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 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 Progressive Elementary Classroom

When I checked the statistics of this blog, a lot of searches that end up viewing the site is looking for the learning environment in a progressive elementary or grade school classroom.

Here in the Philippines, most classrooms have a traditional set up. Unfortunately, even some of the progressive schools have adopted a traditional set up wherein all the chairs are facing the teacher and have no opportunity to have learning centers or to be decentralized. Why? It costs less and the administration assumes that the class can be managed better. There is a way to make a classroom progressive in an efficient way.

In our school, we decided that the elementary students move from one classroom to another depending on their subject. Why?

1. Every classroom becomes one learning area and the students have an opportunity to visit each area. For example, the subjects Filipino and English are in one classroom called Communication Arts room.

2. Since each classroom is set-up as a learning area focused on that particular subject, the teacher of that subject can design his/her classroom to have elements to encourage learning for that subject. For example, here’s our Communication Arts room..

Yes, the teacher is in front and all the chairs are facing her however, check the varied the positions of the chairs and tables. The tables are long and can sit 4 students to encourage group work. They are movable in the event that the teacher needs to change the lay out of the classroom when the curriculum calls for it. She can move all the tables to the side and have one big group in the middle or separate the students into smaller groups.

Every classroom, regardless of subject, has a reading area. Even the Math and Science room has one. Why? A progressive classroom houses a progressive curriculum. A progressive curriculum is integrated, meaning all subjects are connected with one another (this is intended for another article in this blog). Since this is the Communication Arts room, it SHOULD have a reading area! This particular area have the all traits of a progressive reading area: covers out, varied titles, culture- and curriculum-based and the students can TOUCH the books!

Every classroom displays various projects of the students. Why the net? Here’s a tip: the net makes it easier to change displays because the projects are not taped to the wall. Those awful tape marks also add cost because you have to repaint your walls more often. Save in tape, save in paint 🙂

The learning environment is crucial to be parallel to the progressive curriculum. Let’s harness our teaching creativity to design a unique and progressive classroom even for the elementary-aged student!

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!

Curriculum Design: The Learning Environment

Browne (2000) define the school’s environment as the combination of the physical and human qualities, creating an area in which children and adults work and play together. In the study of Rios (2002) regarding predictors of effective preschool, wherein 94 private preschools from the National Capital Region were studied, the learning environment came out as the best predictor of effective preschool performance. It further explains that an effective learning area is a reflection of a good preschool administrator who is responsible in the over-all planning of the facility.

The physical setting is the equipment and learning materials, the classroom’s arrangement and the playground facilities. The planning of the physical space reflects the program’s goals and encourages play and interaction between children. The physical design also encourages the child’s self-confidence (Feeney, Christensen & Moravcik, 2000).

The progressive classroom exudes beauty and hominess (Washburne, 1952). The progressive classroom encourages more freedom of activity and more chances for exploration. The UP Child Development Center (UP-CDC) which espouses a developmental-interactive approach to progressive education breaks up its classrooms into learning areas (Alcantara, 1994). There is a math area, housekeeping area, a manipulatives area, an art area and a reading area. Cenedella’s article “Organizing a decentralized classroom” (as part of the DFLCD Early Childhood Education Seminar Workshop handout, 2002) defines breaking up the learning environment into different areas as the “decentralized classroom”. Cenedella states that a decentralized classroom reflects the Progressive stream. This set-up allows the teacher to manage the class in smaller groups, gives the children the opportunity to decide on an activity and allows the flow of learning to be fluid and uninterrupted because the various materials are available in their own distinct area.
The materials should reflect the philosophy of the school and respect the developmental needs of the children (Sciarra & Dorsey, 1995). Since the children’s interests are in focus, specially designed teacher-made materials are usually seen in progressive preschools. Not only are they tailor-made to fit the children and the curriculum but are economical for the preschool as well.

The learning environment also concerns the temporal setting or timing for transitions, the routines and the activities (Gordon & Williams-Browne, 2000). The UP¬CDC has a balance of quiet and active, group and individual plus outdoor and indoor activities. It is harmonious with DECS Order 107 in regards with allotting time for self-exploration and a balance of different activities as seen in the prescribed sample of activities.
The interpersonal setting of the environment is composed of the number and nature of teachers, ages and numbers of children, types and the style of teacher-child interactions (Gordon & Williams-Browne, 2000). The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the largest organization of early childhood professionals that is dedicated to improve the quality of services for children and their families, states in its “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs” (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) that the group size and ratio of teachers to children should be limited to allow individualized and age-appropriate programming. For example, a class of four-year-olds should have a maximum of 20 children with two teachers managing the class.

Thuermer (1999) says that a progressive classroom usually has an air of informality. The teacher’s voice is not the dominant one in the room but rather that of the children. The kids are often in small groups but even when they’re together, the whole-class discussion encourages the children to interact with one another.