Practitioners need to consider the way that space and resources can be used to encourage children’s investigations. Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton explain

‘Education must come to be recognised as the product of complex interactions, many of which can be realised when the environment is a fully participating element.’
(Malaguzzi, 1998)

In this article we look in detail at some of the practical aspects of creating a high-quality learning environment which encourages exploration and discovery.

The key aspects to take into account when planning your environment to ensure it supports, rather than impedes, children’s investigative learning are:

  • layout and organisation of space
  • open-ended resources as starting points for exploration
  • tools and equipment
  • documentation and display
  • making the most of the outdoors.

Layout and organisation of space

The space available in different settings will vary, but a very common complaint is, ‘We don’t have enough space.’ Although availability of space is certainly an issue, we frequently make this even more challenging by not making the best use of what we have. To maximise the space available to you and optimise its potential, take a long hard look at your physical environment and consider how you could reorganise it to provide spaces which really work for you.

Untidy, cluttered environments, full of things kept ‘just in case they come in useful one day’, hamper children’s movement and their freedom to explore and investigate. Cluttered environments make it difficult for children to access resources easily and do not encourage anyone, adults or children, to respect equipment and materials and to use them with care. Get rid of everything which is broken, has pieces missing, or is worn and looks tatty. Although this may seem ruthless, remember it is impossible to create an ethos of respect for resources if they are in a poor state of repair and appear ‘unloved’.

Resources and equipment presented in a way which enables children to access them easily, coupled with a well-organised storage system, will encourage children’s independent learning. A simple set of rules about returning everything to its proper place, to which everyone, adults as well as children, is expected to adhere will minimise breakages and losses. Shadow boards, which indicate very clearly where tools such as scissors should go, help very young children to play their part in ‘tidy-up time’  as well as assisting adults when making a quick visual check for missing equipment.

Open-ended resources to stimulate exploration

Interesting open-ended resources which stimulate curiosity and encourage exploration can be found all around us, indoors and outdoors, and don’t need to be expensive or sophisticated. Often it is simply a case of opening your eyes, looking for the ‘unusual in the usual’, and seeing the potential which ordinary everyday things have to offer.

Natural materials: Natural materials provide ideal starting points for multisensory exploration. Leaves, for example, not only come in different shapes, sizes and colours, but also have different textures – smooth, prickly, furry or squashy – and often have different scents. Drawing children’s attention to these differences and encouraging them to investigate them carefully develops their skills of close observation and manipulation as well as providing opportunities for sorting, ordering and classifying.

Wood and bark vary in texture, colour, structure, strength and scent depending on which tree they have come from. Encourage children to investigate the difference between the smooth outer-bark of a piece of wood from an ash tree and the rougher texture of the bark on a piece of oak. Wood freshly cut from a pine tree has a distinctive smell and often oozes a sticky, viscous sap.

Rocks and stones provide an infinite variety of shapes, colours, patterns and textures and provide good starting points for extending children’s vocabulary and descriptive language. Sand can vary in texture and colour depending on where it has come from and whether it has been formed by grinding down rocks or shells. Gathering small samples of sand from a variety of different locations and displaying these in transparent containers will soon build into an interesting collection for children to observe closely and note similarities and differences.

Clay has the potential to be shaped and moulded by being rolled, squashed, squeezed, pinched, cut and joined. It has an aesthetic quality of its own, not replicated by playdough or plasticine. The texture of clay can be altered by adding water to make it thin and slippery, or by drying it out to make it hard and strong. For children to get the most out of the huge potential of clay they need an environment equipped with the appropriate tools to manipulate it and the support of an adult who can share their clay-working skills.

Reclaimed materials: The range of reclaimed resources available from your local recycling centre or ‘scrap store’ will vary depending on the manufacturing industries prevalent in your area. You will nevertheless be able to find a wide variety of materials which make interesting starting points for discussions. These discussions could centre on sustainability and the importance of environmental awareness as well as on the characteristics and properties of materials.

Handling, and talking about, reclaimed resources helps children to begin to see the connection between the properties of different materials and the purposes for which they are used. For example, shiny surfaces reflect the light and can be used as mirrors; bubble plastic is bulky but very light so it can be used to protect fragile objects; some types of plastic are transparent so you are able to see what is stored inside a plastic box.

Instead of spending large amounts of money on expensive resources which do not last, invest instead in good-quality tools and equipment for children to use.

