Your classroom environment influences your students’ learning, mood, and behavior so it is very important that you think about how and what it is communicating to young children when setting it up for those all important first days of school. The first few weeks of school set the tone for the entire year so you want the classroom to be a positive environment where students feel comfortable and welcome from the very first day.
Create an organized space that conveys how the classroom works.
Your new students will have no idea how things work or what your schedule is when they come in to the classroom. Create an arrangement that is easy to understand. Can you clearly see where each area is and what it is? Setting up centers or organized spaces that are clearly labeled or defined will help young students understand what they can do and what their choices are.
Storing the materials for each center where they are visible for the children will help them understand what they can do there and they will also learn where things belong and know where to put them back when they are finished. A great idea is to take a picture of each object and place the picture where the object belongs so children can clearly see where it should go.
Displaying a visible classroom schedule will help students know and understand what happens here during the day, what happens first, next, etc. This will put them more at ease and help them feel more confident.
Make the classroom environment a place where students can make choices.
It is important for young children to have choices during the day. These choices allow them to influence their own learning. This does not mean that everything during the school day should be student choice, there can also be teacher directed activities and large group activities as well as small group activities and choice.
A good way to allow choice is to set up centers or areas in the classroom where students can learn through both exploratory and socio-dramatic play. A great way to manage the centers while giving students choice is to have a choice board that shows students what their choices or options are for the day and what centers are open. You can set it up in a number of different ways. You may have actual photos of the center with its name underneath and then have the exact number of velcro or magnets under the picture to match how many students are allowed in the center at one time.
When a student wants to go to a center they place their photo or their name under the center. If there are no open spaces under the center they know they can not choose that one and must choose another. When they want to switch, they must come back to the choice board and move their name.
Another option is to place the velcro, hooks, or magnets right at the center under its label. Before entering the center, students must place their name or photo at the center.
Your centers do not have to stay the same the entire school year. Introduce new centers or change existing centers according to your theme or students’ interests. Observe the students and if a center is not being chosen or used try to change it or change what is in it. A few of the most common centers are library (reading), blocks, housekeeping or home-living, science or nature, and art. You don’t have to have these of course, they are simply suggestions. Your centers should reflect your students and your curriculum.
Create a classroom that allows students to actively participate.
The classroom communicates to a child “what is going to happen here”. If they walk in the first day and only see a row of desks they may think that they are going to be made to sit still all day and immediately have a negative outlook. However, if they walk in and see many interesting things to explore they will tend to be more excited and positive.
Preschool and kindergarten students need concrete, hands-on experiences that allow them to explore and engage with their learning. Young children learn by being involved. Choose activities that match your students’ interests, culture, and ability levels. This may mean that you have to change your classroom from year to year to match each new set of children.
It is important during this stage of a child’s development to have literacy or language all around them. Label as many things as possible, have a sign-in or attendance sheet, create a writing area, create opportunities for students to write or message or fill out forms in your areas (a menu in the food area, plans in the block area, recording sheets in the science area, etc.).
Have a library or book area where the books are displayed in a way that the children can see the covers so they will be drawn to them. Display books that you have read out loud or books that relate to your theme or the students’ interests and change them often.
Create a place for students’ belongings.
Young children need to know that there is a place in the classroom where they can place their belongings and know they will be safe and know exactly where they are during the day. Many young children like to bring things from home to school. Oftentimes at the beginning of the year it will be something comforting to help them feel more at ease in their new surroundings. They need to know that there is a place they can put it where nothing is going to happen to it and if they need to look at it for a minute or get it they know exactly where it is and where to go to get it.
Seeing that they have a special place in the classroom will give young students a sense of belonging and comfort, much like they have their own room at home they now have their own space at school.
Display students’ work and art.
When decorating your classroom leave some space to display your students’ work. This conveys to them that their work is valued and important.
Display pictures of each child.
Take pictures of each child on the first day of school and during the first week. Use these pictures in classroom displays along with their names and a little something about them, use them on your schedule cards, on your choice boards, etc. When students see their pictures in the classroom it conveys to them that this is their community and they are a valued and respected member of it. They should be placed in areas that are clearly visible to the students.
Display things about yourself.
It is not only important to display student pictures and interests but yours as well! Place pictures on your desk or in the classroom that tell about you and your life outside of school. Students and parents will appreciate knowing who you are and they will feel more at ease and comfortable with you if they know more about you.
Give students responsibilities.
Students need to learn from the very first week how to be responsible members of the classroom community. A great way to do this is to give them classroom jobs. Your job board or display should be visual so that students can see what is expected of them, what they are supposed to do, and their name associated with the job or task.
Make it home-like, warm, and inviting.
When students first enter your classroom you want them to feel welcomed and at ease. One of the easiest things to do each day is to greet each child with a smile and a positive comment. As far as classroom decor, if the classroom looks too “institutionalized” or sterile it can appear scary or unwelcoming to young children. Have some comfortable places to sit and relax, provide some soft lighting if possible, bring in some flowers from your house or get a few plants.
Keep it simple and easy to understand.
If you have been teaching for awhile you have probably accumulated a lot of stuff or if you are a beginning teacher you may feel like you have to fill every nook and cranny or bit of wall space. Keep it simple! Having too many things on the walls and in the classroom can cause sensory overload for young children and be too overwhelming for them to process. You want the classroom environment to be easy to process and understand. A good tip is to take a picture of your classroom. You may have become habituated to it and no longer really “see it”. Taking a picture and then analyzing it will help you to see whether it may be too cluttered or unorganized.
Many of the ideas in this post were inspired by seminars and books by Dr. Rebecca Isbell. Here are a few of her books that I recommend: