Scouting for a School Series (SSS): The Learning Environment

We have discussed the school’s learning environment, but let’s discuss it in the parent’s persepective in looking for a school for their children. I have seen schools with very expensive surroundings but with a very weak curriculum. Don’t judge a school with its chairs, tables, expensive toys and playgrounds. Even if a school has these things, if their curriculum is weak and they do not have a clear philosophy, then they are just a glorified daycare center. I have also seen schools with very humble learning materials but have very strong curricula, definite philosophies, and great teachers. These resources outweigh the physical all the time.

The important thing you should watch out for is cleanliness and maintenance for the furniture and classrooms. Are the chairs and tables well-maintained? Are the walls of the rooms clean? Is there a variety of learning materials — puzzles, blocks, toy animals? Is the reading area well-stocked with books? I highlight this because there are many schools that say they are literature-based but have very few books in the reading area because of cost-cutting! Their philosophy should be congruent to the learning environment.

The classrooms should also be big enough for the class size. The children should have space to move around the different learning areas.

Most importantly, the progressive classroom is a decentralized classroom. It is divided into learning areas namely, a Manipulatives area where the the blocks, puzzles and other table top materials are located, the Activity Area where the tables and chairs are (this doubles up as the Eating Area), a Reading Area (which hopefully, is stocked with books… I’ve seen Reading Areas that can hardly be called as such), etc. For a more detailed description of these areas, go to our posts about Learning Environment.

The Learning Environment 4: The Work Area

The Progressive Preschool Classroom’s Work Area is usually where the tables and chairs are. The height of the chairs and tables should be proportionate to the height of the children. Based from our experience, we do not use plastic stackable chairs now for very young children because they are too light to hold the usually active toddler and tumble over and they are too short for the older kids. They are suited to 3-4 year olds who can sit down longer and can balance better. Worrying that they would fall when they move gives added anxiety to the child while working.

The tables are usually long ones to accommodate at least 4 children at a time. This can accommodate both individual and group work. The shape of the tables may vary. If the space permits it, having a semi-circular table helps to have the teacher sit in the inner arc while managing the students seated facing her. However, this requires too much space. Same goes with circular tables, they require much space.

A. There should be more than one table in the classroom, regardless of class size. Why?

1. It is possible to separate the tables to group students during activities. Each table can be labeled to form as a tool for categorizing. For example, there is one blue table and one red table (in the case of having tables of the same color, you can just tape a red circle in the middle of one and a blue circle in the middle of the other).The students can be seated by gender or by the color of their shirts or even by ages. The teacher can also use this to privately sort the children who are having a harder time in one table and those with advanced activities in the other (I say privately because, in this case, you shouldn’t tell your students that you’re classifying by skill level). This activity alone is a visual way in strengthening organizational, categorizing and sorting skills.

2. It is possible to move the tables around to change the orientation of the classroom. The progressive classroom is a flexible classroom. The lay out is tailor fit to the needs of the children and the curriculum. If for example, a table in the housekeeping area is needed to simulate preparing dinner, a table from the work are can be moved there.

B. The area should be near the shelves containing the work activities. I think this is pretty obvious. At home, the shelf containing dishes is not put far from the dining area, right?

C. The area is usually the eating area too.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of the word work gives us an idea of what work means in a progressive preschool classroom. It is a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity. It is a part of the whole class apart from the other routines that happen in a class period. These routines will be discussed in Temporal Environment.

5 Life Skills a Child Learns in the Playground

One would normally think that a child only develops his gross motor skills in the playground. Aside from the development of motor skills, certain life skills or socio-emotional skills are learned in the playground. A child needs to learn to cope with his feelings and he also needs to learn how to respect the feelings of others. The playground is THE place to cultivate such skills. Why? The playground represents the world for a child. How the child relates with other children in the playground reflects how the child relates with people in general.

1. Building Self-Esteem. The best way to build self-esteem is to give opportunities for child to succeed… and to fail. Yup, you read it right — to fail. When a child faces the monkey bars for the first time, fear settles in. He tells himself, “How can I possibly swing from those?”. He tries it and falls on the first bar. He avoids the monkey bars but is faced with it everyday during Outdoor Play Time. And so he tries again and falls again. He then decides to swing in it everyday until he swings on every bar and jumps from it like a gymnast. This is a great teaching moment for the teacher too. Whenever this child faces difficulty in any other school activity, the teacher can always encourage him by saying “Remember the time when you couldn’t swing in the monkey bars?” The child remembers and has more confidence in taking risks, failing, practicing and eventually succeeding. As the song goes, “But I got to pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again..” I think the writer wrote this in a playground!

