Sometimes early childhood classrooms can be noisy and overstimulating to young children, leading to challenging behaviors, and decreased engagement and learning. Sandra Duncan—coauthor of Through a Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder—compares the early childhood classroom to Times Square and explains why young children need comforting, secluded spaces where they can refresh and regroup just like adults do! Here are her 3 ideas for creating nurturing spaces of seclusion in the early childhood classroom, away from the hubbub and the noise.
Have you ever been to Time Square? It's quite a busy place, isn't it? Especially on New Year’s Eve! Even when it's not New Year's Eve, Time Square can be a real assault on your senses. It's filled with bright colors, loud noises, tires screeching, and horns blaring. It's got lots of interesting smells, blinking and neon lights all over the place, and of course, crowded sidewalks.
Hi there. I'm Dr. Sandra Duncan and I'm co-author of a Gryphon House book called Through a Child's Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder. I'm all about designing inspiring environments for young children.
Think about your typical early childhood classroom. It's a lot like Times Square, isn’t it? It's noisy. It's overcrowded. There's fluorescent lights glaring from above. There's bright colors. There's lots of conditions and the elements of an early childhood classroom that are very similar to Times Square.
There's one difference, however, between Times Square and a classroom. The difference is, as an adult, you can get away from Times Square. You can get away from the chaos, the noise, the smells, and everything that's happening on that crowded sidewalk. You can get away from it! All you have to do is step into a restaurant. Maybe if you're a tourist, you can go back to your hotel for a nap. You can step inside a department store. You can go to the city park. There's lots and lots of options that you can do as an adult to get away from the hustle and bustle of Times Square.
But a child on the other hand is unable to escape a classroom. A child is unable to escape the busyness and the noise—the overwhelming chaotic environment day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out, and so on. You get the point. They are forced to stay within that chaotic environment. They have no other choice. Their responses to this chaotic environment are often increased challenging and negative behaviors, and decreased engagement, focus, and of course, learning.
Indeed, classroom environments are important because they send messages of emotional stability, emotional security, and safety. These messages have become especially important after COVID-19. One of the most basic emotional development needs of the human spirit is opportunity for seclusion—the chance to go back to your hotel room for a nap, getting out of the chaos of Time Square. Children need to have the opportunity just like adults to be alone for even a few precious seconds, to be able to take time away from the hubbub of the classroom.
Whether they know it or not, children at some point need a chance to rewind, refresh, and regroup, just like an adult. Yet the opportunity for seclusion in early childhood classrooms is pretty rare. It's one of the vastly overlooked elements of classroom design.
We have lots and lots of excuses for not providing seclusion in our classrooms. We might say, “Oh my gosh, we don't have enough room. We have limited space! I don't hardly have enough room to get all the required learning centers in and yet alone, a place for seclusion.” We might not believe that there's enough space in our room to dedicate to a type of space like seclusion. Or we might feel, “Gee! I want to be able to see every child every second of the day! So therefore, I don't think this seclusion idea is a good idea.” It also might be because of our lack of equipment. If you look in early childhood classroom catalogs with furniture, there's really not much out there in terms of furniture design for seclusion. But regardless of the reasons why we don't include seclusion areas in our classroom, it needs to be a very, very important element of our classroom design. So I've got three ideas for helping you create places of seclusion.
1. Rethink Your Space
The first idea is to rethink your space. Just critically look around at the size of each and every learning center that you have. Now think about the children's usage of that center. Based on the amount of furniture in the particular space and the number of children using that furniture, is there too much square footage that has been dedicated to that space? How about the idea of stealing a few square feet from a larger center and allocating that stolen space to a smaller destination of refuge?
2. Scrounge Your Space
Idea number two is to scrounge your space. Stand in the middle of your classroom and just look around. Are there any unoccupied spaces, like an empty wall? What could you do with this empty wall to make it a place of solitude? You might think, “Wow, I don't have the slightest idea what to do!” But could you find a sturdy laundry basket, add a small pillow in the basket, and add a flimsy piece of cloth so the child can get in the basket and throw the cloth over his head? This will just make him feel that he's in a place of solitude.
Or how about taking off the door of a closet and in the lower part of the closet, perhaps there's a space that you can create for a child to be alone. Add cozy elements for snuggling up. Even if it's in the bottom of a closet, it makes a perfect place. You can even add a battery powered light that the child can flip on as he goes into that small snugly space.
3. Reimagine Your Space
Idea number three is to reimagine your space. Try considering this idea of what I call “topsy-turvy furniture” as a way of reimagining your space. For example, could you turn a small table upside down and drape a flimsy piece of cloth over the four legs? This is instant refuge and instant seclusion!
Got an extra crib hanging out in the storage closet that you're never going to use in the infant room? What about sawing the four legs off from the crib, turning the crib on its side, adding some lounge-chair cushions, adding a few pillows, and of course, adding some books to make it a terrific place for solitude for one child? You could also drape some flimsy material over the top and on the sides of the crib for an extra sanctuary effect.
Reducing the chaotic effect of Times Square in your classroom can have a dramatic impact on children, especially the emotional impact of safety and of security and of emotional stability. Start now by creating at least one place where children can find solace. Thank you.