Creating the perfect early years education environment

Written by: Carys Henwood | Published:
Image: Edge Grove School

Since coming back to school, our youngest pupils have been bursting to get going, embracing play and messy learning especially. Carys Henwood considers how we can create a purposeful early years’ education environment

Creating a purposeful early years’ education environment, centred around helping younger children to develop and flourish, involves a number of key considerations.

Ensuring the learning environment itself, including the outdoor space, is equipped with age-appropriate equipment and resources is a good starting point. As early years’ educators, we also need to ensure that the learning space incorporates a variety of different interactive learning activities for every child. Success and engagement also depend on making sure that practitioners know each child and understand their personality and interests.

Construction areas where children can work collaboratively to build a house, or a trap to catch a “baddie” can be particularly appealing. Creating a “home corner” is another great way to encourage learning through play, because children will be familiar with everyday items and rooms around the home such as a kitchen where they can role-play while making breakfast or cooking dinner.

The home corner should be an area that is accessible all year round and seasonal items can be added throughout the year to adapt and boost the learning experience in the lead up to Christmas or Easter for example, where the children can help decorate the area with traditional decorations or enjoy other popular celebrations such as Diwali.

Creating accessible spaces

Accessibility is key to ensuring continuous engagement. Creating a deconstructed role-play area that is available for younger children will spark their imagination and also initiate peer-to-peer communication and problem-solving skills. Sensory areas containing sand and water are also a vital part of an early years’ classroom setting because these support children’s fine motor skills while encouraging mathematical and analytical development.

A variety of learning hubs or stations in the classroom will also ensure that children have the opportunity to access different areas of their development through play. For example, while a domestic role-play area will encourage children to mirror real-life situations and experiences, similarly, a dressing up area that is situated nearby to the home corner, with “real-life” clothing for children to wear, allows them to dip in and out of role-playing by becoming a doctor, dentist, police officer or shopkeeper etc. By keeping these learning spaces separate to each other but nearby, one activity does not detract from the other.

Establishing a mark-making space near to the role play and dressing up area will also encourage children to weave in other aspects such as writing invitations or dinner menus if the conversation or interest arises while playing.

If you consider what young children have been through during the pandemic, many have been understandably excited to come back into their learning environments and to socialise with their peers.

Play is such an important and evolving part of a young child’s development because it helps those early communication and language skills to mature, and it nurtures children’s critical thinking, social and collaborative skills while around other children.

Getting active outdoors

Having access to the outdoors is a vital part of a younger child’s physical and mental development. Not only will they learn how to respect and observe nature in its natural habitat, but they will also instinctively use that space to be more active and to build upon their own physical development needs.

Physical development is one of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) prime areas, helping children to improve not only their cardiovascular fitness through physical play, but also their gross and fine motor skills along with their concentration and thinking.

Outdoor spaces can also benefit from a quiet area with comfortable seating for children to delve into a book with peers or sit quietly and take some time out. Ideas such as including an agricultural planting area within your outdoor provision helps to spur interest and questioning around growth and development, as well as providing a much-needed observation area for children to observe and record any changes they see.

Incorporating an investigation area where there is sand, water, mud or den-making props, will also encourage children to think mathematically as they communicate with their peers and begin to problem-solve together. There should also be the opportunity for children to ride bikes or scooters to build upon their physical strength, which is a vital part of their early development ahead of learning to write.

Over the coming year, as the impact of Covid hopefully begins to soften, ensuring that practitioners are prepared to change their planning and teaching depending on how the children react to particular learning styles is vital. Practitioners must take the time to get to know their children well and go with their personal interests. This does not mean letting children play with the same box of Lego every day, but rather setting up purposeful “play” areas within the learning environment to ensure that children are inspired by the things they enjoy, but are still learning through their play.

This could mean creating a construction area bursting with wooden blocks and children are tasked with building a house for their family, or it could mean setting up a maths activity linking to space rockets or dinosaurs. By ensuring that the activities are relevant and resonate, children will willingly and independently access all areas of the classroom because their interests are being recognised and nurtured. This way practitioners can observe different areas of a child’s development by moving around the learning space.

Children have missed a lot of classroom-based play over the last year and as practitioners we must be constantly reviewing and adapting our facilities to ensure children continue to progress and flourish.

Freedom to learn creatively

Many parents have worried about the impact of the last year on their child’s development but there have been some real positives to come out of the pandemic too. Children are certainly more resilient and open to change since returning to school and the majority are so happy to be back in school with their friends there is a palpable sense of willingness to learn.

Many teachers have noticed improvements in behaviour since returning to the classroom too. Just like adults, the children seem to be more appreciative of the little things now and take far less for granted than before. They come into the classroom with a big smile on their face and they can’t wait to get going with their day.

Since the return to school, children in the early years setting seem to be particularly keen to get creative with paint or play with “messy things”, such as sand or playdough etc. This is likely to be because learning from home and taking part in live lessons was very structured with lots of written tasks and sitting down.

Since being back in the classroom many early years practitioners have made a conscious effort to ensure children are given that freedom to learn creatively through play and have fun, while still meeting their development stages. The last year has been tough on our youngest children, but their adaptability and natural drive to learn and discover has perhaps never been more evident.

  • Carys Henwood is the EYFS curriculum co-ordinator at Edge Grove School in Hertfordshire, an independent school for boys and girls aged three to 13.

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