Early Childhood Education

Classroom Environments


A classroom environment in early childhood education settings involves a space where young children have opportunities to interact with each other and adults and engage in meaningful activities that nurture aspects of a child’s development (i.e., sensori-motor, cognitive, social-emotional, and/or communication development) through the direction of teachers, parents and other adults. This type of environment involves many features. One of these features is the physical structure of the environment; for example, size, walls, flooring, windows, lighting, doors, color and texture. Another feature includes the objects within the space; for example, toys, books, manipulatives, children’s works, moveable furniture, plants, and decorative stuff. The final feature is the arrangement and organization of these structures, objects and activities within the space. The space of a classroom environment could be located within a school, center, home, workplace, or a religious setting. Although outside space is considered to be part of the classroom environment, the majority of activities usually occur inside of a physical structure. Greenman (1988) states,

An environment is a living, changing system. More than the physical space, it indicates the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think, and behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives. (p. 5)

As children spend increasingly more time in classrooms, the quality of these classrooms is critical in strengthening children’s foundational development. Greenman calls for putting “childhood” back into the classroom and making it a place for children to fall in love with the world and make sense of life’s complexities, mysteries and joys.


Theories andApproaches

Although two classrooms may look alike as to their physical structure, the total classroom environments will be distinct from each other according to their inhabitants and philosophies of the curriculum. In each classroom the children’s backgrounds, ages, ethnicity, gender, and developmental levels as well as the teacher’s personality and training help to comprise the classroom environment. Each classroom can be simulated to having its own culture reflected in the customary actions, beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes of the children and teacher(s) as they engage in the everyday life of the classroom (Green, Dixon, and Zaharlick, 2003).

Theories that contribute to diverse classroom environments focus on the qualities and conditions of children’s development and learning. These theories potentially influence the organization of the classroom, selection of materials, the curriculum, and teaching approaches. The importance of environment in children’s lives is stressed by a wide spectrum of theorists from behaviorism (e.g., B. F. Skinner) to constructivism (e.g., Jean Piaget) and social constructivism (e.g., Lev Vygotsky). Some classroom environments reflect the use of positive behavioral supports stemming from research conducted in the field of applied behavior analysis. The classroom environment may involve intervention efforts that “minimize and prevent the occurrence of challenging behavior in children through the management of antecedent conditions that occasion these behaviors and through the teaching of alternative behaviors and skills” (Wheeler, 2000, p. 73). Jean Piaget emphasizes the activities and materials within the classroom as a vehicle for children developing their knowledge while Vygotsky focuses on the classroom environment as a space that creates zones of proximal development for children to develop through their play and social interactions with their peers and adults.

Other theorists consider the broader societal context as part of children’s learning and development through their contributions of general systems theory and ecological psychology. Dunkin and Biddle (1974) were among the first theorists to conceptualize the classroom as a system consisting of events influenced by specific variables, both in and outside of the classroom, referred to as presage and context variables. Presage variables are associated with teacher characteristics that would be considered part of teacher identity (e.g., teacher preparation program, their formative experiences, and personality). Context variables are associated with the classroom children’s backgrounds and abilities as well as the school, community, and classroom contexts. These events presume a causative relationship that produces immediate and long-term outcomes for the children.

More recently, researchers in early childhood education have described quality of early childhood settings in terms of structure and process. Structural quality includes the interrelationship between group size, staff-child ratios, and teacher qualifications—otherwise known as “the iron triangle”—in helping to determine children’s development. Social relationships and interactions within the early childhood environment describe process quality. Children are more apt to have positive developmental outcomes with sensitive, trained/educated teachers who know their children’s strengths and needs; and how to promote their learning (Kagan and Nevman, 1996).

Bronfenbrenner’s theory of the ecology of human development, expanded the influences of the societal context and reinterpreted the child’s interaction with the environment as an active process. In this model, the child is perceived as part of nested systems that directly or indirectly affect learning and development. The child’s immediate surroundings (e.g., family and classroom) are his microsystem. These microsystems in a child’s life form a connected network known as the mesosystem. Children are more likely to thrive when families and schools are working together to support their learning. Another layer is the exosystem that includes the parents’ workplace, social organizations, and other institutions. These exosystems may have minimal if any contact with the child but they influence the child’s microsystem by the type of assistance they provide to families and schools. Exosystems exist within the context of cultural belief systems and behavior patterns known as macrosystems. And finally, the chronosystem represents the patterning of environmental events and transition over the life course (Bronfenbrenner, 1994).

