I specialise in working with a wide range of partners from architects to educators, to help develop effective learning spaces. About 15 years ago I developed The Communication Friendly Spaces™ Approach (CFS ) which essentially expands our understanding of how learning environments, wherever they are, affect us all. It offers us a framework to help us review and re-think the learning contexts that we offer, to make sure that we are setting the scene as effectively as we can for learning to take place. I always say that we need to challenge historical thinking about learning environments based on our new understanding of brain development, language acquisition, physical development and attachment theory. We need fresh eyes!
Central to the review process is for practitioners/ teachers to understand that the physical space should be a practical representation of their shared vision and pedagogy. Not enough teams that I meet are clear about their pedagogy which means they miss this critical link and don’t develop consistency throughout their space. Another key factor is to tune into the environment from the learner’s perspective. What is it like to be a child here? What does it look like, feel like, sound like and smell like? We need to understand this if we are going to understand the way that children respond. Observing the way that children react to the space is important. Talking to them about places they like and don’t like can really inform thinking so that you make meaningful changes accounting for the interests and needs of the children using the space now.
I’ve worked with the CFS™ Approach for such a long time that its principles are deeply embedded in my thinking. This helps when I’m visiting a new environment, which always triggers a range of feelings, questions and possibilities. I visit settings and schools all the time and it’s something that excites me as I always learn something new from each visit. I’m aware that I’m often influenced by environments even before I get there, because I’ve been ‘receiving information’ about the place and people in the lead up. Those phone calls and emails to arrange my visit and also checking out the setting's or school's web presence all indicate the sort of place I’m heading to and inform my perceptions. They are important gauges for everyone who visits, not just me. It’s worth checking that they are a true reflection of what you stand for.
No matter where I’m working, in whatever country, culture or context, the same sorts of questions (and hundreds more!) automatically run through my head as I prepare for my visit, as I make my approach, upon arrival and as I enter that learning environment. In this piece, I’m going to share just some of the things that I notice, focusing on an often overlooked aspect of a setting or school; ‘the way in’. I hope these questions will help you to review your provision with fresh eyes. When you have worked in a place for some time it’s so easy to stop noticing things. Sometimes it can be helpful to have an outsider’s perspective. Buddying up with another local setting/ school can be a good way to do this, perhaps visiting each other’s context and using some of the questions below to trigger thinking and structure discussion.
So, before I even get to the setting or school, I always like to look round the surrounding area. What’s the local context like? Is it urban or rural? Are there green spaces or places that encourage families to play outside? Are there shops, is there a community centre and what are the local facilities for families? What is the status of the setting/ school locally? Does the community know that this school or setting exists? No school or setting exists in isolation and the connection with community is crucial. How does the setting/ school communicate with the community? Is it a two-way process? Is communication inclusive in style and accessible? Do people know how to get to the school or setting? For those of us who attend regularly, this may seem a straightforward process, but if you are new it might be unclear. How could you raise the profile of your setting/ school within the community?
On arrival at the setting/ school I often pause and watch families going in. It’s interesting to see how eager children are. As I walk towards the entrance I always take time to notice my experience of the way in. Not only the process of how to access entry, which can often be confusing but if it reflects an outward facing pedagogy? What does this external environment tell me about the school or setting I am about to ‘meet’? Do I get a flavour of what I’m going to experience in this setting or school? How is this experience getting me in the right frame of mind for my visit? Do I feel curious, interested, excited? Is there anything here that I can relate to? Does this space indicate that people are welcome to gather, linger and connect with each other here?
Entering a learning environment can be the most stressful part of a child’s day, when cortisol levels run high. There is so much readily available research about this. Is this understood by staff? How are families being observed and supported through this process? What’s it like going in there as a parent/carer with a child? What does the welcome feel like? How are you greeted as you arrive and do the surroundings invite you to stay and feel part of this school or setting? Do you feel like a visitor, separate to the learning community or part of it? Who makes eye contact and says hello? Does anyone? Do the staff realise the impact of this?
Personal interactions are important to notice. Does the connection with families differ at certain times of the day? Are some opportunities for connection missed or rushed? Importantly, are families positive about leaving their child at the school or setting?
Where do children leave ‘their stuff’? Being able to access personal belongings is important as these transitional objects connect home and the setting/ school. How do you manage this?
When observing, I always like to track staff. Has routine overtaken teachers and practitioners ‘presence’? Has engagement with the children been diluted by administrative or logistical type tasks? Do some adults use this to disconnect with the children? Is being ‘too busy’ the status quo? Do routines run the day or is there an attitude of flexibility and responsiveness which means that accommodating interests and needs becomes a fluid practice? Is there a culture of enquiry here? Are the staff team engaged in action research? Is this evident across the whole team or is it just in ‘pockets’?
Who is taking care of this space inside and out? Is there a sense of pride in the environment? Is the learning environment dirty? Does it smell? What message is that sending? Does this space need a tidy or de-clutter to facilitate curiosity and developmentally appropriate independent resource selection? Does it look like there are some interesting things going to happen today or is it more of ‘the usual’? In terms of the resources on offer, are they connected to the children’s current fascinations? Are they open-ended and full of possibilities? Are there things here that I’ve never seen before? Can I touch things? Is the outside area open, prepared and ready to use?
Authentic furniture helps build the connection between home and the setting/ school. What is the range of furniture like? Is there any character in it or is it all the same? Is there any up-cycling? Are there interesting textures and cultural reference perhaps in fabrics choices?
How inclusive is the communication with parents/carers and how is it presented? Is sensitive information about children’s individual needs inappropriately made available by displaying it on the wall? I see that a lot. Has information on display boards been updated and reviewed recently? Is the language that is being used clear and unambiguous? Does it make sense to me?
Can I see the colour of the walls? What and how much ‘visual noise’ is on the walls, screens and display boards? Is it developmentally appropriate? Is it accessible for children or are staff just decorating the place? Whose expectations are being fulfilled here? How old are the displays? Who has the responsibility for this?
How does it feel to leave this learning environment? Who notices that I’m going? How does this interaction end? Do I want to return? What’s the way out like? Has transition out been considered? What do I remember about that learning environment? What did I discover for the first time?
This snapshot of thoughts and questions is really just a starting point. I always encourage people to remember the child and parent/carer perspective, which is key. Take time to look with fresh eyes at your environment, perhaps using some of these questions above as you start to consider the way in to your space and identify areas for development, whilst also celebrating what’s working well.
All photographs are copyright and are credited to ©Elizabeth Jarman
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Elizabeth JarmanElizabeth is an award winning learning environments expert. She has a background in teaching and led several UK training programmes for teachers and practitioners on behalf of the Department for Education. She has a wealth experience in developing Family Programmes and was the lead UK consultant working with UNESCO to set up projects across Europe. Elizabeth is currently collaborating on learning environment projects in the UK as well as projects in Malaysia, Thailand, Jordan and The UAE.
Edited by Rebecca