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Print Rich or Just Full of Print?

Alistair Bryce-Clegg

In his latest article for That Nursery Life, Alistair Bryce-Clegg outlines the importance of creating your learning environment by focussing on how it will be perceived through the eyes of mind of your children, rather than what looks good to adults. Is your early years environment set up to wow grown-ups or to engage children?

One of the things that it took me ages to get my head around as an Early Years Practitioner is that when we are creating an environment it is for the children and not for us.

No, seriously, I am not just talking about the resources that we put out for the children to interact with. I mean the whole space. How it looks and how it feels – not to us, but to them.

We have got an adult brain that has developed lots of clever ways to work out things like pattern and shape. We can read, so when we come across print our brain doesn’t have to work REALLY hard to decode it. We have also developed personal preferences about colours and patterns, and we have established ideas about what children ‘like’ and ‘do not like’, but might not be sure where those ideas came from. We might also be influenced by what we see on social media or someone selling an accreditation that will ‘make a successful learning space’! If we are really going to create an impactful learning environment for children, then we need to start from the ground up and keep asking the question: ‘How does this benefit the children?’

Colour and Pattern

I love a bit of colour and that certainly translated into some of my early learning spaces. My classrooms looked like an explosion in a paint factory.

Photographer: Mike Fox | Source: Unsplash

Every board was a different colour with a contrasting border. Pictures were double, triple and even quadruple mounted in their technicolour glory. Washing lines crisscrossed my room with various collections of paintings, drawings, numbers and letters dangling down and wafting in the breeze! Every Area of Provision was labelled in black backed wrapping paper and I even had an umbrella suspended above my water tray because… well I am not quite sure why, other than it looked cool and people who came into my classroom always said ‘Ooh, I like that umbrella over your water tray.’

And let’s not forget the oil cloths on the tables. I had pencils, paint brushes, oranges and lemons, wellington boots, teddy bears and jungle animals. Each and every table its own print and design. The children’s drawers were all painted in primary coloured gloss and, as this was the early 1990’s, all of their resources were stored in primary coloured plastic boxes. Early Years had not been introduced to the world of wicker baskets.

It was certainly a thing to behold! One of the things that I often do in my training when I am working with settings now is to get the team to kneel down in their space and see it from a child’s eye view. It really does make a difference. It is also quite funny to see lots of adults shuffling around a setting on their knees like a band of Early Years gnomes.

Even if your space isn’t bright and patterned, this is a really useful thing to do. It really does give you a different perspective.

Research has been carried out that looked specifically at children’s eye movement and distraction in a bright and patterned space compared to a more neutral space. In the busier space the children’s focus was constantly pulled away from the adult to the walls around them, whereas in the more neutral space the focus remained on the adult.

For children whose brains and senses are still developing, we need to give them maximum opportunity to access an environment that will maximise the potential for engagement and learning and not minimise it by being too busy. Not that it means that a space needs to be dull. Far from it. We just need to make the important bits stand out and make sure the unimportant bits like the backing paper, borders, washing lines, table covers (and umbrellas!) don’t distract and if they do to then change them.

Useful Print

We often talk about print rich in the Early Years. For me, that means print that this rich in meaning not just rich in amount. It is really tempting just to fill your space with words and text – especially now as you can download and laminate to your hearts content. There is literally nothing that you cannot find or create a laminated label for!

But again, we need to ask ourselves why we are using print in our environment, especially for children who cannot read it yet.

One of the reasons that the print is there is to show the children that these squiggly lines called words, carry meaning. It is important that they make that link if we are going to engage them in the tricky task of decoding them, in other words, reading.

Children are far more likely to notice the print if they know what it is about and why it is there.

One general rule you can think about when it comes to labelling your environment is that print should either be by the children or for the children. If you cannot say what a child would gain from looking at it then it is probably not worth putting up.

If there is too much print in a space, then children’s brains get overloaded, and they just stop looking at it. They become print blind and that is a bad habit for them to get into. We want them to look at and engage with all aspects of the learning spaces that we create, including the print on the walls.

When we are making labels, we can make them with the children. If we are creating a title for a display, then we can ask the children what they think we should call what we did. Making the link between words and meaning really clear.

Self Esteem and Knowledge

So, my general rule of thumb when it comes to display in the environment is that it either needs to be there to raise their self-esteem or tell the children something that they need to know, in a way that they are going to engage with.

If children are looking at pictures of themselves in play or a photo celebrating their achievements then they are far more likely to engage with that sort of display than they are some laminated labels that say roll, pinch, squeeze or drip, drop, splish, splash!

If they can see examples of mathematics in action in their learning space, then they are more likely to engage as opposed a laminated number line.

happy kids boys playing with abacus toy indoors
toddlers play counting abacus game

One of Loris Mallagusi (the founder of Reggio Emilia)’s most quoted phrases is ‘environment is the third teacher’. His thinking was that parents/family were a child’s first teacher, practitioners were the second and environment should be the third. Nothing should be in your space or on your walls that isn’t going to positively impact on the learning of your children, and it should be presented in a way that gives maximum impact and minimum distraction.

So, when you are next in your space look at it through a developing child’s eyes and ask yourself what the possibilities are for its impact on engagement and attainment.

Oh, and if you are walking around it on your knees, you could always kneel on a couple of cleaning cloths and kill two birds with one stone!