Monday, September 19, 2011

Environment Matters

Just one month into the new school year and we've already made some major changes.  It seems like something was off from the beginning. But, we weren't sure it was a result of us trying to adjust to younger and new children, the new children getting acclimated or the environment itself. So we waited a couple weeks to see if things would change as the new children adjusted to life in our classroom and the current children adjusted to their presence along with a new schedule. Things just seemed more chaotic than they should at the start of a new semester.

We have also been working with technical assistance people from the state in order to participate in our state's quality rating system during all these changes. About the time their latest ITERS-R report arrived, I was assigned to teach a course on infant and toddler environments.  While we scored high in most areas, we had received a low score for our cozy area being too close to the puzzle and fine motor area. We did this so the children would have quiet activities available to play with in their quiet, cozy space and we had set the room up with the help of the TA folks.

Around the same time, I had been assigned to teach a course on infant and toddler environments and had just received my texts in the mail.  After discussing the ITERS-R report at length with my co-teacher, I spent the next couple evenings reading the texts. I have been struggling with the ITERS-R because, in my opinion, there are criteria in it that conflict with the philosophy of PITC and RIE, which I rend to rely on most in my classroom. After some reflection, I came up with a tentative plan, which I shared some selected details with some of the student workers and then discussed with my co-teacher at length.  We came up with a final plan, sent the children outside and started moving furniture around.

It took us a little over an hour to do the majority of the moving. But, by the time the children came in for lunch, we could already see changes in the way they were using the room. When we set the room up initially, I thought they would a need a large gross motor area since there would be more young toddlers. What we noticed was that they would get to the gross motor center and either feel overwhelmed or become overstimulated. The fact that there was a lot of traffic through our room from the preschool classroom and office was just making matters worse. The traffic flowed right past the gross motor area and the more traffic there was, the more chaotic the area became. So we made the area smaller and moved it to the other side of the room, out of the traffic flow.

We used an open shelf to separate the gross motor and block areas. We made the block area larger, which gives the children more space to play without falling over one another. We have noticed them building more and using the area in a more productive way after just one week.

Dramatic play is adjacent to the block area so they can easily carry props back and forth between the two areas, which they do frequently. Next to the block and dramatic play areas, we have a more open space that we can change as needed. This is the space they use for the rocking horses or pushing strollers around.  By enlarging the space for blocks and dramatic play, they have more space to push the strollers easily, without crashing or getting stuck. At the same time, the space prevents most of the running that could happen with the push toys. Eventually we will have a low roof for the dramatic play area that we can cover in fabrics to add to our themes there.

We moved the quiet, cozy area and fine motor areas to the other side of the room previously occupied by the gross motor area. This more than doubled the space in each area. With the couch and rocking chair together, along with baskets of books, this area is used more often by parents at drop off times to help transition the children in the morning.  The children also use this area to get away from others when they need some quiet space or alone time. All we are missing is our by-myself space, which is coming soon.

Now that the fine motor space is larger, the children can spread the materials out as much as they need. Rather than abandoning their materials mid-play or dragging them into the crowded block area, the children and teachers now use the area the way it was intended. We also changed the puzzles out since they seemed bored and added a few things to enhance the area. Now we frequently see two or three children in the area playing, often working together in a much more positive way.

We made the teacher area a little smaller, which gave us room to expand the mealtime area, which also serves as the art area.  Now the older toddlers children have easy access to simple art materials while still being able to limit access to the younger toddlers. By placing the materials in drawers, we are more aware of the children getting the materials so we can still supervise the younger toddlers closely when they have pencils and crayons. I'm sure we'll have some literal writing on the wall before the years over but, we won't have an epidemic of it, hopefully.

Another issue we had with using the ITERS-R was all the displays required. Between displaying the children's artwork, family photos and general pictures that represent diversity, the wall space could be used up quickly. So, we got creative and placed our displays on tables and benches in the play area. They are right at children's eye level and we can talk about the pictures as they play. Some of the pictures even inspire pretend play ideas with the older toddlers. To display their artwork, we decided to use the back of cubbies adjacent to the art area to highlight current projects and we display other artwork throughout the classroom.

While there are still challenges, it is no longer chaos in our classroom.  The children and the staff are calmer and more focused.  This just reinforces the theory of Reggio-inspired classrooms that the environment truly is the third teacher.

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