Sunday, April 6, 2008

Creating an Optimal Learning Environment in a Classroom

Creating an Optimal Learning Environment in a Classroom
By
Erika Hernandez
EDCI 4322 Human Development & Learning (Fall 2007)
School of Education
University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College

Literature Review

When it comes to education, we future teachers have to focus on every possible detail that can help us enhance children’s learning. Not only do we have to focus on our lessons but also in the classroom environment that we provide our students. We should consider that a warm-welcoming classroom is always a good start to encourage children to learn. Classroom environment is the appropriate arrangement of the room at which children are learning. It requires a social, high quality physical setting where natural learning and motivation is taking place. Yet, according to Carter and Curtis, there are a variety of methods, principles and strategies that can help us develop that positive classroom. And teachers, parents and staff have the power to create that inviting place for the children.

Definition of “Good” Classroom Environment

The first thing to consider, according to Reggio Emilia programs, is that the environment you provide the children always 1.conveys a message, 2. the arrangement of objects, 3.materials and space engage students and enhance their learning, and finally that 4.teachers should pay close attention to detail everywhere. All three principles wrap up the topic of appropriate classroom environment. Therefore, there are a number of strategies and methods that we should consider.

Purpose of the Present Study

The purpose of my study was to focus on an important part of children’s education; the setting where children are learning everyday. There are many things in the setting that may affect a child positively or negatively. And of course I want my children to be in a positive environment. That’s why I want to find out how we can create this constructive environment.
As I mentioned before, children spend most of their time at school and not at home. We teachers have to do whatever it takes to make sure students feel comfortable learning and experiencing new ideas in the classroom. Usually there is not a 100% focus on the environment because teachers are more preoccupied by what they are going to teach. Classroom environment not only concerns with posting purchased items and paper in the walls; there is actually more to its contribution. Once they go in into a classroom, what children want to see is a place that will make them want to learn something new everyday and have nice experiences at the end. Therefore, it is essential that a teacher starts off by creating that ideal/optimal atmosphere for a child.

Methodology

Having the opportunity to take a course during this semester about environmental planning, allowed me to use many of the guidelines and strategies of planning the classroom environment and apply it to my research. Also, I applied my previous knowledge that I’ve learned in the course. I made observations on two different places: Hudson Elementary and the Brownsville Migrant Headstart where I was able to observe and analyze the classroom set ups. Consequently, all of these sources provided useful and valuable information to continue my research.

Research Question

I specifically explored the following research question:
What is the optimal environment for learning? Evolving the setting, materials, and elements.

Site

The research site was in the Education department of The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmot College at Brownsville. Located on the south part of the United States, the University is a public state university that provides many programs of study to develop a future career such as: School of Education, School of Business, School of Technology, School of Liberal Arts, School of Health Sciences and School of Science, Math and Technology.

Participants

My participants for my research were the students and the teachers at Hudson Elementary and the Brownsville Migrant Headstart. However, most of the findings came from the book and handouts provided at my environment course.

Data Collection

For the most part, I used handouts and the book Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. The handouts had basic needs and theories such as the High-Scope and the ECERS. While in the book I found very useful information regarding the elements of environmental planning. The book was used for a class I’m taking at this moment: The Environment and Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas at Brownsville. I knew from the beginning that this course was going to help me in order to find many of my answers. Then when I went and observed the classes, I was able to investigate and apply those methods and guidelines to the class environment.

The way I did my observations was that I analyze step by step using one of the methods: ECERS. At the Migrant Headstart I actually typed out a paper with many of the strategies. I provided a sample on the back of the research.

Data Analysis

I was able to compare and contrast information using my previous knowledge to see the relationship between methods. Yet, all of them were very useful. Of course, some methods had more strategies and steps than others but at the end all of them contributed to my analysis; most of the methods, such as the ECERS and elements of environmental planning, were very detailed in their use of materials, accommodations and routines. Even though, there were many plans for accommodations I will provide a brief introduction of the methods, since every part plays an important role in the application of optimal environment.

Findings

This research suggested that there are many tips, guidelines and strategies to promote a positive environment. There is not one specific method that teachers can follow to suggest this environment. But, it showed that children require an adequate environment to explore, interact, learn and have fun. The environment should be a place where they can feel comfortable and related.

Elements of Environmental Planning

To begin with, there are 5 elements of environmental planning I think teachers should consider. The first element mentioned is connections and sense of belonging. Children should always feel comfortable and cozy at a place where they spend the majority of the day. A homelike display of the classroom provides security and comfort. Some of the things we can do are pay attention to the architectural features, furnishings, color and textures, light, and visuals. “Young children come into the world seeking relationships for their comfort identity development, and learning process” (Carter, Curtis 22). A way to accomplish this is by providing love seats, couches, large floor pillows and family pictures and artifacts so they can feel homelike. Also by having neutral colors in the walls gives the opportunity for children to add color with their own designs and drawings. Bathrooms are another key point, even though most teachers don’t pay attention to this space. A bathroom is also a space that children use every day, thus teachers should give the same interest by displaying plants, mirrors at different levels, and pleasant odors.

