Environments That Engage and Inspire Young Learners
Deb Curtis, Kasondra L. Brown, Lorrie Baird, and Anne Marie Coughlin
Planning Environments and Materials That Respond to Young Children’s Lively Minds
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Photos courtesy of the authors.
D tuieanedsrag uHic npchaargerto rvoofsereu sossr,stf aimRyononeadusan oncl yuoga l cryclcteehieavaisglir dtauisrsee eswsson tooc,o frtigfaekeetareitcn-hsh gee rar s (www.ecetrainers.com), we have come to admire toddlers’ avid curiosity, determination, bigheart edness, and delight in engaging with people and the world around them. From our review of current research about the learning capacities of children under age 3, we realize that the eager ness toddlers have for almost every encounter is no accident, and we took it upon ourselves to study more about them. Research confirms that during the toddler years children experience one of the most sig nificant periods of development and learning. Children under age 3 have exceptionally flexible
Some materials limit exploration
brains that allow them to hear more, see more, and experience more than adults. Their enhanced learning abilities reflect special features in their brains that make them more conscious than adults. They also innately approach learning in the same way scientists do, using the scientific method to experiment and analyze the results of what they discover. When toddlers use their brains well, through focused, sustained activity, their potential is enormous (Gopnik 2009).
Many times, the environments and materi als offered to toddlers emphasize health and safety. While health and safety are important, an overemphasis on these features can limit the possibilities for richer experiences of explora tion, collaboration, and learning. Some commonly
used materials provide few opportunities that engage chil dren in the complex ways their lively minds deserve. Most toys chosen for use in child care settings have hard, plastic, unyielding surfaces that adults can easily sanitize. Toddler toys frequently teach simple concepts like color and shape or have a cause-and-effect component, such as a button or knob that beeps or lights up. Children might accidentally discover this feature or adults show them what it does. Once children figure out the minimal uses for these ob jects, there is not much else to challenge their lively minds. Implied in the use of such materials may be the view of some educators that toddlers have limited capabilities or inner resources and require overstimulating experiences to stay interested in an activity or toy. Instead, what if we rec ognize and provide for toddlers’ dynamic brains and their capacity for seeing and using materials in boundless ways? What if, rather than thinking of materials as a way to teach or entertain toddlers, we are eager to see the extraordinary discoveries they make?
There is much for us to learn about translating research into practices for offering out-of-the-ordinary materials to toddlers. We strongly support the health, safety, and well-being of all children, but in this article, we want to discuss providing children with fascinating materials and supervised experiences that engage and challenge them. We have found that when teachers recognize the profound nature of toddlers’ learning abilities, they are excited to provide supervised experiences with interest ing and challenging open-ended materials. And they more willingly tackle the barriers and worries that come with health and safety standards, as well as overcome the reluctance to offer messy experiences that take extra effort to clean up. Instead they come to join in the delight and discovery with children.
Toddlers and sensory materials
Toddlers’ explorations of materials are filled with small ac tions during which they hear and see more than adults do. Because adults experience the world so differently (Gopnik 2009), seeing the significance of what toddlers are doing requires that we stop to notice the details of their actions
About the Authors
Deb Curtis, MA, a teacher of adults and children, has coau thored several books for early childhood educators, including
Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments (Redleaf Press). [email protected]
Kasondra L. Brown, BS, is a consultant and trainer with Collaborative for Children–United Way Bright Beginnings in Houston, Texas. Kasondra serves as a coach, mentor, and col lege instructor. [email protected]
Lorrie Baird, RECE (registered early childhood educator), is the associate executive director of Kawartha Child Care Services
and try to imagine what they might be thinking. To help cultivate our ability to see children’s minds at work, we offered a collection of natural materials—including shells, wood rounds, and stones in wooden bowls—to a group of toddlers. We placed the materials on fabric and placemats to create a visual focus for the children. The materials gave the toddlers many possibilities for investigating texture, shape, color, size, weight, light, and sound. The toddlers manipulated the materials by dumping, filling, and trans porting them. We carefully planned this experience, mak ing sure we were with the toddlers for the entire activity to supervise for safety.
A lively mind at work
As we observed 19-month-old Javier, and later studied the photos of his explorations, we saw evidence of his flexible, scientific brain at work. Javier eagerly approached the materials, placing his entire hand inside a wooden bowl filled with stones, shells, and wood rounds. He carefully studied each of the objects. He touched the variety of natural objects and moved them into piles, perhaps notic ing the similarities and differences of the items. With a look of wonder, Javier closely examined the stones he held in his hands. Next he tapped two stones together. His ac tions resulted in clicking sounds. Javier began to immerse himself in the materials as he placed objects on his head. He slid the stones down his face and dropped them back into the bowl.
