This will then contribute to developing positive dispositions for learning and as a consequence lead to have higher academic attainment. “The absorption of the environment is an intellectual activity. It is a psychic necessity that the child explores the environment; it satisfies his spirit. After he has had the satisfaction of observing one thing that interests him, he goes on until he is attracted by something else. In this way the child can walk for miles.” Maria Montessori The 1946 London Lectures, p134 Returning to school in August 2022, our staff came back with vigor and enthusiasm. Our enabling learning environment had been the focus of our school for several years, long before I came.
As Covid restrictions lifted we, as a team, wanted to recreate and develop the learning environment based on the principles of Reggio Emilio and the Walker Learning Approach (developed by Australian based educator, Kathy Walker). The vision was to have a range of centers to entice and engage children in their learning, with an emphasis on developing communication skills, interaction, and collaboration. Like early years practitioners across the world, we knew that children had missed out on vital development milestones in personal, social, and emotional development as well as language and communication. We are very fortunate that our staff, over several years, have built up resources based around the needs and interests of the children. We have a variety of natural resources to soften the classrooms and provide the children with real-life learning experiences. We have screens and nooks available in the classrooms so we can break up the classroom and provide our children with those quiet areas where they can become absorbed and focused on an activity.
Our dynamic team carefully planned their classroom environment taking inspiration from the community, the local culture, the world at large, and the interests of the children. They used a variety of natural materials including shells and wooden resources as well as traditional educational materials and tools. Teachers purposefully designed every center in their classroom with clear invitations and provocations. This was underpinned by an environmental interactive learning plan where teachers included photographs of their centers so they can share best practice and refer to them in the future. Staff were self motivated and passionate which created a sense of determination to ensure the learning environment was rich and stimulating for the children.
To make this a reality we realized that the greatest commodity we could give our staff was time in their classrooms. We looked at our previous start of the year plans and streamlined them. We adopted the less is more approach and evaluated our meeting schedule and only organized training and meetings that we believed were vital. We acted upon feedback from staff and ensured they had guaranteed time in their classroom to develop their learning environment. At the start of the academic year, we gave staff additional time in PD to reflect and enhance the centers based on the interest of the children and how they had explored and utilized them. Following on from this staff then went on a learning walk around the phase and supported each other with praise and constructive feedback. This gave them a chance to share best practice and have quality time looking in each other’s rooms and taking back additional ideas to further enhance their own centers. We then developed a best practice checklist for staff for reflection and self-evaluation. Staff fed back to us on the checklist, so we were able to make adaptions moving forward.
At the start of this term, we updated the check list based on feedback from staff and with a rating 1-3. The added rigor enabled staff to evaluate themselves honestly and identify what they needed to do next. They then shared their evaluation with their grade level lead as part of our performance management process and uploaded it on our performance management system. This means that staff still have ownership over the process but there is now more accountability in place. It enables them to think about how they may adapt their centers and the ones they will emphasizes that term, considering the needs and interests of the cohort. It also helps identify areas that need a greater emphasis next term.
The benefits of our Learning Centers
Our environment acts as a third teacher that guides and supports children daily. It gives children a wealth of learning opportunities. In the classroom children can embed key learning, by exploring, discovering and problem solving independently or with others. The impact is immense, at the start of the term when the children walked into the classroom, their faces lit up. They were full of awe and wonder. The classrooms naturally ignited the children’s curiosity, and they were eager to explore and engage in a variety of activities. This meant that the children settled quickly into class and were eager to learn. The teachers were able to start their more discreet direct teaching sessions early and work on targeted intervention and discreet group teaching. Teachers are able to teach key learning concepts and our children can explore these through investigations. Activities are open ended and the thoughtful well planned learning centers enable children to access them and work at their own level. Our children can use their knowledge and skills to come up with new ways to solve problems. Student engagement levels are high, and our children are confident learners.