These theoretical interpretations of environmental spaces suggest a number of questions to consider before designing and organizing a setting for children: What are the strengths and needs of the children, their interests, their development levels, their cultural backgrounds (including their family structures, socioeconomic status and ethnicity)? Other questions focus on the learning philosophy of the program or the local community, including specific goals for the children as well as plans for how to incorporate those goals within the curriculum. Content standards, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals and specific learning initiatives or mandated “best practices” will also influence decisions about the design of the classroom in promoting children’s growth and development.


Qualities of Effective and Safe Early Childhood Environments

Although classroom environments will be distinct from each other, shared values from the local and mainstream cultures have contributed to policies and position statements that help to define the quality of classroom environments for young children. Some of these shared values include designing an environment (a) for children of varying developmental levels, (b) where all children are safe and feel secure, (c) that promotes a community of learners, and (d) that nurtures aspects of children’s development.

Since the 1970s, there has been a focus on designing a classroom environment for children of diverse developmental levels. In these inclusive classrooms, children with disabilities learn alongside their typically developing peers. For example, children may be using wheelchairs while others are walking from one part of the classroom to another; children may be verbal or use gestures as their primary modes of communication with their peers and teachers. Children may be drawing while others are writing their stories. It is an environment where strengths are recognized in each child and children learn at their own pace. A classroom that includes children of approximately the same chronological age who are typically developing as well as those having certified disabilities is described as the child’s natural environment in Part C of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA, 1997).

While having some accommodations, these settings are designed in a manner that is natural or normal for a child’s age peers. For example, principles of Universal Design have been used to accommodate children of varying developmental levels. The premise underlying Universal Design is that the physical structure and layout of the classroom, instructional materials and activities, equipment, communications and other resources are designed from the start for maximum usability to the greatest possible extent without the need for adaptation or specialized design. This design seeks to offer a flexible curriculum and learning environment where all children have the opportunity to access the general curriculum and achieve the academic content standards that have been established for all students. Students have a range of options for learning that includes multiple means of (a) presentation of information to students, (b) expression by students, and (c) engagement for students (Bremer et al., 2002).

Another shared value involves designing an environment where each child feels safe and secure to explore materials, use equipment, engage in activities and interact with others in a manner that will prevent undue risk to their physical, mental and social well-being and contribute to their whole development. The floor plan is arranged where there is adequate room for children to freely move around equipment and furniture without having to compete for space with other children. Equipment, furniture and materials/toys are durable, in good repair and inspected for safety features. In this type of space children are free from environmental hazards and have adequate lighting to learn from their setting. Positive social interaction is promoted through a well-designed classroom in order to resolve conflict and protect the interpersonal safety of those present. This type of space allows children to be alone or with others while always being monitored by adults to ensure their safety.

Another shared value reflected in classroom management and overall early childhood curricula involves classrooms being constructed in a manner where children and teachers have a sense of belonging to the classroom as well as to the local community. Creating a welcoming, calming, home-like space that’s represented in the selection of furnishings, textures/materials, lighting and colors are important factors in creating a “community of learners.” The concept of “community of learners” is an important goal for classroom environments that promotes a positive attitude toward learning, prosocial behavior, and a mutual respect for others. Lists of criteria, guidelines, and assessments established to research and evaluate these and other features of quality classroom environments can be found in a variety of environmental assessments. For example, quality measures in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care included the extent to which the classroom space was uncrowded and uncluttered, the environment and equipment were clean and safe, a variety of developmentally appropriate toys and materials were available and play areas were protected and quiet (NICHD, 2005).

While there is broad consensus and empirical support for this list of qualities for an optimal environment for young children, environments for young children reflect more than shared understandings about how and what children should learn. They also reflect the teachers’ personal and professional well-being. Teachers have a more pleasant personality when they work in an aesthetically pleasing environment, have space to plan, relax and develop their thinking about children’s learning with other teachers and their children’s families. In addition, environments reflect the values and beliefs of the adult members of the community about the nature of childhood. Some early childhood classrooms have been inspired by the municipal early childhood schools in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, where each classroom reflects cultural influences through the beautification, the personal space, and materials from the local cultural community. In Reggio Emilia classrooms, the walls include the children’s own work—carefully and purposefully displayed drawings, sculptures and mobiles. The classroom environment is viewed as another teacher in the class, such that an appropriate design is like a coach who helps, guides, and serves children, thus facilitating their development (Gandini, 2002). The classroom environment is designed to encourage choices, discoveries, and communication; it is an open environment that facilitates interaction among parents, teachers and children, and supports children’s collaborative exploration (New, 2004).

