Places influence the stories of our life. Growing up on a farm meant I had the time and opportunity to play hide-and-seek in the hay loft, catch minnows in our creek and drive a tractor in the fields. In an instant, I can close my eyes and be back in those places! This “sense of place” holds a very strong emotional element that is tied not just to the geography of a place (in this instance, a farm) but more to the experiences I found there, which included the opportunity for seclusion, quiet and a chance to explore and effect change. In addition, I was able to take risks, master challenging and complex work, interact with the natural world and experience magical thinking and joy. (Wilson, 1997). The faculty and staff at Greenhouse have been spending a lot of time thinking about and talking about this “sense of place”. How can we reinterpret and design our classroom environments to foster these “sense of place” experiences for children? Can the single, simple parts of our environment be brought together to provide endless possibilities for rich and meaningful “sense of place” experiences?
Changes in our physical space provided us with an important provocation! The new wood laminate floors in 404 created the perfect pallet for us to begin thinking differently about what we put inside a classroom. We took the opportunity to look critically at the furniture and structures of the space. We replaced some worn and dated furniture with new pieces. We created warm, inviting, home-like spaces with new floor coverings, soft pillows and framed photos of families. We worked to find small, cozy spaces for a child to be alone. As one of our teachers said, “The new wood floors made all the plastic really stand out!” The brightly colored plastic containers and manipulative toys seemed harsh and loud when juxtaposed with the natural wood of the new floors. We began to think about creating a balanced combination of elements such as wood, stainless steel, bamboo, glass and wicker. Plastic containers used to store or organize materials were replaced with beautiful baskets giving a pleasing aesthetic as well as an interesting sensory experience. Bamboo curtains were used to create a clean visual line on an otherwise visually cluttered wall. We used neutral paint colors for our walls and in our design to create a canvas that is unfinished when empty of children and materials. The “color” of the environment is at its best balance when the space is filled with the children and their work. We reinvented our environment so the interaction of different elements produced a tranquil result and where each individual part melded with the other to create a well-balanced, complete experience.
Knowing that children’s sense of touch is an important conduit for their construction of knowledge, we moved forward with the understanding that what we put in children’s hands and in their environment matters. A warm, interesting, stimulating environment tells children that they and their thinking are valued and respected. A sanitized, cluttered, or uninspired environment tells children that they are not. These messages shape the ways children perceive themselves as learners and affect their feelings of competency (Wilson, 1997). We continued to offer materials that invite discovery, exploration and open-ended possibilities: wooden spools, buttons, metal lids, napkin rings, corks and pieces of fabric. As further invitation to explore, we added items to our environment that change quickly– a sliced apple on a wooden cutting board, whole sweet peppers lying in an open basket, cut flowers in a beautiful glass vase–each displayed and quietly placed on a table waiting for a child to notice the changes that occur. There are items that age well and change slowly— a beautiful piece of driftwood, rocks, glass gems or old keys. We began to look for open-ended and unusual materials in nonstandard places—flea markets, thrift stores, or the clearance section at Home Goods! One or two teachers are even guilty of finding a serendipitous discovery on the street! We offer and display these materials in careful combinations. Natural materials like pine cones, bark, leaves and gourds create an enticing collection. Sand, stainless steel scoops and small spoons provide the perfect opportunity to explore and effect change. Intentionally pairing objects like tree blocks and tree cookies with gems clearly communicate an invitation to compose with balance, symmetry and design—very complex work. Materials are intentionally displayed to create an invitation. We place the loose materials in beautiful bowls or on placemats to create a visual focus for children. The materials give our children many possibilities for exploration with texture, shape, color, design, and composition.
The faculty at Greenhouse continue to think of ways to promote children’s constructive interaction with the environment and with each other in our school community. It is our hope that many years from now, as our children think back to their time at Greenhouse, they will have deeply emotional memories of curling up on the big, soft pile of pillows to read Where the Wild Things Are with a favorite teacher; or building complex block structures with their friends; or the feeling of the clay as they designed a composition with natural materials. We hope these memories will bring them back to Greenhouse in an instant! And just like my memories of the hayloft fill me with joy and warmth, we hope our intentionally designed classroom and materials bring that lifelong, joyful “sense of place” to the lives of our children.
Wilson, Ruth. “A Sense of Place.” Early Childhood Education Journal 24.3 (1997): 191-94. Print.