Early Childhood Education

Environmental Assessments in Early Childhood Education


Environmental assessments in early childhood education involve a set of evaluation tools that are used to assess the quality and quantity of early childhood education environments, such as those found within classrooms, playgrounds, and homes. Research studies demonstrate that high-quality care in early childhood programs is associated with features of the physical and social environment; and that these quality measures are predictive of a range of positive developmental outcomes for children in their cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical domains (e.g., NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000; Peisner-Feinberg et al., 2000). A thoughtfully designed and organized setting with a positive climate is interpreted as providing a safe, secure, and instructive place for children to be inquisitive and learn—from the teacher, their peers, and their environment. Environmental assessments have been primarily used for accreditation, licensure, or research purposes. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed Standards for Physical Environment in 2005 for accreditation purposes to assess the quality of indoor and outdoor physical environments, including equipment, facilities, and materials to ensure that the environment is welcome, accessible, and promotes children’s learning, comfort, health, and safety.

Environmental assessments are developed and utilized based on theories of child development and cultural values and beliefs. One of the more predominant theories is the ecological model developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1994). Within this model children are observed in one of their natural contexts (e.g., child-care centers, home, and classroom). It is assumed that these settings operate within a broader system (e.g., societal beliefs, state and federal laws and regulations, interactions between caregivers, educators and service systems). Many assessments focus on one or more aspects of the ecology of the setting. Based on adaptations of Carta’s model (2002), for example, an environmental assessment could include one or more of the following: (a) Classroom features (e.g., curriculum, practices, schedule and nature of activities, materials); (b) interactions of the child with peers, teachers, and parents; (c) staff characteristics (e.g., formal preparation, experience and perceptions about their roles in relationship to their teaching; (d) classroom structures (e.g., group size, adult-child ratios, size of space and its arrangement, nature of equipment and furnishings, and hours of operation).

Environmental assessments are formatted in several ways. For example, these tools may include: (a) Inventories/rating scales and/or checklists; (b) interviews of personnel and family members directly associated with the targeted environment; and/or (c) reviews of pertinent documents. The scope of environmental assessments varies depending upon the following three factors for a child’s development: (1) Purpose (e.g., safety, health, quality, or planning); (2) age/focus of child (e.g., infant-toddler, preschooler, or child with special needs); and (3) location (e.g., home setting, classroom, or playground). Individual assessments have been used in conjunction with other assessments to form a better understanding of the child. It is important to note that these assessments are only one picture of a child’s surroundings within a specific period of time and should be considered within the broader context. Environmental assessments in early childhood education are developed for various reasons: (a) To ensure the safety and health of children; (b) to assess and ultimately obtain high-quality early childhood educational environments; and (c) to plan the schedule, curriculum, and/or individualized education programs (IEP) (Wolery, 2004). Assessment tools will address one, two or all three of these areas. The following sections will address each of these reasons.


Ensuring Safety, Security, and Health

Environmental assessments that address safety, security, and health issues in early childhood environments are designed to help identify any materials, conditions, and/or events that may lead to unintentional child death or injury. In addition, these assessments determine whether the responsible adults (i.e., caregivers, teachers) in these settings are engaging in precautions that will prevent any injuries. These assessments focus on areas where accidents are most likely to occur, such as on playgrounds where children may slip or fall. The Public Playground Safety Checklist (Consumer Product Safety Commission [CPSC] 2005) assesses the sturdiness of the equipment, the type of grounding to break falls and the supervision of children as they climb the jungle gym, use the slides or swings. Other assessment instruments ensure that children are safe from potential fires, firearms, weapons, toxic materials, and materials that pose danger of suffocation. For more safety issues, such as issues related to materials, toys, cribs, products, or home equipment, CPSC provides a good source of publications (available online at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/pubJdx.html).


Achieving Quality Environments for Children

Another reason for developing environmental assessment is to assess the quality of environments that will promote children’s overall growth and development, and to design and implement plans to improve that quality, when appropriate. There have been different ways of defining quality of the environment and measuring it. One approach is assessing the overall quality of the classroom or day care environment by including measures of a range of characteristics associated with quality care. For example, the Day Care Environmental Inventory and Observation Schedule for Physical Space (Prescott, Kritchevsky, and Jones 1975) is one of the earlier assessments of child-rearing environments focusing on children in relation to the environment. The Preschool Environmental Rating Scale (Fromm, Rourke, and Buggey, 2000) is another environmental scale that involves physical layout, materials, basic care needs, curriculum, interrelationships, and activities in the setting. The Early Childhood Physical Environment Observation Schedules and Rating Scales (Moore 1994) consist of five types of scales (i.e., Early Childhood Center, Children, and Teacher Profiles; Early Childhood Teacher Style and Dimensions of Education Rating Scales; Early Childhood Physical Environment Scales; Playground and Neighborhood Observation Behavior Maps; Environment/Behavior Observation Schedule for Early Childhood Environments) to assess overall quality of various dimensions of children’s environments. The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale—Revised (ECERS-R) (Harms, Clifford, and Cryer, 2005) and the Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale—Revised (ITERS-R) (Harms, Cryer, and Clifford, 2003) are other assessment tools that have been the most widely used measures of the quality of care in child-care settings including both the physical structures and nonphysical features of the settings.

Many environmental assessments are developed to be used also in home settings for licensing, research, and clinical application purposes. As more families are opting to place their young children in family child-care programs, measures, such as the Family Day Care Rating Scale (Harms and Clifford, 1989), are developed to provide useful information about the quality of the provider’s home environment. In addition, these assessments have been used to identify influences on children’s development from their home environment. They have also been used to set goals for families who are receiving early intervention services.

