As the leaves begin to turn to their Autumnal wardrobe, my mind turns to the academic year ahead. I have been working as arts-educator now for fifteen years and this coming year I am working closely with a total of eight early years settings and primary schools. The one thing they all have in common is a passion and commitment to develop a rich learning environment for children to thrive.
It struck me today at how odd that term of ‘learning environment’ appears. It’s a phrase that often rolls off many an early educators’ tongue including my own! I mean, what kind of other environments are we really talking about? And do children only learn by being in an environment dedicated to learning or do they learn both with and in an environment, in a more complex and multimodal way? Are children subjects and subjected to learning or are they active constructors of learning?
I have worked in a wide variety of places from children’s secure units, to children’s hospices and every type of place where children inhabit and always I have found children who were deeply curious, inquisitive and inquiring and not all of these places had beautifully organized spaces either. Some would make dear Vea Vecchi from Reggio Emilia shudder at the sheer ugliness and indifference in some of the spaces for children, yet still, children were to be found trying to figure out the world around them.
The Early Years Foundations Stage in England (EYFS) refers to the idea of the ‘Enabling Environment’ and this creates pictures in my mind of weak children being supported on crutches that enable them to learn, as if they would be unable to learn without one, but they do, amazingly. The EYFS does take into account other aspects as qualities within an environment that make it enabling as such, including the methods in how we use observations to make meaningful plans and actions that are supportive of children’s learning and development and it underlines too the importance within this environment of working in partnership (another loaded word if ever there was one) with the wider community and context.
In Reggio Emilia they refer to the learning environment as the ‘third teacher’ and this comes closer to a better way of framing this as idea as it suggests that there are other aspects that teach too. Indeed, what is the first, second, fourth and fifth teachers of children?
I wonder if instead of thinking about learning environments, we instead consider first the learning processes of children and in this I mean how children actually construct knowledge rather than any preferred learning styles or preferences. Instead of planning our classrooms and schools out as identified areas for specific materials e.g. imaginative play, creative space, writing corner, maths resources and puzzle table etc we think first about how children learn and what it is that we do as educators that activates contexts for children to construct knowledge and values.
Vea Vecchi (2004) in Children, Art and Artists describes the idea of how as educators we should be creating,
“…situations within which creative processes can be experimented with, grow and evolve. This means devising and implementing generative contexts, paying attention to procedures, and creating the right conditions to allow the fruition of the creative process which is our aim to sustain stimulate.”
So, when considering the spaces that I inhabit with children, instead of considering them as spaces where different sorts of learning happens within, I will try to considers its deeper complexities and think about how the changes I make will help the growth and evolvement of knowledge and what it is that I need to do to make sure that those contexts are generative of learning.