Each environment is different, so while we can provide ideas, suggestions in this training, please remember there is no wrong or right way as long as children in care are safe and learning.
Design environment to allow range of activities
- Open-ended materials / Loose parts
- Choking hazard
- Space for large, small and individual activity
- Space for active and quiet play
- Different elevations for activities
- Materials should be age appropriate, clean, and in good repair.
- enabling self selection.
You need to have an environment in place that promotes relationship-based care between children, caregivers and parents/legal guardians. Remember the adult(s) that will be sharing the environment and include appropriate spaces for them.
When choosing toys/equipment for your environment keep it simple. You cannot accommodate every interest, skill or developmental stage when you have a multi-age group. Try and choose materials that allow for open ended possibilities for play. All ages will find value in what is available, they will just choose to play with the materials in different ways. There are no ‘rules for use’. The simplest of resources like blocks, small world figures (ie: farm animals), musical instruments, rock, sticks, recycled tin cans, and cardboard rolls will provide the richest of experiences. With infants you will still need some specific items, but it’s surprising how many open-ended materials draw the interest of infants.
LESS is MORE!!! Don’t try and have everything out at once. Infants and toddlers can become overwhelmed by too much available at once and older children actually don’t settle into an exploration of a specific group of materials, but are more likely to jump from option to option. Think ‘dump and run’.
Less encourages children to get creative. Creativity usually means longer engagement and deeper learning.
Areas to consider incorporating in your environment:
- A quiet private space/reading corner
- A construction and noisy building area
- A puzzle/manipulatives table/space
- Imaginative kitchen/home area
- A space for the younger babies and toddlers to explore safely away from the older children when needed.
- An area that doesn’t need to be cleaned up completely at the end of the day so ongoing projects can be revisited easily.
- An area for group time activities – this might be as simple as a rug, some cushions the children gather to sit on.
- Space for movement/physical activity
Consideration also needs to be made from the start about meal planning and rest time space.
No matter the make-up of your multi-age group it remains important to continually assess the children’s interests, developmental needs, skills and personalities when designing and setting up your environment in general and specific learning opportunities. Putting a little extra effort into setting up your play and learning environment pays you dividends in the long term. It makes life less stressful for you as an educator when you provide a variety of opportunities for the children to explore and play as they need to without constant need to say ‘don’t touch that’ or ‘NO!’.
Tip* Baskets and small lidless tubs are good storage tools because they are lightweight, readily available and allow younger children as well as older to see and choose what they want.
Provide room to display artwork or photos of projects and children engaged in their play. Don’t keep everything up high. Lie down on the floor to identify places infants and crawlers might investigate and love to look. Remember to have older children’s work out of the way of little hands. Think laminate, picture frames, clothesline with clips, rain gutter sections attached to the walls….
Children have a natural instinct to challenge themselves and we need to take advantage of that. With a well thought out and organized environment children are offered the best possible chance to engage in learning opportunities that meet their developmental needs.
Your outside environment also needs to be approached as a primary learning tool.
Tip* Lightweight, moveable furniture and resources are also important if you don’t have dedicated play spaces and need to pack away at the end of the day to reclaim your family living area. Keeping it simple will ensure setting up your learning spaces each day isn’t a chore.
Tip* Use furniture like shelving that allows you to place toys and materials lower for infants to explore while providing access to materials for older children higher up. Get down on the child’s level and view how the storage works. You want to encourage investigation. Ensure accessibility – toys, books and materials pushed to the back of a deep shelf do not provide easy access or encourage investigation and play.
When arranging your furniture consider the ratio of fixed to non fixed, so you can easily rearrange due to changes in children’s needs, interests and developmental stages. If everything is fixed in place or too heavy to move easily it can become difficult for spaces to grow with the children.
At the same time be mindful of the effect of sudden changes when rearranging your furniture. Try to move only small pieces and areas at a time to allow children to get used to the changes and explore in their own way. Include the children in planning and facilitating change in furniture layout. Sense of ownership of the space is really important to children feeling both safe in the space and responsible for the materials in the space.
Create smaller areas for children to find their own space. You can do this whether you have a small or large room. Use furniture and other simple barriers as mentioned above. Use small shelves, tables, soft furnishings, draped fabric, cardboard boxes, little nooks behind and in between larger fixed furniture and anything else you can think of to design smaller learning areas within your larger environment. Children love pillows and forts. Having smaller spaces within your larger area helps children to feel a sense of independence. This setup is also usually less stressful for the provider as it breaks the children into smaller groups you can move in between making it easier to observe and meet the different needs of each age.
Tip: There is also no rule that says children need to be sitting at a table to do craft or engage in an activity. It’s actually good developmentally to allow for working in different positions. Consider that the younger children will enjoy watching older children engage with more complex learning opportunities. Your environment should help everyone feel comfortable and part of the experience.
Tip* use cube shelving and small bookshelves to break up areas of a room and more easily allow changing the shape and feel of spaces simply by turning around or arranging differently.
Tip* turn certain shelves around to face a wall on certain days or push a table against the shelf to prevent its use. Maybe they come out at special times of the day, or specific days of the week depending on who is present for care.
While you have created separate spaces it doesn’t mean you should be rigid about how the children move and play between these spaces. Always remember to observe to see if the play is appropriate developmentally and safe? If so, let the children direct their play.
There will still be moments of non-production frustration as different ages learn to work alongside each other. Children need to learn how to navigate those times. Multi-age groups allow for more natural modeling of how to handle the frustrations.
If you find yourself always in a constant state of stress and frustration and telling ‘NO!’ to a child then you need to rethink the way you have set up your environment.
Remove items that are no longer developmentally appropriate for the wider group. There is no rule that you MUST have everything available every day. You can make them accessible again as skills, strengths and developmental stages change.
Tip* “Toy rotation” store well organized toys and resources out of the way.
Tip* short on storage in your play space think of other spaces within your home like using the top shelves in bedroom closets. Storage space easy to access and bonus claimed square footage of that room closet is part of for Time/Space at tax time.