High-quality learning environments for young children are vital to their early development. Sian Rees-Jones, headteacher of Bognor Regis Nursery School and Children’s Centre, shares her team’s approach to learning environments

Children need…

‘…freedom to investigate and try, to make mistakes, to choose where and with whom to invest their curiosity, intelligence and emotions. Children need the freedom to appreciate the infinite resources of their hands, their eyes, their ears, the resources of forms, materials, sounds and colour. They need the freedom to realise how reason, thought and imagination can create continuous interweaving of things, and can move and shake the world.’
(Malaguzzi, 1996)

Bognor Regis Nursery School and Children’s Centre developed from a nursery school established during the war and relocated to its present accommodation, a large Edwardian house and garden, in 1946. In recognition of a growing reputation for good practice, the school was designated a beacon school in 2002 and an early excellence centre in 2003. At this time the building was extended to create space for under-threes and facilities for training early years practitioners. In 2004, these developments formed the nucleus of a new Bognor Regis Nursery School and Children’s Centre, which aimed to extend and develop collaboration with other agencies and the voluntary sector, notably in the provision of ‘one stop’ services for children and their families across the spectrum of health, education, social care and employment.

At present the school caters for 88 children each session and has an integrated special support centre for eight children with complex needs. In addition, there are 24 extended day sessions for three- to five-year-olds, available throughout the year, enabling children to attend from 8am to 6pm, and 18 places for children between the ages of three months and three years.

Principles into practice

As a team, our practice is based on a shared set of principles that define what is important for young children. We believe that young children:

  • learn actively by doing through constructing, exploring, experimenting and problem-solving
  • have a range of learning styles and therefore access knowledge, concepts and skills in a variety of ways
  • require a wide range of experiences, since their rates of development and learning are most active and varied at this stage
  • require opportunities, space and time to repeat, practise and consolidate what has been learned, as well as challenging new experiences
  • build on what they can do and explore further what is familiar to them. They work most effectively on matters of current interest to them, learning from first-hand experience in meaningful situations
  • need opportunities to take risks, make mistakes and try things out without fear of failure
  • learn from play – which can be spontaneous, purposeful, fun or serious – which encourages children to develop their ideas, understanding and language
  • as well as promoting control, mastery, confidence and wellbeing
  • are naturally curious and have an innate desire to find out more 
  • learn most effectively in a social context, but that the role of adults in mediating, supporting and extending learning is crucial
  • learn from each other and benefit from working in an environment that reflects the needs of the whole age range from birth to five
  • can be damaged by introducing formal instruction too intensely and too abstractly, since children may learn the knowledge and skills offered but may do so at the expense of the disposition to use them
  • need opportunities to represent their first-hand experiences through a wide range of media as they move from behavioural to symbolic knowledge
  • require opportunities to experience what it feels like to understand something in depth, so that their disposition to seek in-depth understanding can be developed and strengthened
  • gain the dispositions to be interested, engaged, absorbed and involved in intellectual effort when they have extended opportunities to work on their own interests over a period of time
  • are not likely to gain desirable dispositions from instructions; rather, these are gained from being around people who exhibit, exemplify and model them
  • gain a positive self-esteem when adults show respect for their ideas, thoughts, interests and concerns
  • use talk as an important tool to express their ideas
  • and feelings; and in so doing they question and develop their powers of reasoning, interpret thoughts, modify ideas and extend their thinking
  • learn best if they are confident that their own abilities, gender, home culture and background are valued
  • benefit from the security of knowing that positive attitudes have been fostered between school and home, through close partnerships and shared understanding.

Spaces to play and places to be
The progressive development of Bognor Regis Nursery School and Children’s Centre has resulted in a visually attractive building – a caring environment in a beautiful garden. Having been designed originally for a more limited role, however, it has offered challenges.

The nursery school
The indoor learning environment for the school’s three- to five-year-old children has been created from the original Edwardian section of the building. Until 2007, resources were duplicated on the upper and lower floors, which accommodated 40 and 48 children respectively. Both   groups had free access to the facilities of the garden.

Changed circumstances, with some children being in school throughout the day, rather than for half-day sessions, led to the need for an additional ‘tasty space’ for breakfast, snacks, lunch and cooking activities, and a ‘dreaming space’ for children to relax – or sleep if necessary. After considerable discussion with parents, the existing ‘workshop’ areas of the learning environment were reviewed and rearranged to accommodate the new spaces.