Next Javier put an insect specimen encased in acrylic up to his eyes. We wondered if he was exploring its trans parent and magnifying properties. Then Javier put the specimen block to his mouth and moved it around his lips, tongue, and teeth, perhaps exploring the texture, taste, and temperature that his other senses did not pick up.
Throughout this experience, Javier used all five senses
and explored the materials in ways we never would have imagined. He seemed to have a purpose or question for every action he tried. We took his smallest actions seri ously, and were impressed with his deep engagement with these objects. This motivated us to offer more possibilities for him to use his abilities to explore and learn.
in Peterborough, Ontario. She has been a teacher, program director, and college faculty member. [email protected]
Anne Marie Coughlin, ECEC (early childhood educator and certi fied), RECE, is program director for London Bridge Child Care Ser vices in London, Ontario, and provincial director for the Canadian Association for Young Children. She is an associate with Harvest Resources.
The authors would like to thank teachers Lauren Forcier and Lachana Fisher, who contributed notes about children engaged in schema play.
Calling on toddlers’ aesthetic sense
Javier’s meaningful engagement in exploring these materi als moved us to expand our definition of sensory experi ences, like water play and sand play, to include aesthetics. Webster’s Dictionary suggests that aesthetic comes from a Greek word meaning perception. Aesthetic development is a focused way of knowing and experiencing the world that involves engaging with the senses. Feelings, processes, and responses to objects and experiences are heightened, lead ing to an appreciation of the beauty found in the world and allowing us to become totally lost in the moment (Curtis & Carter 2008). This definition fit Javier’s investigations per fectly. Toddlers’ senses are highly attuned to taking in the sights, sounds, and movements that surround them. Why not take advantage of their enhanced abilities and design our environments to create more and varied opportuni ties for seeing and discovering the world? With toddlers’ aesthetic senses in mind, we now regularly add pleasing elements to our learning environments and find that the children engage with them enthusiastically.
As we continued to observe the details of children’s inves tigations with interesting materials, we saw more evidence of their active brains at work and we identified examples of actions related to other learning theories. The following observation is an example of children exploring schemas as identified by child psychologist Jean Piaget. A schema is a line of thought that is demonstrated by repeated actions and patterns in children’s play. These repeated actions suggest that this play is a reflection of inner and specifically di rected thoughts. When children explore schemas, they are building on their understanding of abstract ideas, patterns, and concepts (van Wijk 2008). Here are some of the sche mas Piaget identified as applied to a toddler (Piaget 1969): n Transporting—Picks things up, moves things, puts
things down, or dumps.
n Transforming—Uses materials to explore changes in
shape, color, consistency, and such.
n Trajectory—Explores the horizontal, vertical, and di
n Rotation and circulation—Experiments with things
n Enclosing and enveloping—Surrounds objects with
other things. Moves himself inside a defined area, like a ring of blocks or a box. Hides, covers, or wraps himself and other things.
n Connecting—Joins things together and ties things up. n Disconnecting—Takes things apart, scatters pieces and
parts (van Wijk 2008). We offered the children a variety of materials, including
agonal movement of things and herself. Makes things fly through the air, moves her own body in these ways.
that turn, such as wheels and balls; explores curved lines and circles.
balls, ramps, trays, and containers, to invite their investiga tion of schemas. The materials, although common, were not something we had offered to them before in this combina tion. Would the children be interested in these items? Would the small objects be safe for the children to use? Would the children throw the balls around wildly? Our concerns were
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quickly put to rest when we witnessed the competence and focus the children brought to this experience.
The children walked into the room with confidence and quickly made their way to the carpet where we had set up the materials for play. Without directions or ideas from the adults, they discovered a multitude of possibilities the simple materials offered. For nearly an hour the children explored in the following ways:
n Noticed and repeated the many ways they could make
sounds with the materials
n Negotiated various ways to fill and dump the containers
n Used the ramps and tubes to transport balls and other
objects to various places in the room and to send them to a friend or a teacher
n Balanced the balls to move them back and forth between the tubes
n Rolled the balls rapidly down the ramps, concentrating on balancing them to keep them from flying off the ramps
n Manipulated the balls so they were spinning around and around on the trays
n Observed each other’s ideas and actions and imitated what they saw one another doing n Tested new ideas as they observed other children’s ac tions, which caused their explorations to evolve, change, and grow more complicated
We were surprised when we realized that an hour had passed and the children remained immersed in the play. Our role was to observe their actions, narrate what we saw, and help them see each other’s actions. We were also there to supervise safe use of the materials, but we were surprised to note that none of us had to intervene in this way.