A growing number of early childhood educators in the United States and elsewhere are taking inspiration from Reggio Emilia and other Italian early childhood programs to consider the powerful influence of the image of children and childhood shaping early childhood environments. The relationship between this image and the nature of the environment is readily apparent in U.S. classrooms. For instance, when children are viewed as untrustworthy or mischievous, the environment and classroom materials will likely be arranged differently than when they are seen as eager to learn and deserving to feel powerful in their environment. When the primary focus is on health and safety and school readiness, the environment may have easy-to-clean plastic furniture and easy-to-store commercial learning materials and displays. A belief that children should stay involved and engaged with the natural world might be reflected in more windows, outdoor spaces, and ample use of natural materials and products such as woven baskets, shells and stones on wooden shelves. A belief in children’s ideas as being worth sharing and reflecting upon might be expressed through walls covered with feature photo stories of the children’s questions and pursuits. A belief in the value of aesthetics and surprise may appear in the form of a new plant or a work of art, additions to the classroom justified by their contributions to the space as a place to be shared by adults and children over the course of many hours each day. Teachers in child-care settings across the United States are now considering the classroom environment as a mirror in which to examine their values and beliefs about children; and to create new designs for living and learning (Curtis and Carter, 2003). Gandini (1984) calls for transforming physical settings into “particular” places that represent the individual voices of its inhabitants and its surrounding community. Within a context of increasing standardization of children’s early learning experiences, this interpretation of the environment goes beyond that of protecting and teaching children; the environment takes on an advocacy role for children’s rights and adult responsibilities. See also Inclusion, Reggio Emilia Approach.

Further Readings: Bremer, Christine D., Ann T. Clapper, Chuck Hitchcock, Tracey Hall, and Mera Kachgal (2002). Universal design: A strategy to support students’ access to the general education curriculum. Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Secondary Education and Transition; Bronfenbrenner, Urie (1994). Ecological models of human development. In Torsten Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite, eds. International Encyclopedia of Education. Vol. 3, 2nd ed. Oxford: Pergamon Press/Elsevier Science, pp. 1643-1647; Curtis, Deb, and Margie Carter (2003). Designs for living and learning: Transforming early childhood environments. St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press; Dunkin, Michael J., and Bruce J. Biddle (1974). The study of teaching. Washington, DC: University Press of America; Gandini, L. (1984). Not just anywhere: Making child care centers into “particular” places. Beginnings (Spring), pp. 17-20; Gandini, Lella (2002). The story and foundations of the Reggio Emilia approach. In Victoria R. Fu, Andrew J. Stremmel, and Lynn T. Hill, eds. Teaching and learning: Collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, pp. 13-21; Green, Judith L., Carol N. Dixon, and Amy Zaharlick (2003). Ethnography as a logic of inquiry. In James Flood, Diane Lapp, James R. Squire, and Julie M. Jensen, eds. Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts, 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 201-224; Greenman, J. (1988). Caring spaces, learning places: Children’s environments that work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press; Kagan, Sharon L. and Michelle J. Neuman (1996). The relationship between staff education and training and quality in child care programs. Child Care Information Exchange (107, January-February), 65-70. New, R. (2004). The Reggio Emilia approach: Provocations and partnerships with U.S. early childhood educators. In J. Roopnarine and J. Johnson, eds. Approaches to early childhood education. Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice-Hall; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2005). Child care and child development. New York: Guilford Press; Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) IDEA (1997). Available online at http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/Policy/IDEA/theJaw.html; Wheeler, John J. (2000). Principles of positive behavioral supports (PSB). In David Dean Richey, and John J. Wheeler, eds. Inclusive early childhood education: Merging positive behavioral supports, activity-based intervention, and developmentally appropriate practices. Albany, NY: Delmar, pp. 72-102.

Laurie Katz and Hatice Zeynep Inan