2. Connecting with others. Toddlers usually engage in parallel play or playing side by side but not with each other. As they grow, they learn to interactively play with other children. They learn to come up to their classmates and ask them to play or join a group in a game of tag. The playground gives such opportunities. Games usually played in playgrounds require more than 2 children — whether it be tag (or habulan in Filipino), hide and seek (or Taguan in Filipino) or just simply making a sand castle.

3. Resolving Conflict. As in any life situation, conflict is usually present in the playground. This is usually brought about by different behaviors, attitudes and upbringing. Creating the conflict is easy. Resolving it takes skill. And this skill can be learned in the playground. What I love about conflict is it’s the ultimate teaching moment. The goal for conflict resolution is peace. When a child is in conflict with another child in the playground, this can result to the game ending abruptly or the creation of enemies — things that a child does not like to happen. And so to avoid these effects, a child learns to temper down and get along with others. Now how can we teach adults the same thing?!

4. Taking Turns. Oh how the world would change if everyone knew how to wait their turn! This skill should be developed early on. A child comes from an egocentric stage before entering school. He thinks that everything is his and he can use anything he likes at any given time. When he plays in the playground with other children, he realizes that there are others who also want to play with the slide, the swing, the shovel, the monkey bars, etc. And so the battle begins.. The progressive teacher then sets the rules of taking turns. What?! The child exclaims. I have to wait?! The teacher then asks him “What if your classmates used it the whole time without giving you your turn? What would you feel?” The child thinks, “I wouldn’t want THAT to happen?” A great teaching moment, indeed.

5. Standing ground. As much as I don’t like bullies, I’m also saddened with push-overs. Upon learning the first 4 life skills, a child needs to reinforce it by standing his ground. Learning to defend one’s self is a skill that every child should strengthen. This prepares them not only for self-preservation but also as an early defensive skill. This also shows how he values himself, his identity and his territory.

I specifically injected the role of the progressive teacher in some of the life skills to stress a point. Just because the students are in the playground, it doesn’t mean that the teacher is free to stay in the classroom. The progressive teacher is also in the playground with them to facilitate teaching moments like these.

So the next time you see children in the playground, join them. We not only need the exercise, we also need a refresher course on these life skills!

The Learning Environment Part 4: The Outdoor Play Area

In the Philippines, the dilemma of most preschools is space. Most specially, the space allotted for outdoor play or the school playground. Most of the schools I visited had limited playground elements for their outdoor play area. One school does not even have outdoor play time daily because of the lack of space. One suggestion of the Department of Education, which they included in their DECS Order No. 107 “Standard for the Organization and Operation of Preschools” is:

“Space for playground must be provided, otherwise, easy and safe access to the
nearest part or open space not more than 200 meters walking distance from the
school site may be presented as an alternative.  This arrangement must be approved
in writing by the authorized representatives of the park or open space.”

The playground in our school is composed of monkey bars, slides and jungle gyms placed on an area covered with sand to break the imminent trips and falls. Two containers of water are nearby for water play. Plants are all around for shade.

Outdoor play time is often thought of as unimportant however, there are a lot things a child can learn from playing outdoors. Children as young as toddlers and thorugh the primary years much prefer the adventure or creative playground, spaces that have a variety of fixed and movable equipment (Campbell & Frost, 1985).

What can a child learn in playing outdoors? Watch out for the next post…

The Learning Environment Part 3: The Manipulatives Area

One of the favorite areas in a progressive classroom is the place for Manipulatives. The learning materials in this area are wooden blocks of different colors and sizes, block accessories like people, animals and vehicles,  table puzzles and construction toys. For Infants and Toddlers, there may be push-pull toys, nesting toys or soft blocks. For Primary School age children, accessories can be diversified and math and science materials can be added.

This area is considered a “noisy” area therefore it should not be beside a “quiet” area like the Reading Area. It should be spacious for children for pretend play.

A lot of schools regard this area as unimportant. However, teachers in a progressive school highly regard this space because it is a venue for children’s creativity (block towers), for children’s cognitive abilities to strengthen (puzzles) and most specially, it’s a chance for interactive play between the children. The learning materials in this area can also be matched with the class’ curriculum. For example, if the class is talking about animals, animal toys can be used as counters or for block pretend play.

The Learning Environment Part 2: The Meeting Area

The Meeting Area is where the teacher calls on the students to sit and listen to morning messages, sing class songs and listen to a book being read (usually called Circle or Big Group Time).

The children sit as a group in front of a blackboard or an easel. The blackboard or easel serve as the Message Board.

It is usually a big space where all the children can meet, greet and share experiences in a larger grouping. It is an area of discussions on interests or concepts, posing and answering questions, sharing outputs and experiences, and enjoying music and movement activities as a way of easing through transitions and routines (UP Family Life and Child Development ECE Seminar Handout, 2003).

