Elizabeth Jarman looks at the impact of the physical learning environment on young children’s speaking and listening skills.


Despite a huge number of curriculum initiatives over the past decade, by and large, learning spaces have remained the same and a rethink of how practitioners arrange spaces is long overdue. Yet, for many practitioners, ‘their environment is still a blind spot: unchanging, unchangeable and beyond their control – an obstacle that they must work around, rather than a tool to support and enhance their practice’ (Design Council, 2005). Last year, the Basic Skills Agency commissioned a review of how the physical environment could impact specifically on young children’s speaking and listening skills. The recently published Communication Friendly Spaces Toolkit is the result. This involved a substantial review of international research and practice and visits to many settings across England and Wales. The following key considerations which were identified as contributing to Communication Friendly Spaces (CFS):

  • The learning environment should support the educational pedagogy of the setting.
  • Practitioners should maximize the use of space in all areas, inside and out.
  • Spaces should take account of the physical environmental factors that can impact on learning, for example, light, color and noise.
  • The environment should not be over stimulating.
  • Spaces should be viewed from the child’s perspective.

The learning environment should support the educational pedagogy of the setting

A central consideration for practitioners is being clear about how the learning environment and their underpinning pedagogy connect and support one another. The way that a space is set out says a lot to children about the sort of behaviors and interactions that are welcome. ‘What we are talking about here fundamentally shifts our traditional thinking in terms of how and why we present certain resources, furnish and layout our space. It may be that a rethink is in order,’ says Constance Tyce, an early years adviser in Norfolk. ‘This may be quite a challenge as it could conflict with your current knowledge and thinking.’

Practitioners should maximize the use of space in all areas, inside and out

It is important to view learning spaces as a whole, including both inside and out. Across the space, children need secure spaces to talk where they feel comfortable and relaxed. It is important to think about how an area will be used; what furniture is actually necessary; if you are predetermining what will happen there? It is essential to observe, reflect and then make informed decisions. Spaces should be flexible enough to change to support activities as they develop. ‘Start by reviewing one area and then let this be the trigger to influence a review of your whole setting. Each part may be very different and so it should be if you are truly basing your ideas on the children,’ suggests education consultant Lesley Staggs.

Environmental factors that can impact on learning:

Noise Research concludes that chronic noise exposure in young children has a detrimental effect on children’s language development. An extreme illustration from teachers working near Birmingham airport where 90% believed that aircraft noise had a negative impact on children’s literacy and numeracy skills. Whatever the source of noise, though, an excessively noisy learning environment is a poor one. Light Current research confirms that we are all energized by natural sunlight and indeed that children learn faster in classrooms with natural light. This also flags up the importance of maximizing the spaces you have outside. In an American study, students with lots of daylight in their classrooms progressed 20% faster in maths and 26% faster in reading in one year than those with the least. ‘Light levels stimulate brain activity in different ways and often generate physical reactions, whereas colors impact on human emotions and undoubtedly have spatial effects in rooms. When light levels and colors are wrong for students, they will switch off and lose concentration.’ (Prashnig, 2004.) Color Research indicates that when deciding which colors you should use in a learning space it is really important to consider the purpose of the space. Colors need to be chosen carefully and with consideration of the layout or the room, position of windows and sun-exposure. Colors are commonly associated with ‘psychological temperature’ ie the physical and emotional reaction that we have to the colors around us. The following basic guidelines date back to the ‘60s when Dr Max Luscher created his color test:

Color Response

Blue –    Feels tranquil, cool, serene Green  –  Makes people feel secure and ‘tended’, persistent and self-centered; can be dull Red  –  Increases respiratory rates, stimulates eating, can increase blood pressure, feels exciting and invites impulsiveness: over-exposure can result in agitation Yellow  – Recognized by humans faster than any other color, evokes spontaneity, is joyful, optimistic, warm and signifies communication! Orange  –  Dominant, lively: peachy orange is warm, bright orange is non-relaxing Violet  –  Can be overpowering, pastels are better for backgrounds

The environment should not be over stimulating

The advantages of an ordered learning space are obvious. Children can select what they need from the resources available and are not overwhelmed by a mass of hoarded, possible outdated and irrelevant materials that just take up space. It is not about restricting choice, but targeting influence. ‘Make sure that children have access to interesting resources, so that they can make choices about how they wish to represent their ideas, but select these resources carefully and think about how best to present them, as clutter and poorly presented materials can be confusing, can deflect concentration and lack any sort of appeal.’ (Sally Jaeckle, Early Years Foundation Stage Team, DfES.) Think carefully about storage options. Children do not need to see all of the resources all the time, but they do need access to specific resources when needed. Large storage boxes quickly become full of small pieces which eventually become separated. Perhaps use smaller, transparent, labelled storage. Despite the value of well-planned displays, many are overly stimulating and highly decorative, not always linked to or supporting children’s learning in an interactive way. Consider who and what the displays are for. Think carefully about their positioning. It makes sense not to have a busy, cluttered display in an area where children are expected to focus say on a whiteboard, or a story book.

Spaces should be viewed from the child’s perspective

‘The way in which practitioners approach their environment reflects what they understand about how children learn and this is where much more thought and consideration is needed… All too often, the environment is planned by adults for adults, yet we know that the space belongs to and is for the children,’ says Lesley Staggs. ‘This routine error can lead to a crucial lack of focus and confidence regarding what is right for children.’

Inspiring a review of practice

Alongside the Communication Friendly Spaces Toolkit, a range of CFS training and development programs have been developed, which aim to raise awareness and understanding of the approach and inspire a review of learning environments in settings. Training is being delivered to Early Years Foundation Stage practitioners in several local authorities to support the delivery of the Early Years Foundation Stage and Communicating Matters training. Training is interactive and includes lots of examples of good practice as well as discussion activities to help practitioners consider how this approach applies to their context. Some programs include supported development tasks, which are completed by delegates in the time between training sessions.

Changing Spaces Challenge

The Changing Spaces Challenge, involves seven children’s centers in Plymouth which have had input from Elizabeth Jarman on using the Communication Friendly Spaces Toolkit. The children’s centers will have opportunities to share with other providers how they have risen to the challenge to change a space to promote children’s speaking and listening skills, with only £100 to spend from the LA. All Early Years Foundation Stage settings and schools across Plymouth will be receiving a Communication Friendly Spaces Toolkit. Lark children’s center: ‘We have done a lot of consultation with the children. They have drawn some pictures and we have recorded and documented their dialogue on what they would like in the area. We have also taken photos of the kinds of places that our children like to spend time. We plan to attach drapes to the ceiling in the area. We have found some lights that are battery operated. We will also add a few drawstring bags that we can put some drapes and pegs in so that the children can change and adapt the area when they want to’. Lark found that the size of the spaces they created is significant and that some children prefer having really small spaces big enough for one or two children. They have responded by using screens and adding an enclosed swing to create these sorts of spaces. Nomony children’s center is building a low-level pergola in their outside space, which can be covered with a range of materials to provide an area for children to talk and play. Enclosed spaces are important for children to withdraw to. Having a range of materials to use within the pergola will help to prevent it becoming ‘part of the furniture’, always a challenge with a fixed structure.

Fourwoods children’s center is planning to create a sensory space by using lots of natural materials. Their concrete outside area is very small. Adding as many natural materials as possible will soften the space and add points of interest to help to stimulate conversations.

Useful related reading

  • Design Council Learning environments campaign prospectus 2005
  • Prashnig, Barabara (2004) ‘Colour me beautiful’, Education Today, issue 6