Unit 5 video - click to launch

Unit 5 video - click to launch

unit 5

curriculum and learning environments


What do great teachers do?

In this unit, we'll examine best practices for guiding children's learning, including setting up a classroom, creating a daily schedule, and planning instructional experiences for children.

You're on your way to being a great teacher too!

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Elements Of Inspiring Environments

Great environments for children invite them to play. Play is how children learn, so inviting play is an important part of what early childhood educators do. Let's take a closer look...

What is Play and Why is it Important?

Peter Gray, writing in Psychology Today in 2008, says that play is defined by five characteristics:

1. Play is chosen by the player, who also decides how to play;

2. The process of playing is more important than any result or outcome;

3. The rules of play are decided on by the players themselves;

4. Play happens in a different, more imaginative, mental state than “real” life; and

5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

Gray's article on play is among the Additional Resources above. You can read it there, if you like.

Thinking is fun. And if you look at the five characteristics, notice that they all involve thinking in some way. Human beings like thinking new thoughts and solving problems using their brains. It's not true that people don't like thinking and don't like a challenge. What people don't like is having challenges pre-determined for them, having their success on a challenge graded in some way, having no choice in how to solve a challenge, and having to stick with a challenge after it's no longer fun.

Thinking is fun. And play is thinking. And that's why play is so important.

Because play and thinking are so closely linked, it's clear that play builds brains. Remember from Unit One that brain development happens through experiences. Challenges like those created and solved during play are exactly the sort of experiences that developing brains need.

It's often said that "play makes learning fun" but that's not right. Learning IS fun. If learning experiences are arranged correctly, learning is play and play is learning. The two things are one and the same. 

The Teacher's Role

Play, you will remember, is chosen by the player, who also decides how to do it. It's not assigned by the teacher. It's not directed by the teacher.

So what are you supposed to do?

You watch. You see who can do what and who needs more practice. You notice what skills children are ready for and you plan ways to insert that into the environment. You compare what children need to know with what they really know and find activities that will help them fill in the gaps.

Quite frankly, any fool can write a lesson plan or - worse - copy one from a book and then deliver it. Anyone can plan "cute projects" for kids to carry out, so that every child's work looks just like the teacher's example. It takes more - more thinking, more observation, more understanding of where individual children are and what they need next - to prepare experiences that lead children forward.

Lev Vygotsky, a contemporary of Jean Piaget, proposed the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development. "Proximal" means "next." Vygotsky says that there is a zone in which the "next thing" is learned, and that all learning happens in this space, in this edge-of-the-envelope. This means that it's a teacher's job to know where each child is in her learning and present experiences that are a stretch for her: not too hard, but not too easy either.

Interestingly enough, this is where play happens too. Play schemes that are too easy are boring. Play has to be interesting and a stretch in order for it to be fun.

Your role is to make this happen.

Play Among Infants and Toddlers

Children of all ages need to play. For infants and toddlers, play focuses on development of the senses and on control of muscles. These are the sorts of experiences you will prepare in the infant-toddler room.

Caring for infants and toddlers - especially in a center that observes only the minimum staffing requirements, so that you might be responsible for four infants at a time - tends to be limited to feeding and diapering. There's just not much time for any more. But you can make even feeding and diapering times for play and exploration.

When you feed a baby, make eye contact (if the baby permits), raise your eyebrows, wiggle your lips, and carry on a quiet conversation. Sing, if you like.

When you diaper a baby, take time to do some gentle baby-stretches, play with baby toes and fingers, and, again, talk and sing. Take as much time as you can and really give the child your full attention.

When babies are alert, offer them toys that make noises and things of different textures and colors. Be sure to move the baby to different places in the room and lay the baby in different positions. Give babies time to lie near each other and hang out together.

As babies grow towards toddlerhood, they will put things in their mouths. This is how they learn about the objects they're handling. So, while you don't want babies chewing on bits of paper and dust bunnies, you don't want to limit children's freedom to mouth toys and handle them without restriction. This includes books. Make sure the infant-toddler room includes books that are okay for children to chew on.

In preparing the infant-toddler environment strive for a balance between calm security and interesting sensory experiences. Too much is too much. But too sterile is no better. Make sure that infants and toddlers get outdoors frequently - every day, if possible.