They will build models with friends, evaluating and adapting them over several days safe in the knowledge that their model will still be there the next day. Our environment enables children to make connections between school, home, and the wider world. This makes the learning more meaningful and gives children a sense of continuity. Our open ended learning centers and environment during investigation time creates flexibility which enables teachers to be able to meet the needs of individual children in the classroom. Giving our children the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning enables them to investigate and understand more about a concept. Our teachers through careful questioning and dialogue are able to extend the children’s learning and knowledge to explore something on their own. Children can learn at their own pace and understand more about an object or concept. The teacher may ask the curious student to draw a picture to describe something they have made or seen, or act out a feeling it provokes using roleplay. The possibilities are endless in all our classrooms we have learning centers for all areas of the curriculum including, art areas, collage painting, engineering and building areas, tinkering tables, dramatic play, construction as well as centers relating to real life experiences
The learner agency and learner autonomy of our children has increased as children take ownership of the learning environment and will develop their own ideas for centers. They will plan out and make a list of resources for the teachers. We currently have a Starbucks coffeeshop, a supermarket and one class as I type this were concerned about the birds getting wet in the rain and are now working hard on developing a bird house for the birds to eat their food in the dry. They planned out their ideas including a list of resources needed. In the learning centers children have very clear roles and negotiate over these as the role play evolves. Teachers act as play partners to support children and make their ideas become a reality. The impact is that children collaborate, negotiate, and talk to each other sharing ideas as they are engrossed in their learning.
The attainment and progress of children’s learning has increased as children are more confident, focused and engaged in the classroom. Our teachers are happier and more confident in their practice, as they believe it is more authentic. Staff are feeling fulfilled, motivated, and passionate about what they do and eager to share their practice with others. This means there is a culture of collaboration and our staff have been able to develop at their own pace
How do you start?
• The whole team needs to want to invest in the learning environment
• Our advice is to take time to encourage your facilities team to come onboard by explaining the philosophy and rationale. The centers cannot be put away at the end of the day and will remain setup which may be a challenge when it comes to cleaning the classrooms.
• As a team start with one or two centers and plan the resources for the center including invitations and provocations and how you will change or add to the center.
• Sit and look or even play in the center to ensure it is open ended and has enough resources to engage young children.
• Look at the learning environment audit
• is the room clean and tidy with well stored resources so that the children can access them and put them away correctly and independently?
• Can the children reset the classroom at the end of the session? • Can children easily see the resources so they can add any additional resources that they might need?
• Give your teachers the time, they need to plan and make the centers, as well as time to think about what they are going to do and let their ‘creative juices’ flow.
• Create an environmental plan for each unit, make it interactive with photographs and links to best practice
• Invest in resources, educational manipulatives, natural resources, and real-life resources such as cups and glasses
• Plan in time to share best practice through discussion and walk throughs
• Constantly praise and guide your team.
• Trust and believe that that they can do it.
• Have the budget available to invest in additional resources
• Above all have fun and ask yourself the question. Would I like to be a child in this class?
Caz Jude Head of Early Childhood at The Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls
"I have over 30 years’ experience as a teacher headteacher and educational leader, primary in the early years. I originally trained as an early year’s teacher at Nottingham Trent University and have a Master’s in Education (Leadership and Management), as well as the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH). I am a qualified executive leadership coach and mentor and support leaders in education. I was a Lead Practitioner on the development of the Foundation Stage Profile in the UK, as well as a Lead Mathematics Teacher. I was Head Teacher of a four form entry infant and nursery school in the UK. Working in partnership with staff and all stakeholders we ensured that it was graded as outstanding within three years of my headship. I am a registered Ofsted Inspector and have carried out inspections in the UK and the Middle East. I am also an accredited British Schools Overseas reviewer. In 2010 I moved to the Middle East and worked as an Education Director supporting leadership teams and Principals in a variety of schools in the UAE. I have previously worked in China. In 2015 I was delighted to be Founding Vice Principal (Head of Primary) for GEMS Wellington International School Qatar. I trained coached and mentored teachers to deliver high quality learning for all children with an emphasis on inquiry-based learning and building resilience in young children. I am currently Head of Early Childhood at The Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls in Abu Dhabi".