Setting up the Physical Environment

            The physical environment in a preschool classroom should be set up in such a way that promotes self-learning and direction by the children.  This will free up the teacher to have more quality one-on-one time with the children.  Preschoolers are full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination to explore and learn, hence the environment that we provide for them should be challenging, interesting, and foster independence and creativity among the children.  How do we do this?  The following paragraphs have some ideas and suggestions for you to get started. 

1.     Characteristics of the Environment:

Before you set up your classroom you need to evaluate the environment that you have available to work with.  The following characteristics according to Gestwicki (1999) are essential to make an environment developmentally appropriate.

        Softness and hardness:  There should be a balance between the hard and soft surfaces in the classroom.  All hard surfaces will be harmful to both the adults and children in the classroom.  Provide a variety of tactile stimulants in your environment.

        Open and closed:  Open environment and materials promote creativity and independence among children (these are materials that children can manipulate however they want to).  However too much of an open environment may promote too much movement within the classroom which may lead to accidents.  There should also be a limited supply of closed materials which have only one way of being manipulated (e.g. puzzles).  Some portions of the environment should be closed to foster focused and quiet activities.

        Intrusion and seclusion:  The environment should have areas that promote peer interaction and areas that foster individual work.

        Risk and safety:  The classroom should encourage the children to feel confident in attempting tasks that might be risky (as perceived by them) but the teacher needs to make sure that it safe to do so.

        Language rich environment:  Make sure all the materials are clearly labeled.  Donít use just words to label the objects in your class, glue a picture of the object by the word so that children will get an additional clue to recognizing the word.

2.     Learning Centers: 

    The learning centers are areas in classroom around which the curriculum primarily depends on.  It is these centers that invite the children to explore and learn.  They are known by several names ie., interest centers, discovery stations, learning areas, and learning stations.  The number of learning centers that you can have depends on the philosophy of your program, space, and number of children in your classroom. 

          Teachers can plan a variety of activities within each learning center.  Each of the learning centers should have a clear purpose, description and details about how it works.  Some centers have the above information posted in each of the centers to inform parents and visitors as to what is being done.  Interest centers need not be limited to indoor spaces, it could also be done in the outside space. 

          Some programs plan on each center accommodating between 4-6 children in each large learning center, so if you plan to have 20 children in your class, you should have atleast five large learning centers.  You could also have several smaller learning centers in your class that are more or less like permanent fixtures.  Some of the large learning centers are:

-         Block building

-         Library

-         Dramatic play

-         Creative arts/crafts

-         Manipulative/math

-         Large/gross motor

-         Music

Some of the smaller centers are:

-         Computer

-         Writing

-         Listening

-         Science

-         Cooking

-         Sand/water table

          Setting up of the Learning Centers:

As mentioned earlier the number of centers in your class is dependent on the program philosophy, available space, and number of children.  Before setting up the learning centers take a survey of the permanent fixtures in your classroom because you will have to work around these limitations.  Some of the permanent fixtures to document for include: doors, window, sink, room dividers, and closets.  Some ideas for placing the different centers are:

-         The area around the door can be used for childrenís cubbies.  Do not place a high activity (e.g. block center) center by the door.

-         If there is a sink in your class, it would be convenient to place the art center by it.  If you plan to have a cooking activity, pulling a table by sink will be helpful.

-         Have your reading/library area by the window. You could also set up the science center by the window to facilitate growth of plants.

-         Place an active center by a slow/quieter center, this will prevent you from having all quiet areas in one part of the class and all the noisy centers in the other part.

-         Try to have a relatively flat and open area for your block center. 

-         Use low dividers or shelves to divide centers, and store materials for the centers.

-         If each of the learning centers require tables place them in the centers in such a way that they do not black the traffic

-         Avoid having all your tables in one location of your classroom

-         Avoid having large open spaces in your class, for they encourage running in the classroom

-         The traffic pathways should be clearly marked and wide enough to prevent pushing and behavior issues

-         You do not have to have all the learning centers going at the same time constantly, you can rotate centers according to the theme.

-         Remember your classroom does not have to stay the same forever, observe how the children use the space and centers, if your arrangement is not working for this group of children, change the layout to better meet their needs and interest.  This will help ease a lot of stress for you and the children.

-         Have self-monitoring tools in each of the centers that allow the children to regulate the number of children in each of the centers (to prevent overcrowding).  Velcro figures, clothespins, room to hang a specified number of name tags will help facilitate the monitoring process.

-         No matter how you set up the centers, you should be able to see the children from any spot in the class room.  Try not to create spaces in the class where children may be unmonitored.

        Equipping the Learning Centers:

          Children are constantly learning through play.  So it becomes important to equip your learning materials not with just toys, but with materials that will promote self-learning among the children.  Given below are some of the materials you might consider equipping each of your learning centers with.

Learning Center

Materials

1.  Arts and Crafts

Easels, tables and chairs, drying rack, low shelves to store child accessible art supplies, like different sizes of papers, crayons, markers, glue, collage materials, stencils, stamps, scissors, playdough, yarn and fabrics, and smocks.  Shelves at a higher level to store adult accessible art supplies like paints, water colors, pastels, craypas, brushes, paint containers, chalk, glue, material for sponge and block painting, and other types of paint applicators

2.  Block center

Hollow wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes, cardboard blocks, accessories and props to go with block construction (cars, airplanes, trains, people figures, traffic signs, miniature household articles), open space to conducive to construction, low level shelves to store blocks (these must be labeled), appropriately labeled storage containers to store the props.

3.  Dramatic play

Appropriate household equipment, and furniture,(i.e., miniature pretend cooking range, sink, washer and dryer, cupboards etc.) selection of menís and womenís clothes, full length mirror, telephones, dolls of different ethnicity, sizes and colors, pretend food, and produce, cooking and eating utensils.  You can section off a portion of the dramatic play area and display thematic prop boxes to go with the theme.

4.  Library area

Book shelves at the childrenís eye level (be sure to display the books with the front of the book jacket facing the children), variety of books (books about other ethnicities, diverse families), puppets and book extension activities, comfortable seating arrangement and pillows.

5.  Manipulative/Math center

Tables and chairs, low shelves with containers of labeled manipulatives, puzzles, counting, sorting and classifying games, and counters.

6.  Music Center

Musical instruments and appropriate storage area, record player, tape recorder, and CD player (depending on which audio visual aids you frequently use), headsets, records, tapes, and CDs, props to go with the music and adequate storage area for  the same.

7.  Science Center

Magnifying glass, microscope, balance, magnets, pets, display area, books related to the current theme, plants, and areas for children to display their collection

8.  Large motor center

Try to have only one large motor equipment, either a climbing, balancing, or lifting materials.  If you decide to have a climbing equipment make sure you have adequate support around the equipment to prevent injuries due to fall.

9.  Writing center

Tables and chairs, stationary and writing tools, stencils, stamps, type writer, computer