particular emphasis on multi-sensory learning.
These advances in environmental design are built on our growing knowledge of the skillsets of the youngest learners and how to inspire them. Our deepened understanding of the plasticity of the brain, how early experiences impact learning, and how synapses are formed has had a significant and lasting impact on practice and pedagogy.
“Advances in technology are also carefully tracked and embraced to develop learning opportunities.”
We know, for example, that a child’s sense of security and belonging correlates with learning self-efficacy; a “home from home” style learning environment can add to this feeling of safety and enable all-important exploratory learning.
Alongside a commitment towards learning from nature, advances in technology are also carefully tracked and embraced to develop learning opportunities. Whilst there is a cautionary need to reduce passive screen time for very young learners, there are aspects of tech that can provide access to moments of awe and wonder.
Virtual innovations, such as the recent Van Gogh exhibition, can create immersive experiences, bringing learning to life (an Amazon rainforest in the middle of rural England for example). In addition to this, children in Early Years are now capturing their experiences and sharing them with parents via child-centred apps.
“Virtual innovations, such as the recent Van Gogh exhibition, can create immersive experiences.”
As we aim to increase independence, inspire creativity and promote natural curiosity, so it follows that easy access, open-ended resources such as message centres, reading studios, sensory areas and other bespoke features are being incorporated into their learning environments.
I am incredibly excited to be taking on the headship of Felsted Prep School this September, and look forward to working with the experienced Early Years team as we continue to carefully craft the learning environment in the school’s beautiful Stewart House pre-prep. It is inspiring to know that our youngest Felstedians have the strongest foundations for instilling a love for learning.