Although it sounds silly, sometimes a periodic crawl around the environment will give you a sense of what it looks like to children.  Ask yourself: Is it colorful? Is there a variety of textures? Are things displayed at an appropriate level?  Is furniture the right size?  Is it pleasing to the parents and staff as well as the children in care?  Are there enough materials for children to use in their daily work and can they access the materials independently? 

While interacting with children, watch carefully for their level of involvement.  Do they appear absorbed and engaged with the selection of materials and activities?  Or are there some children who appear bored or uninspired?  Perhaps some children need a greater challenge or a different type of activity, need to create or use their imagination more, or feel lonely or overwhelmed.  Or perhaps there is simply not enough of a popular material or toy. Taking into consideration the availability of developmentally-appropriate materials, the needs of individual children, and the way your setting is organized can help you maintain a fun, inspiring setting. 

Indoor & Outdoor Activities

I once watched a group of juvenile squirrels jump from a  cherry tree onto a hammock, then roll  off onto an overturned canoe, and slide onto the ground... then scramble back up the tree. And again... and again... and again.

This was definitely play. But how did it happen? What - besides the squirrels' own ingenuity - made it possible?

The "Prepared Environment"

What is it about learning experiences that makes them "arranged correctly"? How can you, as a classroom teacher, encourage play to happen and, along with the play, encourage learning at the same time?

Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who created the Montessori Method of early instruction, talks about "the prepared environment." By that she means a setting in which the activities a teacher wants to promote and the lessons she wants to teach are attractively presented and require little or no teacher explanation, so that children can interact with them independently and enjoy doing so. Notice that these criteria are necessary for play, too.

If I had wanted to encourage the little squirrels nesting in my backyard to learn how to run and jump, I might have strung a hammock under their tree and placed an upside-down canoe under the hammock. I didn't do that - it was just an accident that things were arranged this way. But for you, in charge of the more important work of guiding young children, will arrange things carefully.

So what does a good classroom - one that encourages play and, therefore, encourages learning - include? The Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale suggests that a good classroom for young children includes 

1. Furniture for routine care, play and learning

2. Furnishings for relaxation and comfort

3. Room arrangement for play

4. Space for privacy

5. Child-related display areas

6. Space for gross motor play

7. Gross motor equipment

It also suggests that the space be equipped to encourage art, music and movement, block play, play with sand and water, dramatic play, exploration of nature and science, and opportunities to count and measure. Most authorities also believe that space should be available for interaction with technology as well.

The well-prepared classroom environment includes these things but it includes something else that's even more important: the freedom to play and explore. And the space says "jump right in and play" all by itself. The classroom invites play.

So how do you do that? You are invited to figure that out, using a really neat online tool, in activity 4.2. 

Outdoor Play

Outdoor play is just as important as indoor play. Children of all ages benefit greatly from being out in the wide world. Some authorities even argue that daily outdoor time is essential for physical health and brain development.

But just providing playground time isn't enough. Without careful planning on your part, children can get hurt while playing outside or even go missing! Here are some factors to keep in mind.

The space itself. The outdoor play space should be large enough to provide at least 75 square feet per child for the maximum number of children who use the space at any one time. Naturally, the surface should be smooth and resilient, not slippery, and free from glass, tree roots and other hazards. Keep in mind that children will run and may lose control, so watch out for windows, buildings, and hard edges they might run into. Fencing is essential to keep children in and others out.

Ideally, the space should provide some shade on sunny days and shelter on rainy ones. It's lovely if there is access to water. Storage for toys and equipment keeps things neat.

Supervision. When children are playing outdoors, at least two adults should be present so that there is always backup if something goes wrong. (Of course, required child/staff ratios must be observed even when outside.) It's important that the adults take their jobs seriously, even outdoors, keeping active attention on the children at all times. This is not a good time to chat together or relax!

Count children out to the playground, count children frequently while on the playground, and count children back in. There is never an excuse for losing track of a child.

Injury prevention. It's important to maintain standards of behavior even outdoors, to avoid wild and violent play that can lead to injuries. Take time at the start of the school year to teach what is appropriate behavior outside and the importance of keeping everyone safe.

Use your imagination to see what children might do with equipment and the trouble they might get into. Be ready to warn or redirect children who might get into unsafe situations. Remember that everything seems to go wrong at once, so keep your eye on everyone even while you manage a specific situation.

Fix dangers promptly. Even if your center has a maintenance person, it's your job to notice broken equipment or unsafe conditions and take steps to fix the problem immediately or to block it off until a permanent fix can be made. Scan the area when you first get outside with the children, to notice dangers than might have appeared since the day before. 

