By the time children arrive at their first day of kindergarten, the quality of their earliest experiences has already done much to determine their level of linguistic competence, their ability to interact well with others and their healthy curiosity about the world around them.
Young children learn through the context of relationships and intentional interactions with parents, caregivers, teachers and other meaningful adults in their lives. Environment also plays a factor in a child’s ability to learn, and school or community spaces can be designed for optimal learning before children enter kindergarten. It’s important that adults caring for young children be developmentally attuned and understand how young children learn. Whether creating a space for infants, toddlers or preschoolers, age-appropriate furniture, materials and play tools will support and promote children’s development.
Infants, Birth to 18 Months
During infancy (birth to 18 months) babies are building their capacity for trust, so it's critical to have continuity of caregivers who are responsive to an infant's basic needs like food, safety and affection. Since babies can't talk yet, they need to trust that someone will respond to their needs. Their senses are fully developing at this point, and strong relationships that provide rich sensory experiences are critical.
The infant space should include cribs for nap time, high chairs for mealtime and diaper-changing tables to meet basic needs. Rocking chairs are important for reading or quiet time spent cuddling and/or soothing fears. You might see brightly colored rugs on the floor for play time and plenty of play tools that encourage fine motor skill development by using their hands and fingers. Caregivers should be at the child’s level to better support his needs.
Toddlers, 18 to 36 Months
Toddlers (18 to 36 months) have more mobility and are beginning to explore their independence. It’s during this time that a sense of curiosity can strongly be developed. Encouraging tones from adults are critical to support toddlers’ interest in discovering new things. The environment should support experiences that allow for lots of play, exploration and imagination.
Toddlers still need quiet time, but rooms are organized into defined interest areas for large and small group activities like reading, art projects and a dramatic play area where they can pretend. Their gross motor skills are developing with more running, jumping and climbing indoors and outdoors.
Objects should be at eye level for toddlers, and caregivers are there to support and guide the active learning that’s occurring, but not direct it.
The infant-toddler years are also much about developing social-emotional skills through the ability to attach, interact with others and gain a sense of self.
Preschoolers, 3- and 4-year-olds
Preschool (3- and 4-year olds) classrooms also are organized by interest area. Preschool-age children are beginning to develop cause-and-effect skills that help them build on previous learning and connect experiences. Preschool activities place more emphasis on speech development, language and literacy, and cognitive/reasoning skills.
Children at this age learn from hands-on experiences—how to build a fort with building blocks, the texture and feel of playing in the sand or running through a water feature or the excitement of recognizing numbers, colors and words in a book—all of these learning experiences guided by responsive adults.
Environment,Interactions Create Quality Experiences
These rich environments configured in age-appropriate ways, coupled with the support and guidance from responsive caregivers, teachers and parents, will help ensure that all kids have quality experiences that help them be prepared to start a more formalized school experience.
Becky Veak, Director
First Five Nebraska
Photos: creativeworldschool.com;www.doodlebugs.com; pineviewcommunitychurch.com;setonmontessori.org; blog.melissaanddoug.com; friendsofpritzker.org