More Ugly Concrete Paths!: Space and Emotional Environments

So overall I am getting into a pretty good routine at work.  In the mornings I am with a wonderful group of two year olds for a short AM program and in the afternoon I am a special needs assistant for an eight year old boy.  I’ve been having a lot of thoughts in my head lately I figured I should share them all here for posterity.  Let’s start with something about the environment.

I’m not surprised but I am struck by how often the group of two year olds choose to play in the least resourced area we have: a gated off concrete  pathway outside our playground.  This is the only space where they can run or ride trikes back and forth without obstacles.  Obviously enough a common group activity is running back and forth, chasing each other and screaming.  They don’t play here all day but it is a very popular space and it makes me think about what sort of environments do young children really need?  The proper room itself isn’t that big and stuffed with catalog furniture, shelves and toys.  I think it probably looks good and “educational” to most adults.  This concrete path on the other hand is ugly, especially right now during the winter.  If we were part of a private setting, it would not be a selling point to any adults.

It’s not that they don’t play inside with all the catalog-bought toys, it’s the obvious fact they are often drawn to having more space and freedom to move and follow their natural and important 2 year old urges – and even if that’s in a less than stellar outdoor space it still better than nothing.  They have less adults chatting over their heads, telling them what to do and how to do it when they are outside.  When I am out there on this ugly path I mostly just sit in one spot and enjoy watching them play.  If a child needs help I do my calmly help them figure out what they need.  I am learning more and more the importance of just being present with children and letting them do their thing.

I think it’s easy for adults to focus on the looks and physical objects of an early learning space.   Let’s add wooden materials to attract certain parents.  Let’s put numbers and words all over the walls because it’s educational.  Let’s buy tons of toys from the right catalogs.  The physical environment is absolutely important but I think we need to talk more about what some of have called the emotional (and maybe even cultural) environment of our space.  This environment is shaped by our relationships with the kids, and basically the culture we set by role modeling behavior and what sort of activity we allow or don’t allow.  I think this is the sort of stuff that is hard to sell to adults who don’t understand early childhood development.  The only people who might know it are the adults and children who share this relationship, understanding and culture.

The most dynamic, exciting and joyful interactions I’ve seen the past several weeks have been on this small, drab, gated concrete pathway.   The kids have chased each other, danced, thrown balls, looked for planes and birds in the sky and plenty more.  Just having the space and freedom to do what they like is an amazing thing to watch.

Related to this I have just discovered some of the writings of Claire Caro.  This is the first time I’ve seen somebody spell out in plain, step-by-step terms the sort of early learning ethos I have been finding myself drawn to and excited by.   She describes the role, skills and actions to take as early learning educators who value the importance of child-led learning.  To start off with I recommend “The Adult Role in Child-led Play” and “Five Easy Steps for the Observer.”  Both articles give concrete advice on the how’s and why’s of forming the right emotional and cultural environment.  A lot of it is about the importance of trusting and respecting the children in your care ihere and now.  I can’t recommend them enough!

What’s more important, nice bulletin boards and all the right natural toys or children truly knowing they are consistently trusted, respected and loved?  Especially when they are in the middle of a conflict or dealing with difficult emotions?

I’m not saying that my two year olds like this space because it’s ugly.  I am saying they like it because they have the room to move freely and I do my best to provide a suitable emotional environment for them to be in.  Positive emotional environments can’t be bought out of catalogs and they might not be able to be quantified much at all, but they are vital for children’s growth and well-being.

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