At the same time that you are taking your role very seriously, remember that outdoor play is valuable because children are free to explore outdoors. It's not helpful to be so restrictive that children don't have any fun and don't get the value being outside brings. Keep it safe but also keep it fun.

What Happens How & Where?

Consider again your role as teacher. If children learn through play and in interaction with materials and each other, what are you supposed to do. "Free play" isn't free time for you. You have things to do!

Supporting Learning Behind the Scenes

Because your teaching role is really one of facilitator, not leader, your actions are subtle and timely. To engage children in active, meaningful learning it is important that your actions:

  • Foster positive self-identity and a sense of emotional well-being.

  • Develop children's social skills and knowledge.

  • Encourage children to think critically, ask questions and experiment.

  • Enhance children's physical development and skills.

  • Encourage children's creative expression.

  • Support and celebrate cultural diversity and children's individual interests and needs.

You do all this by being a careful observer. Remember that learning happens at the zone of proximal development, so it's important that activities be not too easy and not too hard but just right. 

Instead of simply supplying "right answers," you ask children meaningful questions that will help them think things through and come to their own conclusions. 

Instead of restricting activities to "just the girls" or "only the boys" or to just one age group or to only "the right way" to do things, you are open to children's interests and supportive of their experimentation and exploration within safe limits.

Most of all, let yourself be curious. Wonder and marvel right along with the children. Support playful learning by learning playfully yourself!

Play and Social-Emotional Development

One of the reasons why teachers are tempted to control play tightly so that it's not really play at all is that free play leads to disputes between kids. Certainly if children have to follow a strict plan all day and do only as they are told, there will be few opportunities for them to interact with each other.

But learning how to get along with others is an important aspect of early education and care. Play is important not only because it supports intellectual and motor skills but because it supports social and emotional development too.

We will talk more about managing behavior in later units. But for now, let's look at the question of how play happens between children. Is it okay for only some children to be permitted to play? Is it okay for children to exclude others?

Research has shown that children who are rejected by other kids are hurt by this. The hurt is felt in the moment, of course, but it also lingers. Rejected children think of themselves differently than do included children and their diminished self-images persist into elementary school.

Teachers have a responsibility to encourage inclusion. The environment can be prepared to reflect the cultural and family perspectives of the class. Every child should "see" himself reflected in class activities and in the opportunities provided for play.

Vivian Paley addressed the problem of inclusion and rejection in her short book, You Can't Say "You Can't Play." And excerpt from the book is included among the Additional Resources above. That excerpt forms the basis of activity 4.3.

Order Leads to More Order

One other issue some adults have with children's play is that it's messy and chaotic. But it doesn't have to be that way.

When you plan your classroom, pay close attention to how materials will be stored. Cluttered surroundings lead to more clutter and also distract children's thinking. Keep your room neat and orderly and your class will be more serene.

Feature activities in rotation, not everything all at once. While you certainly need enough toys and equipment to support your entire class, you don't need to display all the materials you own. Fewer things available leads to more creative play and helps in developing children's attention and focus.

Keep a regular schedule so the day is predictable and orderly. Allow enough time in each segment of the day to include getting ready and putting things away afterwards. Strive to be unhurried and unhurrying. Young children often struggle with transitions from one activity to the next. Take the time needed to make these transitions gracefully.

Think things through. A cute activity you read about might be a disaster if you haven't considered the need for smocks, floor protection, a place to wash hands, and a location to set things to dry. Imagine what is likely to happen, including how individual children are likely to react, and plan carefully.

How do you know you're doing play right? You know because children are eager to get started, calmly cooperative with each other most of the time, deeply engaged in what they are doing, and having fun. And you are having fun too! 

Setting Goals

Once you've started making observations and keeping records of them, you'll need to do something with all that information. Ask yourself, "What does the children's behavior say about what's working and what's not?" Based on what you see, set goals for your own teaching and for children's learning and development.

Individualizing. Being a teacher is sort of a juggling act. You've got to keep your eyes on the whole performance at the same time that you're tracking each individual ball. Keeping all the balls in the air means paying attention to the whole picture and to each part. So while you will plan activities for the class as a whole and prepare the environment for everyone to explore, you will also have in mind what each individual child needs. Your observations will help you do that. 