Workshops on both floors are freely accessible to all children and are well-resourced. The ground floor houses a creative workshop with access for sand, water and malleable resources; for music and dance; for imaginative play; for small-world investigation; for brick and block play and construction opportunities. The upper floor houses a graphics workshop area; a book area; resources to promote problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy; the ‘dreaming’ space; and the ‘tasty’ space. A separate garden-room area is resourced to encourage children to widen their knowledge and understanding of the world.

Each workshop space has the potential to enhance learning and development across the areas of experience. Through the range of equipment and activities provided, the staff work to ensure relevance, progression, challenge and excitement. Information technology opportunities are also threaded through the whole environment, with software appropriate to the individual workshops.

The organisation of a secure daily routine allows the children long uninterrupted periods to make informed choices in the progress of their learning, with staff at hand to guide, play or advise if appropriate.

The Orchard room
This area, part of the extension to the Edwardian house, provides the 18 places for children of three months to three years. It too has an ‘entitlement’ environment in which children can access resources on a self-help basis. The atmosphere is homely and nurturing, the staff recognising that their focused interactions with children as key workers and play partners are the most important resource.

The areas created include a sleep/rest area, heuristic play base, a home play area with ‘hiding’ den for disappearing and reappearing play, a construction base with small-world opportunities, a mark-making area, books, music and an area that offers opportunities to explore natural materials. We have also limited the range of brightly-coloured plastic resources, preferring wood and other natural materials that stimulate young children’s senses.

In her book Nurturing Babies and Children Under Four, Sally Thomas urges practitioners: ‘resist the urge to keep everything neat and in categories – it doesn’t matter – children gather things together before they separate them. The teaspoons might go in the potting compost because she likes teaspoons, likes the feel of compost and likes hiding things – three good reasons – so why say “no”?’

The outdoor environment
When redesigning the outside space, we focused on the experiences that we wanted all the children to have, rather than on specific resources. These included opportunities:

  • for ‘risk taking’ within a safe environment
  • to use the natural environment in imaginative ways, for example by damming streams, swishing through long grass or creating dens
  • to experience forces
  • to go in/under/through/be up high
  • to care for plants, animals, mini beasts
  • to reflect and dream and be quiet
  • to experience different sounds and textures
  • for other sensory experiences linked to emotions – light, dark, reflections, refraction
  • to appreciate the beauty of nature and the work
  • of artists and artisans
  • to experience different types of spaces – paths,
  • spaces to run and places to hide away
  • to transport a range of materials
  • to explore different movements – rolling, swinging, bouncing, balancing, sliding, climbing
  • to talk, question and discuss with other children of different ages and with adults.

The children photographed areas of the original garden that were special to them, and this information, plus that from informal discussions, was used in the final plans. With help from an exceptionally talented consultant, these ideas were translated into the infrastructure needed to create an entitlement environment. This is freely available, rain or shine, to enable children to build on their interests and previous experiences. Staff support children’s development, based on their direct knowledge of individuals, by offering opportunities that deepen children’s learning and extend their interests. These are not necessarily provided via ‘inside resources’ brought into the garden, as this large environment encourages children to explore and develop through their interactions on a different scale.

Making the environment work
The school and centre is committed to a key worker system. Attachment between a young child and those close adults who provide warm physical and emotional care is essential for children to thrive. Key workers are paired to take account of shift patterns for staff working with children under three, and to ensure that children over three have a known and trusted adult near to them in the large environment of the nursery school.

Detailed observations of children’s interactions with peers, key carers, and other practitioners, the ‘workshop’ environment and additional resourcing, joint working with parents – all are essential elements of our practice. Observations are used to inform dialogue between pedagogues, to identify patterns in children’s development and to plan effectively for individuals or small groups of children. All key workers have at least two hours weekly ‘non-contact’ time for planning, preparation and assessment, plus extra time for tracking individual children, and are supported through professional development opportunities.

References

  • Nurturing Babies and Children under Four, Sally Thomas, 2008, Heinemann
  • The Hundred Languages of Children, Loris Malaguzzi, 1996, Reggio Children
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