The Story of Communication, chapter 2
The first chapter of this communication story was about how we, as educators, communicate - this post will focus on how the room communicates... the learning environment... the third teacher.
as an educator inspired by the pedagogy in the preschools of Reggio Emilia, I reflect a great deal about my colleague, the third teacher, and over the years I have written quite a lot of blogposts on the topic, as well as sharing images from settings I have visited... What I have always struggled with is that many educators focus on how the third teacher looks a little more than how it functions... imagine if that is how we educators were treated too. That how we looked, fixed our hair, the clothes we wear whether we work out or not... all of this had more importance than how we teach, communicate and interact with the children... that it was more important than the knowledge and experience we have gained over the years... or more important than the relationships we create with the children, parents and colleagues... I think we would consider people that looked at us in that way as superficial and missing the point of us as educators... not seeing or valuing what we really do. Of course the early years does not get the value it should, but not to be valued by our own ECE peers would not be healthy for our teaching self-esteem. So in this post I want to look at how the room communicates... with you as a teacher, with the children as learners, with the humans that spend time there... Start with the question... what is the intention of the room? The intention of the room at the start of the year might be about making the children feel welcome, feel settled and feel comfortable to interact with others... How do you, with the resources that you have, meet these needs? Do you need to take things away or add new things or change things around to better meet the needs? How are you going to arrange the furniture to create space for the children to meet and talk with each other? Do you want them in just big groups or smaller groups? or able to change the size of their group throughout the day (which would mean a selection of space sizes from large to the small). Do you want the children to feel independent and competent?
How do you set up a room to do that? If you have EVERYTHING out and visible at the beginning and the children do not like to tidy up or are not ready to cope with the amount of resources, then you are setting the children up for failure and yourself for frustration and hard work picking up after them... Why not limit the resources in the beginning to see how the children manage those, allowing them to feel in control of the space by being able to play and tidy up after themselves without feeling overwhelmed? New things can be introduced bit by bit... and these introductions can allow you as an educator to enhance the play and learning you see the children engaged in and allow the classroom to meet those needs. It also allows you the time to explain some tools and how they can be safely used... rather than having everything out at the same time and a feeling of risk in the everyday is higher than what it maybe should be. For instance I have worked in groups where scissors are a great creative tool and all the children knew how to hold, transport and use them... while in other groups the scissors have posed a problem, carried in a dangerous way, not being held properly and accidents happen (more frequently than they should) or children use them inappropriately which switches the scissors from risk to dangerous, or to problems (like cutting hair)... Access to scissors is based on the children's ability to use them and their relationship with them... the room needs to communicate I trust you... and if you are placing materials in the room that require you to police the children then the room and you are saying you do not trust. When I have had groups with children unable to happily and safely interact with scissors (regardless of age) then I put the scissors out of reach and in a space where they need to ask me to use them, I will bring them down and we can work together, communicating with the children how to hold them, how to carry them and how to use them so that they can get creative... with the intention that as soon as they are ready the scissors can be placed in a place where they can reach themselves. Just as we do not let people drive cars without lessons and learning first and proving that they can drive safely, I think we need to use the same approach with tools in preschools... so they do have that competence and I avoid coming in saying no. I want to create a room that says yes. And more importantly that allows me to say yes rather than no. But that does not mean that I am afraid to say no... or that I realise that I have created a space that is inappropriate for the children. This is why I like to start the year with the scissors high... rather than having to move them out of the way if it does not work... I like to be able to observe the children first so I better understand how to set up the room. Look around the room.
Do you see anything that might make you say no to the children?
Why does it have this "no" potential?