Sometimes teachers or administrators get caught up in meeting external standards. They may feel under pressure to teach every child the letters of the alphabet, for example, and this pressure makes them see the goal more than they see each child. Teachers who fall into this trap start to blame the kids who are behind instead of observing more closely what's going on and why things aren't working for everyone.

It's easy to fall into this trap when you're using a curriculum that markets itself as being "perfect for every child." As you know, every child is different. There is no one-size-fits-all plan. You have to use your powers of observation and thinking to adapt the curriculum to meet individual needs.

Individualizing seems impossible if you believe your teaching role is to be the center of attention. Obviously, you can't direct instruction for 16 or 20 individual children all day long - there's just one of you, not 16 or 20 of you. If you remember that it's children's role to interact with the environment you've prepared and your role to watch them do it and tweak things once in a while when you see a "teachable moment," the idea of individualizing seems more do-able. Even interesting and fun.

Involving Parents. One of the reasons you will keep records of your observations is so you can share these with parents. Remember that moms and dads will rely on you to know all about their child and to have goals for him or her. Moms and dads are not so interested in what you're doing for the whole class. They want to know how their child is doing and how you're helping him develop. 

Your observation records will help you there. But they also provide you with an opening for conversation. Do the parents see the same things at home that you see at school? Do they share your concerns and see the same accomplishments that you do, or does it seem like each of you sees different aspects of the same child? When you share information about a child based on what you've actually seen, you open the door for parents to look more closely too.

Children do better when home and school have the same goals. There's no reason why you need to carry the burden of child development all by yourself. It's important, actually, to let parents in on what their child needs to learn next and to work on these goals together. And it's equally important that you listen to what parents want their child to learn next. When you work together, the child you and parents care for will do better.

Managing Time

Part of a prepared environment is invisible, even though it's very important. I'm talking here about how the day is organized. The shape of the day communicates what's important.

he Daily Schedule. We all like to know what's coming next. Surprises are fun, but not all the time, every day. So having a daily schedule helps the children as much as it helps the teacher. A schedule helps children feel secure. A schedule help you concentrate on the children, instead of on activities. 

Your choice of the main focus of the day and your choice of how much of the day is devoted to what activities signal to the children and to everyone else what you think is important. Just as the physical arrangement of furniture sends a message, so too does the way you plan the time.

Traditional activities in the preschool classroom include free play, circle time, snack, outdoor play, read-aloud. But what comes first, second, third?

  • What of these do you automatically imagine is the activity done first?

  • How would the day be different if each of the other activities were the first of the day?

  • How does the way the day is arranged make things go more smoothly for everyone?

Oftentimes teacher-planned art projects happen during free play, with small groups of children pulled away to work at a table. Sometimes read-aloud happens after outdoor play, as a way to bring the group together again and settle kids down. Sometimes - especially with a very small group - activities are fluid throughout the day, as they might be at home.

Transitions. Many children have difficulty with transitions. They have trouble stopping one thing and starting another. If a transition also includes cleaning up or lining up, making the change smoothly and without tears takes time and attention.

In your daily planning, allow adequate time for getting materials out, cleaning up messes, and putting things away. Think ahead to make certain you know how these will happen. Remember that the act of creating order is satisfying - children, especially,like putting things into place - so that cleaning up and putting away are part of the activity and part of the learning. Plan for this.

If children must be lined up - to go outdoors, to go to lunch, or to go home - think through how this can be managed without disorder and disagreements. Your classroom should be a place of good feelings and self-discipline. Make sure that's not undermined by the process of getting people one place to another.

And, remember that most children (and adults!) want a little warning when an activity is about to end. A transition happens more smoothly when everyone knows it's coming and can wrap up what they've been doing. Really, it's just common courtesy to let everyone know.

Staying Flexible

Having lessons plans is important. But those lesson plans must be based on your knowledge of your children as a group and of each individual child. Your lesson plans must look forward towards worthy goals that are developmentally appropriate. Your lesson plans fit into your daily schedule in ways that signal what is important. 

But... the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, it's been said, and anyone who's worked any time with a group of children can tell you this is very true. Remember, your task is to teach children, not to teach lessons. Where the children are on any given day is your starting point. Your lesson plans are your best guess of how the day will play out. Sometimes, to teach the children at the point where they are, you have to toss out the plan and do what seems necessary.

So being flexible is important. And while you're being flexible, be observant. That's what being a teacher is really all about.