The second element within the elements is flexible space and open-ended materials. It is very rare that a teacher arranges the classroom setting in an attractive and useful way. As a result, children are discouraged to learn whatsoever. However, if children are “offered flexible and open-ended materials, they engage in the range of activities that foster their development and learning” (Carter, Curtis 57). It allows them to explore, interact, or develop their skills. What we can do is arrange quiet private spaces for children to spend time alone, places where they can work together and all kinds of materials like, blocks, rocks, tiles, fabrics or any type of recycled materials such as milk cartons, cans, and lids in the block area as well as in the outdoors. It is very important to point out that recycled materials let them use their creativity and imagination to construct whatever they want. It’s an opportunity for them to explore and learn that out of a simple tissue box something magical can emerge. Moreover, it shows them to appreciate the environment by using those items for recreational purposes instead of throwing them away.

The third element is natural materials that engage the senses. Not only do we have to consider spending large amounts of money in materials when we can provide natural supplies that engage the senses. For example, instead of using expensive containers, teachers can use boxes or baskets to store natural materials like leaves, dry herbs and flowers to provide wonder and ecological experience. Also provide sources of water in galvanized tubs, enticing aromas to build memories and landscaping textures such as trees, shells, and rocks instead of toys. Sometimes is better to provide things that can provoke curiosity since they had never seen those materials before, rather than a toy that they have already at home, like our next topic is about.

The fourth element is provoking wonder, curiosity and intellectual engagement. Unfortunately, classrooms don’t provide enough techniques that can help expand children’s imagination. Providing enough materials that can provoke wonder engages the student to explore learn and discover. For instance, teachers should consider light and color. “Well-placed track lightning can help elusive colors and whimsical shadows will usually capture children’s interest and provoke joy in learning” (Carter, Curtis 123). Think about things that can present opportunities of reflection or transparency such as mirrors, color bottles and transparent color binders to which the student or teacher can place over the overhead and see its color. Other factors are sound and motion. We typically don’t think about sound or motion when it comes to teaching. But children’s uses of sounds can actually “teach teachers” about children’s thoughts and feelings (Carter, Curtis 123). Maybe by providing a song as a background, nature sounds, or trickling fountains sets a better room atmosphere. Also you can install shimmering bells, or musical structures that the children can touch and test. This would also install in the children an interest for music. Now, children like when things move around or in other words motion. They move around, bang, twirl, throw or spin objects. This may even go and in hand with physical science or mathematics to teach motion, gravity, speed, and other concepts. The teacher can incorporate cars, fans, and marbles to make use of this concept. So besides making it fun children are learning new ideas. Furthermore, in order to provoke wonder there should be all kinds of treasures in the classroom for play activities. By providing those special objects like beats, hanging objects from the ceiling, fabrics, puzzles, surprise boxes, plants and other items display in unexpected areas, will “draw children’s attention and focus” (Carter, Curtis 124). Usually, children don’t expect to see unusual things hanging from the wall, by the window or placed in containers, therefore, it will make them feel interested about its purpose. Treasures don’t have to be very expensive items. Like I mentioned before there are a great variety of things that can be used as treasures; about almost anything can be considered a treasure.

The last element for environment planning is engaging children in symbolic representations, literacy, and visual arts. There should be plenty of materials that support children growing up in a multicultural/multibilingual world. Yet, when children are not given the enough joy and interest in learning literacy skills these children don’t understand the material, stress out or simply lack interest in learning.

ECERS

Another source to analyze a classroom environment is a process called ECERS or Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale. Unlike, the elements of environmental planning, ECERS provides a more detailed criterion with more information and strategies to apply at the classroom: 1.Space and furnishings 2. Personal care routines 3. Language reasoning 4. Activities or centers 5. Interactions and 6. Program structure. For that reason, I will explain more fully what ECERS is about.

Definitions of Concepts

Like the element flexible space and open-ended materials, space and furnishings mentions how important it is to have a good well-maintained indoor space easy for learning and playing. ECERS reveals that we should consider the temperature of the classroom, if there is enough space for children to walk around without bumping into each other. But more than anything the place should be inviting. Furthermore, it mentions the use of room arrangement, space for privacy, as well a place for child related display. The room arrangement mainly deals with the accommodations of different centers (which I will talk in a minute), the space for privacy is for students to experience a time for themselves and away from the rest of the students in order to promote positive classroom behavior. And child related play is a place where the artwork of the children is display at their eye-level. It is important to point out that most of the classroom should cover a great portion, if not all, the walls. This as well promotes positive self-esteem and stimulates them to keep working in order to see their work display in the walls.

Something not mentioned in the other method are the personal care routines, which have to do with the greeting/departing of the students. It is important to greet them once they come into class and when they go home in order to promote a positive self-esteem. Meals and snacks is the second issue. There should be a proper model of healthy food to promote sanitary conditions. Other points are nap/rest, toileting/diapering, health practices to prevent spread of germs and safety practices to provide quality care both inside and outside the classroom.
Language reasoning was not discussed on the elements of environmental planning but yet, it is very important. It mostly deals with encouraging children to use formal and informal language to communicate and use their reasoning skills. There should be books and activities that promote positive communications skills within the children. Children at early ages are eager to learn by interacting with peers, materials, and daily routines. That’s why the presentation of different forms of pictures, books and activities should be promoted in the classroom to enhance communications skills.

