I’ll never forget the day that it hit me like a ton of bricks: my classroom, the physical space, was dysfunctional. For decades I had prided myself in understanding children and relating to them in every way. My fifteen children every day at school were all very different, yet I had a way with children. I could be ‘that teacher’ with any one of them. And, I loved being able to do that because all the tiny, subtle ways that I made a connection with a child mattered the most. Just the way I smiled could be the open door to a child.
That day, when the reality of my classroom hit me head on, our staff had a workshop on classroom environments with an Early Childhood consultant, Marcia Hebert. She spent time in every classroom and with every teacher. When we met as a group to discuss her ideas, she first described a classroom with orange here and there… that was me! My children’s jack-o-lanterns were all over the walls. I could feel my cheeks burning. How could this be? I was such a good teacher. This was pretty shocking.
I went back to my classroom and looked at all the jack-o-lantern art all over the walls. I liked the art (it was good). Then I looked at the walls. They were filled with good things, but a lot of good things. I kept looking at the walls, because I had never seen them quite the way that I was now seeing them. I wasn’t so sure that ‘lots of good things’ was a good idea. It was busy. Then I looked at my curtains and covers for toys and blocks. It was the cutest jungle print. Now I’m feeling beyond ‘not sure’; I’m feeling “I don’t like this”. It gets worse when I see my vegetable print curtain that covers the nap mats, and the clear bins that store all the toys (see-through is not a good thing). Suddenly, I hate my classroom. It’s all wrong.
This was a few years ago, and the changes I have made have been remarkable. First, let’s talk about the changes with the children. Morning Meetings were better than ever, because children didn’t have added distractions. They weren’t looking at ‘stuff’ all over the room. Activities for the day were more appealing and exciting, because children could really ‘see’ what was there, and better understand what they could do. They naturally focused on the activity, not the classroom. It became clear that changing the environment changed the way children learned and behaved.
The changes to my classroom started with the walls, because that was something I could do immediately. I designated one wall for art and labeled it, “Art Gallery”. Every picture from every child does not have to hang on the wall. I was surprised at how easy it was to select a sampling of work from children. Actually, the children liked it much better, too, as one spot gave the art more prestige. I made sure art was rotated so all children had a piece on display.
Next, I changed curtains and coverings to a neutral shade. No more jungle and vegetable prints. That summer, I replaced two old rugs with neutral ones. The following year I worked on the clear bins that stored toys. The stacks of multiple bins were filled with so much color. Toys are colorful! I found inexpensive baskets to hold the bins. What a big change that made. This year I added plants, both hanging and on our big shelf. And, I simplified. That meant removing things I really didn’t use all the time. Was this easy? Yes and no. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Am I finished? Certainly not.
I have always been an advocate for young children. Witnessing first hand how a classroom’s physical presence makes a big impact on children, I have now become a ‘classroom environment’ advocate as well. Recently I visited a school with two preschool classrooms, and they couldn’t have been more different. One seemed cluttered and colorful, too busy. The other seemed calm and inviting, and immediately focused on what the children had done. I now have these new eyes that see so much more, and that’s a good thing. When I talk with another professional about environments, I invite them into mine. Today, the Eastern Regional Manager from Kaplan paid me a visit, as they are ‘on board’ with what really works for young children.
Children will always be my top priority. I reach them and connect with them through reading, music, art and much more. Now, my classroom can be an extension of all that I do, and support children as they engage in learning and playing.