Some schools use a whiteboard instead of a blackboard. Personally, I like blackboards more 🙂

In our school, this is how we set up the Meeting Area.

  • Aside from the blackboard, we have a meeting mat. In the past, we would use a large piece of plastic cover — enough space for all the kids to sit on comfortably on the floor. However, since our school became GREEN, we now use recycled tarpaulin banners for our mats. We tape on shapes, animals, or the children’s names on the mat so the children know where to sit during meeting time. How crucial is this mat? Very! Meeting Time usually comes after Free Play. The children need to “own” their space in this area after playing around the room during Free Play. The unrolling of the mat serves as their transition or cue that the next block of time is about to start. Seeing their shape, animal or name on the mat signals them to go to the area and take a seat. For older kids, lines of masking tape will suffice to demarcate where the children will sit. The goal is to have a visual sign to prompt the children where to sit.
  • For music to sing with the morning songs, we place speakers attached to the wall and placed at a high level so the children won’t be able to touch it. It is attached to a simple mp3 player to rid the teacher of cumbersome cassettes or CDs.
  • There is also a customized calendar. For younger kids, the numbers are printed on paper and the children take turns daily in putting each date. The older kids have a blank calendar wherein they write the date (the calendar alone strengthens fine motor and number identification).
  • A sample of the morning message written on the board is as follows

Today is ____________ (day of the week)

August ____, 2008 (date)

It is a ____________ day (weather)

We are ________________ today (activity for the day)

The words on the blank spaces are written by the children with the help of the teacher. There’s usually a song the precedes each line like for example, the class sings Days of the Week before putting the day on the blank space.

The Meeting Area is a great place for the children to settle down and interact with each other and with the teacher. It is a place where they can be spontaneous while telling a story of what happened to them at home and it can also be informative as the teacher reads a story and presents a concept.

The Progressive Preschool Classroom

In the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (Rev Ed) by Harms, Clifford and Cryer, schools are rated according to several concepts. Under Room arrangement for play, the preschool will fail in rating if it has no learning centers defined. A Learning/Interest Area was defined as an area where materials, organized by type, are stores so that they are accessible to children, and appropriately furnished play space is provided for children to participate in a particular kind of play. Examples of areas are art, blocks, dramatic play, reading, nature / science, and manipulatives / fine motor.

Aside from having more than 3 learning areas, the preschool will score highly if:

  • Quiet and Active centers placed to not interfere with one another (Ex. reading or listening area separated from blocks or housekeeping
  • Space is arranged so most activities are not interrupted (Ex. shelves placed so children walk around, not through, activities; placement of furniture discourages rough play or running)
  • Areas are organized for independent use by children (Ex. labeled open shelves; labeled containers for toys; open shelves are not overcrowded; play space near toy storage).
  • Sufficient space for several activities to go on once (Ex. floor space for blocks, tables space for manipulatives, easel for art)

Watch out for articles explaining each learning area…

The Learning Environment Part 1: The Reading Area

The learning environment is a key element of a school’s curriculum design. The planning of a school’s physical space should coordinate with its goals and philosophy. The traditional classroom has all the student’s chairs facing the blackboard and the teacher. The classroom set up of a progressive school though are demarcated instead by different learning areas or decentralized, allowing the children and teacher to move around each area.

The learning areas are usually the following:

1. Reading Area

It houses the books of the classroom usually on low shelves with book covers out. A mat is usually found in front of the shelves in order for the students to assume any comfortable position while reading.

One of my frustrations when I was observing schools is the scarcity of books available in this area. I understand that books are a big investment and school directors often choose to keep the “good” books out of children’s reach for fear of them being torn or destroyed. However, the love of reading can only be developed if books are made available to the children. In our school, we set up a Library Program Fee that the parents pay in the beginning of the year. This allows the child to borrow a book from the Reading Area and the School Library. If their child did not lose or damage a book, the parents have an option of getting the fee back or donating it to the school to improve the Library facilities.

Book choices in this area stem from the class theme and students’ interests. There should also be a conscious effort to include culture based books. For example, a progressive Filipino classroom should have Filipino story books in its shelves. Adarna House and Tahanan Books have great Filipino writers under their roofs! The process of reading for a child begins in being read-aloud to. Jim Trelease has a great book called The Read Aloud Handbook that informs parents and teachers the value of reading out loud to children and lists down book suggestions by kind, level and age

The Reading Area may be a corner, a bookshelf or a box of books.

Your Reading Area is progressive if:

1. It has enough books for every child to choose 2-3 books to read (the number of students you have multiplied by 2)

2. It contains developmentally-appropriate books.

3. There are books related to the class’ theme and the children’s interests.

4. There are culture-based books.

5. The children can borrow the books.

6. A teacher is present to read the books to the children.

7. The children are allowed to TOUCH the books!