Since the legislation of Individual Family Service Plans, professionals develop partnerships with families to provide them information in order to make their own decisions regarding what they think is best for their child and family. Examples of these assessments include the following:

• Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) Inventory (Caldwell and Bradley, 1984), which is designed to assess physical and social aspects of home environments, such as the interaction between the mother and the child, organization of physical and temporal environment, and the learning materials.

• The Infant/Toddler (IT) HOME, the Early Childhood (EC) HOME, and the Middle Childhood (MC) HOME are three versions of the HOME Inventory used to assess early childhood home settings. More information is available online at http://www.ualr.edu/crtldept/home4.htm.

In addition to these purposes, assessments such as the School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale (SACERS) (Harms, Jacops, and White, 1996) have also been designed for not only home but other group care programs for children during out-of-school time.


Planning the Schedule, Curriculum and/or Program

Planning the schedule, curriculum, or program for either a group of children or individual children requires designing and organizing the environment according to children’s diverse cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as their varied developmental levels. To accomplish this, the assessment tools just mentioned can be used as well as some others, such as The Classroom Practices Inventory (CPI) (Hyson, Hirsh-Pasek, and Rescorla, 1990), which is based on the NAEYC Guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practices for 4-5-year-old children. CPI is a rating scale with an emphasis on curriculum, teaching practices, and the emotional climate of child-care programs.

Other instruments focus on the development of individual children, particularly those having certified disabilities (i.e., with Individualized Education Plans or Individualized Family Service Plans) and their inclusion in general education settings. Some of these instruments include the following:

• The Ecological Congruence Assessment (Wolery et al., 2000)

• Classroom Ecological Inventory (CEI) (Fuchs et al., 1994)

• The Assessment of Practices in Early Elementary Classroom (APEEC) (Hemmeter, Maxwell, Ault, and Schuster, 2001).

These assessments help parents, teachers, and other professionals plan for smooth transitions for children from more restrictive to inclusive settings as well as ensuring access for all children to the curriculum, the other children, teachers and other features of the environment. Other environmental assessments are designed to plan for specific curricula areas, such as children’s literacy. The Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO) Toolkit for children from 3- to 8-years-old (Smith and Dickinson, 2002) is designed as a comprehensive set of observation tools for describing the extent to which classrooms provide children optimal support for their language and literacy development. See also Classroom Environments; Disabilities, Young Children with; Ecology of Human Development; Grouping; Parents and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Caldwell, Bettye M., and Robert H. Bradley (1984). HOME observation for measurement of the environment. Little Rock: University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Consumer Product Safety Commission. Public Playground Safety Checklist. Available online at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/327.html; Fromm, Barbara, Michelle Rourke, and Tom Buggey (2000). Appendix C: Preschool environmental rating scale. In Richard M. Gargiulo and Jennifer L. Kilgo, eds., Young children with special needs: An introduction to early childhood special education. New York: Delmar Publishers, pp. 312-326; Fuchs, Douglas, Pamela Fernstrom, Stephanie Scott, Lynn Fuchs, and Linda Vandermeer (1994). Classroom ecological inventory. Teaching Exceptional Children 26(3), 11-15; Hemmeter, Mary Louise, Kelly L. Maxwell, Melinda Jones Ault, and John W. Schuster (2001). Assessment of practices in early elementary classrooms (APEEC). New York: Teachers College Press; Hyson, Marion C., Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Leslie Rescorla (1990). The classroom practices inventory: An observation instrument based on NAEYC’s guidelines or developmentally appropriate practices for 4- and 5-Year-Old Children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 5, 475-494; Moore, Gary T. (1994). Early childhood physical environment observation schedules and rating scales: Preliminary scales for the measurement of the physical environment of child care centers and related environments. 2nd ed. Milwaukee: Center for Architecture and Urban Planning Research, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Program Standard 9—Physical Environment. Available online athttp://www.naeyc.org/accreditation/performance_criteria/environment_criteria.asp; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2000). The relation of child care to cognitive and language development. Child Development 71(4): 960-980; Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen S., Margaret R. Burchinal, Richard M. Clifford, Mary L. Culkin, Carolle Howes, Sharon Lynn Kagan, Noreen Yazejian, Patricia Byler, Jean Rustici, and Janice Zelazo (2000). The children of the cost, quality, and outcomes study go to school: Technical report. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center; Prescott, Elizabeth, Sybil Kritchevsky, and Elizabeth Jones (1975). An environmental inventory. Part 2 in Elizabeth Prescott, with Elizabeth Jones, Sybil Kritchevsky, Cynthia Milich, and Ede Haselhoef, eds., Assessment of child-rearing environments: An ecological approach. Pacific Oaks, CA: Pacific Oaks College; Smith, Miriam W., and David K. Dickinson, with Angela Sangeorge and Louisa Anastasopoulos (2002). User’s guide to the early language & literacy classroom observation toolkit. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; Wolery, Mark (2004). Assessing children’s environments. In Mary McLean, Mark Wolery, and Donald B. Bailey, Jr., eds., Assessing infants and preschoolers with special needs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, pp. 204-235; Wolery, Mark, Margaret Sigalove Brashers, Sheila Grant, and Theresa Pauca (2000). Ecological congruence assessment for classroom activities and routines in childcare. Chapel Hill: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Hatice Zeynep Inan and Laurie Katz