Making Learning R.E.A.L.: Engaging (Part 2 – The Environment)

January 5, 2021

With much of the world switching from working in office spaces to working from home, we have been harshly reminded of how our physical environment affects our ability to work. The quiet work setting has been replaced with the noise of everyday life at home. The motivating energy of our peers, all working to complete their tasks, has been traded for an extra coffee pot of caffeine. Our work space, with easy access to files, documents, or goals posted in prominent areas that encourage us to push through the tougher moments are no longer present. Our coworkers, who (if you’re lucky) are hesitant to interrupt our work, are replaced by children, needing our assistance or seeking our attention. In other words, our environment has become more of a distraction than a place of inspiration.

Photo Courtesy: abbamouse from flickr

I have recently found a renewed interest in the prepared environments of Montessori Classrooms, Waldorf Schools, Reggio Ateliers and Forest Schools. If you are unfamiliar with these teaching philosophies I encourage you to did a quick google search to discover more. What I am particularly drawn to are the natural elements of their learning spaces. They are set up exclusively for the child – providing not only an engaging environment, but one that is captivating. The physical environment is the first impression a child will have when it comes to entering a space intended for learning. With that in mind, it is important to think about how to create an environment that is as equally as engaging as your carefully crafted lessons.

“The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite children to conduct his own experiences.” – Maria Montessori

The same holds true for students who have transitioned from school to homeschooling or distance learning. Children who have remained in school are facing environments that are very different from what they are used to. It is important to recognize that just as we would carefully plan our teaching for the year, the environment our children learn in, must also be prepared.

Creating an Engaging Environment

I love how the Reggio Emilia Approach describes the classroom as the “third teacher”. It demonstrates the immense value that the physical environment holds in relation to a child’s learning. Alisa Stoudt, in her article “The Reggio Emilia Approach” states:

…care is taken to construct an environment that allows for the easy exploration of various interests. The documentation mentioned above [Photos of children at work and play, along with dictations of their experiences] is often kept at children’s eye level so that they, too, can see how they are progressing over the year. Items from home, such as real dishware, tablecloths, plants, and animals, contribute to a comforting, “homey” classroom environment.

Stoudt, Alisa. “The Reggio Emilia Approach.” Scholastic,

There are many people who have taken the time to compare the different environments used by the aforementioned approaches. I suggest checking out this comparison for more information on philosophical approaches.

Photo Courtesy: Nicholas Wang from Flickr

For now, let’s explore simple ways you can curate an inspiring environment teacher

Easy access: Have all materials that students will need stored in a place where they are able to independently access.

Don’t look up: Anything put on walls or hung up (alphabet chart, number line, student work, posters with learning prompts – anchor charts) must be at the child’s eye level. When we hang materials along the top of the wall (a popular spot for alphabet charts and number lines), students either tune it out, can’t see it, or must strain their necks to benefit from them.

Minimize: Display only what is relevant. If it is unnecessary, don’t display it. Having to many items on display, options of materials, or decorations becomes overstimulating and a distraction. Help your student focus by ridding the distractions for them.

Logical: Teachers are often caught up in arranging the classroom for themselves, administration or parental approval. Think about what is logical for your student. Kindergarten students generally can not read, so putting motivational quotes all over the walls is not an effective use of space. Having a periodic table of elements poster in a grade 5 classroom may look nice, but unless you are using it regularly it really has no place.

Nature: Use nature as much as possible! Use pine cones to count, measure snow in measuring cups, discover various textures at a park. If you are teaching students how to graph, why not collect data based on what you find in your backyard – birds, leaves, trees, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. Not only is nature free, it encourages natural curiosity, sparks imagination, and is fun! If a nature environment is not easily available , use the environments that students regularly encounter. If they are learning to map, use subway stations or transit lines. Forests and parks are not the only environments worth exploring!

Clean: Having a well organized and clean learning environment is a must. If you are sitting at your dining table helping your child learn to write their name, a clear space with no piles or crumbs is much more inviting than working next to sticky jam and bills. A classroom that has piles of books and papers on counter tops, cupboards that do not close, and pencil shavings on the ground is uninspiring.

Photo Courtesy: jimmie from Flickr

Listed above are a few suggestions to get you started. I encourage you to browse images of a variety learning environments for inspiration. Also, Mark Phillips provides even more insight in his article “A Place for Learning: The Physical Environment of Classrooms”.