7 components of a great learning space

Have you ever been so into a project that you forgot to eat (or pee)? Perhaps it was a book you couldn’t put down, a Sudoku you needed to finish, a room that you were renovating, a rabbit trail of websites you were absorbing on a specific topic.  Hours later you look up and are like, what happened to the day?

“Flow” for the little ones

Author and psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Ph.D. calls these times when we are absorbed in a task, “flow”.  He says this: 

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.” 

It’s our role as educators to create an atmosphere of learning where this type of “flow” can take place. If the bulk of our little one’s day is spent sitting under adult-led instruction, including being made to tick through curriculum boxes, we forfeit the opportunities for them to explore their natural curiosity. 

Here are 7 components that will make your home an environment where young children can flourish in their learning:

1. A space to design, create, and build with: Arts and crafts supplies, paint watercolor, acrylic, oil pastels, soft pastels, blocks of all sorts, puzzles, loose parts (like the stuff you find in your recycling bin, or at a Scrap Exchange), dry erase board, glue gun, recipes and their ingredients, Lego, Keva, K’Nex, Magnatiles, marble runs, play dough, Snap Circuits, tool box with real tools, fort-building materials, etc.

2. A space to imagine: play scarves/dress up, story discs, Story Cubes, loose parts, Storymatic cards, dolls, doll house, stuffed animals, puppets, play house (or big cardboard box), fort-building materials, tea set, cars, trains, etc.

3. A space to discover and explore: butterfly nets, magnets, microscopes, magnifying glass, chemistry set, a garden, recipes and ingredients, balance/scales, marble runs, Snap Circuits, sand, kinetic sand, objects to experiment with numbers like bottle caps, connecting snap blocks, etc. 

4. A space to play: board games, mud/water kitchen, bikes, scooters, skateboards, wagons, skipping ropes, cones, loose parts, walkie talkies, hula hoops, balls, hot- wheels cars, trains, a pet, etc.

5. A space to experiment with words:  Magazines, books, cookbooks, poetry, newspaper, scripts/screenplays- Newspaper Blackout, stationary box with stamps and addresses, white board (with markers and magic erasers), chalkboards and chalk, journals, more books, Bananagrams, dictionaries, thesaurus, etc.

6. A space to make music & dance with: instruments, shakers, xylophone, recorder, microphones, speakers, cups for rhythm play, Garage Band, audio interface, Spotify playlists, open space to dance, mats, barre, etc.

7. A space to wonder. When your child has a question about something, or expresses interest in a certain topic, write it down.  I have a friend who keeps a wall of questions with post-it notes. We keep a notebook of questions to dig into further together or that the kids can research on their own.  Make Youtube playlists that feed their curiosity, reserve loads of books at the library that might lead to answers and further questions.  Sign up for workshops or exhibitions that would continue to drive that sense of wonder and curiosity.  

If you are like me, you do not live in a home where all of these spaces and materials can be set up all of the time (amazing if you do!) so we need to be creative about how our children can access these materials. Just because we have the stuff (and by no means is it necessary to have ALL of the stuff), it doesn’t mean our children will interact with it. I have found that out of sight usually means out of mind, so I tend to set certain things out in plain sight throughout the week.  When I put the microscope out on the table with some interesting slides, or pull out the recycle bin, or lay out some books in an inviting way, or set up the table with clay or art supplies, then they happily interact with the materials.  

The nice thing about having some guidelines about what makes for a great learning space is, if we end up accumulating things that don’t fall into one of those categories, it’s a whole lot easier to get rid of them. A good “toy” is one that will foster creation, discovery, imagination, play, experimentation with words, music & dance, or wonder. The rest can go.

As our children grow older, we can continue to foster this sense of curiosity by tailoring our children’s learning to their specific interests and desires.  My hope is that our children will never grow weary of learning new concepts and skills, but this will only remain true if learning is meaningful, authentic, and relevant to their lives.

A printable list of ideas for creating a learning space for your children.

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