Creating Enriching Learning Environments

In my last blog post, “Readiness Cannot Be Standardized,” I shared my belief that if children grow in a supportive, enriching environment, they will learn everything they need to learn with or without schooling. But what is a supportive, enriching environment, and what does it look like?

Here are some ideas on how to create enriching, cooperative learning environments for and with the children in your life. (This post is directed towards creating group learning environments, but the ideas can be applied to learning at home as well as one on one with children.)

Support Children in Open Ended Play

Offer ample free time and a variety of materials the children can use to explore the world around them. Allow and encourage them to direct their play and learning. Answer children’s questions when asked, but as a general rule, do more listening and supporting than talking or informing.

In a classroom setting, offer exciting centers or activities that are somehow related to the children’s expressed interests and encourage open ended play. Given a variety of materials to work with, kids get very creative. In our classroom children will carry animals around in a sling, take the science table acorns and stones to the kitchen to combine with play dough in preparing a meal, wear costumes and cuddle baby dolls while working on art projects. They are continually creating their own meaning out of their play. Including cardboard boxes, clothespins, silk scarves, various blocks and other creative and modifiable materials in the learning setting can enhance open ended play. A simple cardboard box can serve as a cave for a bear, a castle for a princess, a bed for a puppy and a car on the road all in the span of 15 minutes. (At Yoga Preschool, the cardboard boxes may be our very favorite classroom commodities!)

Offer Inspired Activities to Support Children in Exploring Their Interests

My 8 year old son has recently expressed a great deal of interest in weather. To support this interest, we have gotten out weather related books from the library to explore and check the weather on a daily–sometimes hourly–basis. I have a new weather app on my phone which he helped (and requested) to download. We talk about percent chance of rain and look at maps discussing where various types of weather are more likely to occur (tornadoes are more likely in the southwest vs. the northeast). He spends time outside checking the sky and observing the different types of clouds and what they can tell us about the approaching weather. His passion for learning about weather is leading us to explore geography, math, reading, science and much more, and we are learning how to utilize a variety of tools (apps, YouTube videos, books, maps, etc.) to enhance our learning through the process. Empowering children to explore their own interests leads to limitless learning.

In a group environment, support children in sharing with you the topics they are most interested in learning about and design classroom experiences based on these topics. In addition to activities created by the children, try offering unique activities to engage kids in more deeply exploring their expressed interests, if they so choose. Do not underestimate children and what they are capable of learning and doing; think about learning in a limitless manner. Some examples from my own experiences that may spark ideas include:

If the children express an interest in learning more about their hearts, you can bring in a stethoscope to listen to your heartbeats and experiment with what happens to heart rates while sitting vs. performing jumping jacks, etc. If you are up to it, you can even contact your local butcher and possibly (inexpensively) purchase a cow’s heart for dissection. What better way to learn about the heart and how blood travels than to put your (gloved) finger into a real aorta and see a real heart from the inside?! (Yes, I did this with young children, and yes, it was amazing! It helped that one of the children’s mothers was a doctor—our dissection went much more smoothly than it would have without her!) Offering real, hands on experiences like this to young children can be both thrilling and unforgettable!

If children express an interest in learning about bones, you can explore their own skeletons through songs and games (“Skull, clavicle, patella, phalanges, patella, phalanges”), as well as by dissecting owl pellets and examining the tiny bones inside. You can work to assemble the little skeletons and even match them to pictures of skeletons of mice, shrews, voles, and other typical owl prey.

If children want to learn about butterflies, in addition to acting out the butterfly lifecycle (from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly) while listening to music from Madame Butterfly, you can also explore butterfly migration by “flying” from New York state to Mexico as part of the dramatic play. Don’t forget to explore this migration on a map or globe ball with the children!

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(Hanging from the trees in our chrysalises, ready to emerge as butterflies. One little caterpillar is still munching on a leaf.)

If children are obsessed with the Giant Squid! game on the playground, you can measure out the actual length of a giant squid using a long string, then line up holding the length of the string to get a glimpse of how giant these creatures really are. You can measure the sizes of various other sea animals as well as the heights of each child in the class to compare and discuss sizes of the ocean animals the children are interested in learning about.

An interest in stars can lead to the creation of paintings inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and an interest in frogs may lead to artwork inspired by Monet’s “Water Lilies.” There is no reason that great historical works of art cannot be part of your every day activities when learning with young children!

starry night

(Artwork inspired by “Starry Night.”)

Learning is limitless. If children express an interest in specific topics, there are multitudes of ways to explore these topics.

Let the Children Choose

Support the right to choose. Learning occurs within the learner. Offering activities and opportunities that you find exciting and engaging can be a wonderful thing, but these are offerings—possibilities–in a world of many other opportunities. Learning cannot be forced and must be done by the learner. Some children will be very interested in participating in an art, writing, music or science activity, and some will be so busy doing their own work/play that they will not be interested in participating in any of your preselected activities. Support children in choosing the activities that are meaningful for themselves in the moment. If a child is not interested in the science experiment you are offering, that is ok. The game she or he is playing with the baby dolls and elephant mask in the dress up corner is holding the most meaning for her or him at that time. Trust children to direct their own learning, continue offering engaging and exciting activities, and support them in choosing for themselves. They will learn what they need to learn, as they are ready.

Co-Create the Environment With All Involved

An enriching environment will look different depending on the children and families involved. Every person in a group will add something to it. When in a classroom setting, in addition to emphasizing the children’s strengths and interests, find out what the parents/families might like to offer to the class. I have had parents support children in learning sign language, Spanish, playing music, exploring art and running group games. Everyone has something to offer and by incorporating the skills and talents of the families in your classroom community, the environment becomes richer for all involved.

To summarize, an enriching learning environment listens to children and is inspired by their ideas, offering a range of exciting activities that may engage the children and invite them to delve more deeply into their topics of interest.

An enriching learning environment allows for open ended exploration of the children’s interests and flexibly follows the ever changing needs of the children as each day comes.

An enriching learning environment offers a myriad of ways to participate in dramatic play, creative and artistic activities, science experiments, music, books and movement, and supports children in learning in whatever manner is best for their unique selves.

An enriching learning environment trusts children and empowers them to direct their own learning.

“I believe that we learn best when we, not others, are deciding what we are going to try to learn, and when, and how, and for what reasons or purposes; when we, not others, are in the end choosing the people, materials, and experiences from which and with which we will be learning; when we, not others, are judging how easily or quickly or well we are learning, and when we have learned enough; and above all when we feel the wholeness and opennesss of the world around us, and our own freedom and power and competence in it. When then can we do about it? How can we create or help create these conditions for learning?” -John Holt

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