While watching the toddlers play, we realized that their actions—including some we previously prohibited—had a significance we had never noticed before. For example, be cause we understood that making things move and fly is the trajectory schema, we found ways to support the children’s work with the concept. When toddlers use their adaptable brains to explore, they are learning unlimited possibilities for how the world can be. They consider and act on count less unconventional ideas that can alarm or delight us. This is the gift young children bring to the world and to us. As they grow older they will put all they have discovered to use—to invent what has yet to be imagined or perhaps to solve the serious problems of our time (Gopnik 2009).
Principles for planning environments and choosing materials
Through our observations, we developed principles that we turn to again and again as we strive to ensure our practices engage children’s capabilities (Curtis & Carter 2003).
Offer materials in careful combinations and collec
tions. Find open-ended and unusual materials at unusual
sources, such as garden stores, garage sales, or thrift stores. Here are some items to combine: n Wooden trays, bowls, mas hair curlers, paper towel tubes, and candle holders n Natural items, such as sea shells, pinecones, rocks, gourds, dried flowers, twigs, and pods n Coaster sets, napkin rings, n Light-reflecting and colorful objects (flashlights, color n Faux fur and fabric pieces sage balls, spools n Tubes, balls, and contain with different colors and textures (soft, shaggy, sheer, shiny) ers with lids
paddles, prisms, and other translucent, shiny objects)
Explore materials for their possibilities before
offering them to children. This will help you see what the children may find engaging.
on a particular rug or mat to create a visual focus and to signify a time for play.
Provide ample time and space for a small group
- or 5 children) to play with the materials. Don’t hurry or
- ffer ideas too soon. Some children may need more time to begin their investigations or to see more possibilities. It is best if children work at their own pace and learn from each other.
Sit nearby to supervise. Be sure to take an interest in what the children are doing as they work.
Offer descriptions and narrations of what you see
unfolding. What you give attention to supports children’s interests and communicates to them that their pursuits have value. Avoid dictating, controlling, or directing.
Observe children to learn their interests and points of view. Use these questions to guide your observations:
n What are the children drawn to about the materials—
textures, shapes, colors, weight, size, or combinations? n How do the materials support the children’s focus and
n How do the children manipulate the materials to learn
about them? What actions reflect the children’s flexible brains and learning capabilities?
n What possible experiments and theories are the chil
dren working on?
Display materials in an orderly, enticing way. Place them
purposeful actions so they stay with a particular investi gation for an hour or more?
Materials for Supervised Investigations
Toeux seepn ewhraihenencnce ep tsuo ardsndudile nogrffs ’te hirne cmirr eaintdesibrtiialnelc spt fiovotere canhntiidald le,r wextnee tnposl aivne approaches to learning. The following are examples of materials we offer toddlers for their supervised investigations:
n A collection of mirrors, metal containers, bracelets,
jewels, and jewelry holders gives children oppor tunities to explore enclosing and enveloping, as well as rotation and circularity (experimenting with how things turn and spin); the mirrors’ reflections and the shiny objects appeal to children’s aesthetic sense
n Textured tiles and shiny wooden wedges encour
age children to connect and disconnect the items in rows and lines, possibly using shape, color, and size as references
n Bamboo cove molding, plastic troughs, and balls,
spools, and other objects that roll invite children to explore trajectory in a focused way
n Colorful bracelets, round containers with lids, and
paper towel holders provide children with opportu nities to explore rotation and circularity
n Colored water in small containers, pipettes, and
ice cube trays invite children to explore transform ing and transporting as they change the color of the water and move it from the bowls to the pipettes and then into ice cube trays
n Gak and Flubber (homemade), along with a wire
rack, intrigue children when they discover their ability to transform these magical substances
When we offer meaningful materials to children and study the details of their actions to identify the significance they hold, we become intellectually engaged with children in their pursuits. We understand the role we play in provid ing vital materials and opportunities to explore and learn. Every day teachers witness complex learning and potential in the children they work with.
We invite you to offer a collection of unusual learning materials to toddlers. Notice the way they immerse them selves in the rich and magical world around them. Appreci ate the flexible thinking and skills children use in their ex ploration and discovery. Share in the joy of being alert and alive. If we open ourselves to it, we learn from children to see and experience the world in new and wondrous ways!
Curtis, D., & M. Carter. 2003. Designs for Living and Learning: Trans
forming Early Childhood Environments. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Curtis, D., & M. Carter. 2008. Learning Together With Young Children: A Curriculum Framework for Reflective Teachers. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Gopnik, A. 2009. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Piaget, J., & B. Inhelder.  2000. The Psychology of the Child. New
York: Basic Books.
van Wijk, N. 2008. Getting Started With Schemas: Revealing the Wonder Full World of Children’s Play. New Lynn, Waitakere, Auckland: The New Zealand Playcentre Federation.
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