As well, activities or centers are small areas of different interest that should be taken in consideration. For instance, some of the centers that a classroom should provide are the math, art, dramatic play, nature/science, sand/water, music/movement, and block area. It is very hard for a classroom to incorporate all of these centers, but the more the better in order for children to have different choices or alternatives to experience around the classroom. These centers should each have its materials and proper installation for children’s use. For instance, you could not play the writing or reading area next to the block area because that would only disturb the children who are concentrating reading or writing.

For this reason, there exists a good technique that can help with the arrangement of centers: the four areas of EC environment. Although, they don’t have anything to do with the ECERS or the elements of environmental planning, these four areas are essential when developing the centers. The four areas consist of the dry, wet, active and quiet area. The way this works is that for instance, the science center would be categorized in the dry/quiet area. The art center would be in the active/wet area or the music would be considered as a dry/active area and so on. It’s a simple strategy but with great significance in order to arrange the centers to avoid mess and confusions.

To continue with ECERS, we now have interactions. And it basically has 5 categories: supervision of gross motor skills, which is to promote motor skill activities that promote positive social interactions. Then there’s general supervision of other activities, discipline which are the teacher’s expectations available materials and opportunities for appropriate practice throughout they day. And last staff and among children interactions; both principally deal with providing opportunities for initiative talking, playing, solving conflicts together, and participating in real life situations.

Furthermore, program structure is the schedule consisting of the daily routines; free play and group time, as well as provisions for children with disabilities. The last key point is very essential to consider in the classroom. Sometimes the teacher has to make special accommodations for those children with disabilities. This evolves the “care needs, assessments, and the integration of the children in ongoing classroom activities” and progress levels (ECERS).

HIGH-SCOPE


High-Scope is an open framework of educational ideas and practices based on the principles of child development. The High/Scope approach was developed by David Weikart during the 1960's for use in the Perry Preschool program. This approach follows up 3 principles referring specifically to materials: 1. Arranging materials 2. Choosing materials 3. Storing materials. As well as the four areas of EC environment, High-Scope more than a method it is a strategy. It focuses on how to use and store materials. Therefore, it can be integrated with either of the two previous methods: elements of environmental planning or ECERS.

Within the arranging of materials some of the guidelines are to divide the space into defined areas such as play, art, water areas (the centers). Also established visual boundaries to divide the areas and consider the fixed elements of the physical setting and the traffic flow. How I mentioned before in the elements of environment planning, children should not have any trouble getting to their centers or assign area. Therefore, the teacher should accommodate the areas in an appropriate and safe way. However, it is important to consider that the teacher should modify the areas throughout the year so children won’t get bored of seeing the same arrangement over and over again.

The second guideline consists of choosing materials. The teacher should choose materials that reflect children’s interest and that are appropriate for children’s developmental levels. There should be a focus on what children like and dislike in order to provide materials that would engage them in their centers. But we should always consider there age level, since we cannot give a 3 year old a dissected plant to explore. Moreover, choose materials that support different types of play such as constructive and socio-dramatic play in a variety of ways. Also offer materials that reflect human diversity in an unbiased way. A good way to do this is by displaying magazines with diversity information, assorted dolls with different colors and shapes and play figures that contain or reflect culture diversity. But always make sure the equipment is safe, clean and well maintained.

The third and last guideline is storing materials. It is essential to store materials where children can reach them and see them without any trouble. A good way is to have see-through, labeled containers at appropriate levels so children won’t have any trouble finding them and storing them in the same place. You can have pictures of the materials in the labels so it would be easier for younger children who don’t know how to read yet.

Conclusion

This research gave the great opportunity to see more deeply what classroom environment is all about. Even though, most of the material I had already seen in my previous course, I was able to investigate and see more deeply the facts and strategies used for developing an optimal environment. I was able to explore and analyze methods like 1. The 5 elements of environmental planning 2. ECERS (Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale) 3.The four areas of EC environment, and 4.HIGH-SCOPE.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

I don’t think there are any limitations in order to continue my future research. There is actually a lot more useful information I could use for my research. For example, over the internet I was able to see many sources of information that could help teachers develop an optimal environment. It was not so difficult for me to do this research, because I had already previous knowledge and information regarding the topic. But if I was to do it from scratch, I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

Application

Once, a teacher is taking over a classroom, she/he has to start out by designing its classroom environment. We have to understand that, according to Reggio Emilia, the environment conveys a message so we have to play close attention to arrangement of structure, objects and activities in order to promote a positive environment. There is no way teachers can accommodate things in a classroom according to our benefit. They should analyze and comprehend that a room has to reflect children’s needs and interest.

References


Carter, Maggie and Curtis Deb. (2003). Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Childhood Environment. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Kim, Kyound Hae. The Environment and Early Childhood Education Fall 2007course. Handouts used: ECERS and the Elements of Environmental Planning

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