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Are you observing your learning environment as much as you are observing your children?

I’m fortunate to travel with my work and meet a lot of interesting professionals. I love sharing The Communication Friendly Spaces™ Approach and its principles, also having lots of conversations about learning spaces. Similar kinds of questions and statements often come up. Sometimes it’s perhaps because people are overlooking the way that the learning environment contributes directly to behaviours and responses in a setting or school. Sometimes, assumptions are made about the child, rather than the context. For example I regularly hear comments like ‘they just can’t concentrate!’ or ‘they completely ignore the resources set out inside and go outside’. Both of these statements comment on something lacking in the child, things they can’t, didn’t or couldn’t do, with no reflection on the broader factors at play here. What was affecting the child’s level of concentration and what did outside offer that inside didn’t?

To explain what I mean further, I thought that I’d share some of the sorts of questions and statements that I hear regularly and add in my responsive questions to encourage colleagues to delve down into what is really happening. I’m not intending to offer ‘a solution’, but a chance for people to consider more deeply the contributing factors in each scenario and prompt reflection on the influence of the learning environment. My responses follow the questions.

Question/Statement 1

‘When the children arrive, they just come in and run around the place causing chaos’

o   Why?

o   What are the children’s needs at this time?

o   Does your environment offer match these needs?

o   How might the physical layout of your setting be contributing to this response? Have you inadvertently created a ‘running track’? An invitation to sprint?

o   Where are the adults? How ‘available’ and engaged are they really?

o   What is your emotional state as you welcome the families? What emotions and feelings might you be giving out?

o   Who is there to help the children connect with the environment on offer?

o   What sort of transition into your setting do you intend to create? Are you delivering this?

o   Where is the most popular place that children visit first as they arrive? Why?

o   What may have already happened in this child’s day? How might this be contributing?

o   How are your families supported to arrive and then separate? How does this differ for various families?

o   How does your environment indicate that families are welcome and that they can stay, leave or hover after their children have transitioned into your care?


Question/Statement 2

‘They simply can’t concentrate for any length of time’

o   How easy would you find it to concentrate in this space? shutterstock_337753325.jpg

o   What takes your attention away?

o   Does noise play a factor?

o   Does the flow of movement make concentrating more difficult? What (or who) is encouraging this distracting flow? Is it necessary?

o   Could some type of screening be added to support deeper and longer concentration?

o   How long would you expect your children to concentrate for? Is this developmentally appropriate? In what ideal circumstances? Are your circumstances ideal? How could you make them more so?

o   Are the learning experiences on offer worth the effort of concentrating? Do they take account of children’s current fascinations and interests?

o   Why is there a lack of engagement?

o   Are the adults concentrating? Are they worth copying?


Question/Statement 3

‘In what ways could The Communication Friendly Spaces™ Approach be relevant to babies?’

o   Have you crawled around the area that your babies spend most of their time in?babies_playing_.jpg

o   How does it feel, smell and look from their perspective?

o   Are there any draughts?

o   What does it feel like when the doors open and close?

o   How hard are your floors? Where is the softness in your space?

o   When the babies lie on their backs in the base room or changing area, are they looking directly up at an electric, artificial light?

o   Are there any small spaces for your babies to feel a sense of containment and a place to watch from?

o   Where are key adults?

o   Is the focus just on personal routines or quality interactions?

o   Where can families sit and settle in your baby area?

o   How many of your children share a preference for the same type of space? How does this answer your question about individual spaces?

o   Do the children use outside differently to inside? Do you notice more communication, engagement, concentration etc in either of these spaces?

o   What is your preferred area in this space? Why? What does it fulfil for you?

o   What is the quality of play in your setting? Is it contemplative, alone, active, revisited, creative and risky?

o   Can play only take place when under the scrutiny of adults?


Question/Statement 5

‘We’ve not paid as much attention to our outside space, it’s more of an area to let off steam and use outside voices!’

o   What adult led messages have you already declared about the ‘perceived difference’ in these two areas?

o   Why? What is your rationale for this?

o   How has this influenced the children’s behaviour, understanding and expectations?

o   Based on your observations, what is the quality of engagement and learning outside?

o   What are you noticing children doing outside that they don’t do inside?

o   Where would you rather be?

o   What is an ‘outside voice’ and what is your purpose in signalling this?

o   How often do you have to repeatedly tell the children that it’s time to come in and yet they are deeply involved in play outside?

o   How does this compare with engagement inside?

o   Why haven’t you paid attention to outside?

o   What subtle messaging do you convey to families about the quality of outdoor play and activity?


Reflection is often deeper when we explore quality questions. Try not to keep asking the same questions, don’t avoid difficult or challenging questions, try to be open and use reflection as fuel for future development. Environments are never ‘done’. They need to evolve constantly so they remain responsive, relevant and current for the children using them now.

What questions do you have?



EJ1 (003) Pics for FAQs article.jpgFor more information please see www.elizabethjarman.com



Elizabeth Jarman
Elizabeth 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, Indonesia, Jordan and The UAE.

Edited by Jules

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