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Balancing Classroom Design for Introverted and Extroverted Children

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Sandra Duncan, EdD—coauthor of Rethinking the Classroom Landscape and Through a Child’s Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder—explains that many classrooms are designed with extroverted children in mind, filled with group spaces created for action and filled to the brim with sensory stimulation. Oftentimes, this type of classroom design unintentionally excludes more introverted children who may prefer quieter, smaller spaces to be by themselves or just a few other children. Dr. Sandra Duncan suggests that we can design play spaces to meet the needs of both introverted and extroverted children, and gives us four tips for doing so. 



Hi there. I'm Dr. Sandra Duncan, and today I'm going to be talking to you a little bit about children transitioning from their outside world to your inside world called the classroom. This is a really important topic right now because of COVID of course, but also because children are returning from the holidays and transitioning back into your classroom. I'm writing a new book for Gryphon House, and it's a book about how we can learn lessons from nature and apply those lessons from nature to designing classrooms.

While doing some noodling around on Google and on the internet for this book, I found some interesting research done by Dr. David Sloan Wilson. Dr. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who studies pumpkinseed fish. Yeah, you heard me right—pumpkinseed fish. And what makes it even more interesting and fascinating is that he studies pumpkinseed fish and their personalities. 

He discovered that some pumpkinseed fish are introverted, while others are extroverted. Pumpkinseed fish who exhibited an extroverted personality out in the pond exerted that same personality in the scientific lab. So if a pumpkinseed fish was an extrovert out in his home, he was also an extrovert in the scientific lab. The personalities stayed the same. 

What does this have to do with early childhood classroom design? And what does this have to do with transitioning? Well, I actually think it has a lot to do with it. I think that we as early childhood educators design our classrooms— quite unintentionally and we don't do it on purpose— for the extroverted children in the classroom. We tend to design our play spaces for children who are extroverts. 

Traditional environments for young children are set up for groups of children. They're set up and they’re filled to the brim with sensory stimulation. They're designed for action for groups of children. Children with extroverted personalities love this. They get along really, really great in an extroverted type designed environment. But the problem is, not all of our children are extroverts. 

What about those children that prefer quieter environments, more time to themselves, or with small groups of children or friends? What about those children who are more introverted in their nature and in their personalities? Shouldn't early childhood professionals be designing for both types of personalities, rather than just designing for that extroverted personality? 

I think we should. I think we should be designing for both! I think there should be a balance between extroverted personality design and introverted personality design.We should be creating environments that are in tune with both types of personalities, because just like the pumpkinseed fish young children have different personalities— introverted and extroverted— and there needs to be different types of spaces for these different personalities. 

So how can we do that? Well I have a couple of ideas, but mostly, I just want you to think about it when you walk into your classroom. Think about your spaces and what type of personality they are designed for. Some experts in environmental design say that effectively designed spaces for young children contain— in that classroom, in that space—they contain techniques that mix areas for large groups of children, or group-oriented spaces, in tandem with spaces of respite and refuge for just one or two children. So they call that layering technique, a layering design technique. So here's some ideas to get you started! 

Provide Quiet Vantage Points

Idea number one is you can provide quiet vantage points. I know my puppy dog likes to get on the top of the couch and peer out and watch the world go by. She's a very introverted puppy dog. She likes it quiet. She doesn't like a lot of noise. Well, she's just like children, I think some children, where they might prefer this vantage point. 

So how can you develop and create a vantage point? Could you perhaps create a stair-step that's in the corner of a classroom where a child could go up and find the highest level and experience a quieter vantage point or visual connection to others, rather than being right in the middle of children? What if we figured out how to create a vantage point from a higher level so they could observe others from that level of viewpoint?

Offer Outside Views

Another idea is to offer outside views. We know that outside views, especially outside views that have nature and greenery— that they're more calming. And so a child that has an introverted personality might find it comforting to be able to look outside.

We could do that by building steps or maybe a small landing, so just one person or maybe two could sit or stand and watch that world go by outside. 

Reduce Distractions

What if we designed some spaces that have absolutely no distractions in them? Maybe one or two low-stimuli spaces that are free from clutter, wall decor, bright colors, plastic, noisy toys, or technology in order to provide those children that need that safe haven free of distractions. That is a perfect place for them to perhaps go and be.

Include Flexible Furniture

The last idea I have for you is, perhaps you could invest in or figure out how to create flexible furniture in your classroom. Like four square ottomans that are on wheels. That would be a flexible type of furniture where they could be altogether for a larger group of children, all four ottomans put in place together. Or they could be arranged for just one or two children, perhaps two together or just one in a space to arrange and make spaces for a child that wants to be by himself—not lonely, but alone by himself, and at certain points of the day. 

So there's some few ideas that I have for you for helping children transition from their outside world to your inside world. But thinking about it in a little different spin— thinking about it from the pumpkinseed fish viewpoint. Thanks so much. Until next time.

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