Creating A Learning Environment

Mention a learning environment for children and a room full of toys, books, puzzles, counting beads, and art supplies comes to mind. Rightly so, for these are, after all, a child's intellectual and social 'building blocks.'

What doesn't come to mind, however, is that the first step to creating a learning environment is to ensure all children have adequate nutrition, health care and stimulation. Proper meal planning with regards to the federal food guide is essential. Parents should take the time to review a centre's or home's weekly menu, or talk to their provider about how well their child is eating.

Health care, of course, entails more than just regular visits to the pediatrician or health clinic, though these are paramount. It also includes a safe environment, for example, lead free paint on all surfaces, well-constructed toys and child care apparatus, as well as proper hygiene practices.

The amount of stimulation a child receives also plays a role in a learning environment. To little stimulation and the child learns nothing about him/herself or the world in which he/she lives. Over stimulation, an environment that is too busy and confusing, gives a child little chance to absorb anything.

Optimal Learning Environment

All that considered, what else makes for an optimal learning environment? Notes Deborah Lott Holmes, in her book, The Child, An Introduction To Developmental Psychology, "The optimal environment is one that is geared to the child. At each stage of development, the child should be exposed to tasks slightly beyond his or her abilities. If the tasks are too easy, the child will quickly loose interest in them. If they are too complex, the child will give up and turn to easier tasks."

Some suggestions for infants? 'Simple' toys such as pacifiers, rattles and teething rings for sucking and grasping, and easy to look at objects like a rag doll with a pleasant face are best, as is a quiet environment.

From 8 - 12 months, balls, containers, small toys, musical instruments and simple picture books provide hours of entertainment. The age group also enjoys interactive games like 'peek-a-boo."

By 18 - 24 months, children need a variety of more complex manipulative toys like puzzles, dress-up clothes and so on, and more complex picture books to help them mental explore their world and work out solutions to everyday problems.

Preschool children benefit from 'same and different' games and books that demonstrate the idea that "one of these items does not belong to this group." Too, this age learns volumes from playing in sand and water with measuring containers of various sizes.

"Children should be given ample opportunity and encouragement to explore their environment, use their imaginations, and talk about their discoveries and fantasies," says Holmes. She suggests children be taught focal colours and learn the concepts of numbers better if they are taught by concrete example rather than by memorization. Counting beads and stacking toys are excellent for this age group.

Our Role

Parents and providers play a large role in the learning environment. Even with the best materials, children need guidance and adult interaction to broaden their learning experience. A seed planted as a suggestion works wonders. For example, while in the art centre, providers can ask the children to paint a picture of what 'fairy land would look like if they lived there,' or, in the reading centre, they could ask the children what they liked best about a certain book, how they felt about a character, if they ever have the same feelings the character has.

And, of course, children need free play, a time undisturbed by adult interaction, questions or pressures to complete a project in a short period of time. It is when a child is dreaming and creating that he or she is utilizing the learning environment to its fullest.