Can you make changes so that the room clearly allows the children - permits their play - rather than requiring you to police and possibly restrict their play and learning? Take the time to look from the child's height. It does look very different from their height. Does it look inviting or intimidating? If the latter what changes can be made? Children have a very different sense of beauty than what adults have. Attempting to clone what others do is not always the best option. Find out what your children need and like. Will baskets, neutral colours and the like calm them or send them to sleep? Is that their sense of a learning environment? I am personally not an educator that likes a lot of visual clutter and lots of colours brightly challenging my eyes... even if it is one bright colour!!! - but equally I don not like the opposite where there is no colour and devoid of all clutter. I like a learning space that says welcome - come play, come learn, come share your ideas with others... and also a space that celebrates this process, the children can see their value, the value of their ideas etc as this is communicated in the space too. We do not need fancy furniture and expensive materials to be able to do this. We get creative with what we have. Not all learning spaces have the financial means to get exactly what they want from the catalogues - it is about recycling and upcycling... which is a very sustainable approach to education and also has its own beauty/aesthetic When we look at images from other people's settings we need to always take this into consideration... we do not know what kind of budget they have, we seldom know how the space is used and what kind of children's needs and abilities they are meeting, we seldom take the time to ask about how the space communicates with the children... it is so often judged on how it looks. This is part of the reason why Malaguzzi did not want people to take photos of the settings in Reggio Emilia... he did not want others to simply come and take photos to then replicate the space elsewhere... he wanted the educators to start a journey together with their third teacher... where they get to know each other and learn how to communicate with the children... to communicate a joy for learning. The downside is that there are many educators out there in the world saying you need to have this or that, or get rid of this or that for it to be truly "Reggio Emilia" inspired... and yet there are no images to say this is right or wrong, just word of mouth that seems to have been distorted over time - where no plastic, or natural baskets or loose parts or nature are the must do or the must have in order to be Reggio... Start with the children. Your relationship with the children. How do you view childhood and what they can do, should do? How is this reflected in your learning space (indoors and outdoors). How do you communicate with children? How is this reflected in the space? What is the intention of your learning space? How does this impact the room? What about sound, light, smell, touch - and why not taste... how do these all fit into your room? Do these elements hinder or enhance learning... what can be done to ensure that the room enhances learning rather than hinders, considering all the senses. we also need to think about how the room communicates inclusion. Does every child feel welcome? Can every child feel they can identify with the room or elements of the room? ie does a child with a foreign language have access to her own language through books for example... even if you as an educator cannot read them, their very presence in the space says that her language is valued. Does the learning space require that some children need extra adult help? Why do they need this support? Can the room be designed so that all children feel competent? I often see the below images going round facebook, and it made me think of education... (in fact there are several versions that can be found if you google equality, equity and justice meme - so I included a few here)
What I feel we should be aiming for in our classrooms is the justice or liberation - the sad fact is the education is mostly set up for equality which means those that can, thrive, those that struggle, struggle more... there are schools and educators that strive to ensure that there is equity, that the children get what they need to be able to achieve... but really what we should be doing is designing our learning spaces so that all can be who they are and thrive and achieve and not have to conform to a school norm with standardised learning and tests that is so exclusive. The really sad part is that reality seems to be going to some kind of extreme that there are those who have, that keep getting more boosts and opportunities to achieve and thrive, while others get more taken away - not everyone is getting the chance to rise to the height of their own potential. So designing your classroom and what it communicates is an incredible complex task. It is so much more than beauty. How do you include the neurodiverse? Children of different colour, culture, language, religion etc? How do you include families that are not the norm... where the norm is seen as a mother father and children... not all families look like this... does your learning space make all children feel welcome, that all children can find their personal identity reflected? is the room designed so that the children follow orders, learn obediently, or is there space for joy, laughter, care? What feeling/emotion does the room communicate... does it communicate an openness to learn and explore? Then there is language? Language to communicate? Is your space set up to create a space that encourages children to communicate with each other, verbally and non-verbally? Do you have words hanging over the room on shelves, walls and the floor, down from the ceilings? Why? Who are they for, especially for pre-readers? Does it overwhelm or enhance the children's desire to read? Or do they become invisible to the children... which in a way is devaluing the written word in the eyes of the child? Are there other ways you can support language and communication? For instance you could put up has discrete lists of words for the educators, they are tucked away, but visible enough to remind the educators to diversify their language - to not just rely on the same stock phrases. I like to hang question samples in the documentation room/office to remind educators that there are many many questions that can be asked... to the children, and ourselves as we make changes in the classroom and write up our observations... Get the children involved in the documentation process so that they see that their words can be written down... this has far more power than vocabulary hanging from the ceiling or on shelves. The children's own words. Are you communicating your expectations of the children by hanging these words... or the ideas and potential of the children by sharing their words? And this is not just an either or thing... both can work together... it is about mixing things up to create a space that works for you in your context.