Include a range of magnifiers varying in size from a large table top magnifier to smaller hand lenses and sheet magnifiers. Table top magnifiers are set at the correct focal length so that objects placed under them can be seen clearly, and they also have the advantage of leaving both hands free.

Magnets are an endless source of fascination for children and adults alike. A range of magnets of different shapes and sizes, along with a selection of metallic and non-metallic objects, will prompt interesting investigations and discoveries. Children can make simple magnetic ‘fishing’ games or explore how to make paper clips in a plastic tray ‘dance’ by moving a magnet around under the tray. Remember to insist that children keep magnets away from electronic equipment such as computers, tape recorders and digital cameras.

Look around your setting and consider all the many different ways you could use mirrors and light to help children to see things differently. This could include mirrors placed at angles to one another to create multiple reflections, a mirror tile on the floor to give an unusual perspective of the ceiling, or a curved mirror carefully positioned to enable children to see round a corner.

Torches provide a simple and cost-effective way of helping children to explore light. To investigate light effectively it is important to make sure that the surrounding area is dark. This can be achieved by lowering the light levels using dimmer switches or blinds, or simply by finding a suitable dark corner – under a table or in a large cupboard for example. Dens, indoors and out, are great places to investigate light and dark, as well as an excellent construction challenge.

Lightboxes and overhead projectors are wonderful resources for extending exploration of light and shadow. Transparent, translucent and opaque materials can be investigated, and natural and reclaimed resources used to investigate pattern, shape, form, opacity and colour mixing.

Documentation and display

Documenting children’s learning involves taking photographs, encouraging children to make drawings and models to represent their ideas and taking careful note of the words the children use when talking about their explorations. Documentation can be used to capture the events, encounters, interactions and stages in an investigation or exploration. It is an integral part of the scientific learning process that allows us to track children’s learning experiences and gives us an insight into how children review and clarify their thoughts.

Documentation is an active process, and not simply a record of an investigation put together at the end. Gathering documentation during the process of an investigation and displaying it around the setting not only provides a visual record of the learning as it is taking place, it also demonstrates to children the value you place on their thoughts and ideas.

Attractively presented documentation not only adds to the aesthetics of your setting, it also acts as a prompt for ongoing explorations and discoveries. Creating interactive displays, supplemented by reference books, artefacts and resources will encourage adults and children to become involved in the investigations which are taking place, and to start making their own discoveries.

Making the most of the outdoors

The natural and built environment outside your setting is a hugely valuable asset which should be exploited to the full. The outdoors provides children with opportunities to explore and investigate on a larger scale than is normally possible indoors – there are opportunities to make large constructions, build dens and explore sand and water on a more ambitious scale.

Even the smallest outdoor area has the space for creating a habitat for living things. Snails, ants, worms and woodlice need only a small pile of logs and leaf litter, or even just an upturned flowerpot. Planters, growbags and tubs can be used for growing flowers, vegetables or herbs and bird feeders and nest boxes can be fixed to walls or trees. To help children explore the natural environment safely and effectively it is important to provide them with the appropriate resources to use. These should include child-sized trowels, buckets, spades and wheelbarrows as well as boots and waterproof clothing.

Exploring the immediate environment – the roads, houses, gardens, shops and parks and pedestrian crossings in the local neighbourhood gives children real experiences of many aspects of science and design technology including weather, forces, materials, structures, energy and control. Looking at, and where possible investigating, the different materials used to make up the walls, doors, windows, drainpipes, and roof of your setting makes the building itself a valuable teaching tool.

A high-quality learning environment designed to support scientific and technological exploration will support all other aspects of young children’s learning. Social and communication skills, mathematical development and problem solving, creative and physical development will all be enhanced as children explore and make sense of the world around them through meaningful first-hand experiences.

Encouraging young children to be active explorers and investigators is dependent not just on the organisation of your environment but also on the attitudes, skills and knowledge of the adults in your staff team. We live in an increasingly complex technological age – young children have a right to be taught by adults whose grasp of the principles of science and technology is as good as their mastery of literacy and numeracy.

Malaguzzi, L (1998) ‘History, Ideas and Basic Philosophy’ in Edwards, CP, Gandini, L and Foreman, G (eds) The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach – Advanced Reflections (2nd Edition) Stamford, CT.

Pat Brunton and Linda Thornton are directors of alc associates, an early years training and consultancy company, and of Reflections Nursery in West Sussex.