Why is the Environment Important for Children's Learning?
The environment we are in affects our moods, ability to form relationships, effectiveness in work or play—even our health. In addition, the early childhood group environment has a very crucial role in children’s learning and development for two important reasons.
First, young children are in the process of rapid brain development. In the early years, the brain develops more synapses or connections than it can possibly use. Those that are used by the child form strong connections, while the synapses that are not used are pruned away. Children’s experiences help to make this determination. The National Scientific Council of the Developing Child compares the development of the brain to constructing a house stating, “Just as a lack of the right materials can result in blueprints that change, the lack of appropriate experiences can lead to alterations in genetic plans.” They further state, “Building more advanced cognitive, social, and emotional skills on a weak initial foundation of brain architecture is far more difficult and less effective than getting things right from the beginning” (2007, p. 1). Because children’s experiences are limited by their surroundings, the environment we provide for them has a crucial impact on the way the child’s brain develops (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007, p. 43).
The second reason that the early childhood group environment has such a strong role in children’s development is because of the amount of time children spend in these environments. Many children spend a large portion of their wakeful hours in early childhood group settings. For example, a baby beginning child care will spend up to 12,000 hours in the program. This is more time than he will spend in both elementary and secondary school (Greenman, 2005a, p. 1). Children will typically spend another 4,000 hours in kindergarten through third grade classrooms.
The early childhood environment that this baby enters will reflect the teacher’s philosophy, values, and beliefs about children and learning through either deliberate design or lackadaisical overlook. It provides messages to all those who enter—children, parents, and staff. Is this a place where I am welcomed and where my physical, social, and intellectual needs will be met? Is this an environment where I am seen as worthwhile and competent? Do I passively receive information in this environment, or am I actively engaging in the construction of knowledge? Does someone think I am special enough to provide a beautiful environment for my benefit? Anita Rui Olds, a well-known environmental designer, believes that we should design our early childhood environments for miracles, not minimums. She states:
Children are miracles. Believing that every child is a miracle can transform the way we design for children’s care. When we invite a miracle into our lives, we prepare ourselves and the environment around us. We may set out flowers or special offerings. We may cleanse ourselves, the space, or our thoughts of everything but the love inside us. We make it our job to create, with reverence and gratitude, a space that is worthy of a miracle! Action follows through. We can choose to change. We can choose to design spaces for miracles, not minimums. (2001, p. 13)
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