Especially at the beginning of a new school year, preschool teachers are thinking about ways to create spaces that offer invitations to the children – spaces that invite children to feel welcome and safe, spaces that stimulate personal investigations, spaces that encourage children to feel a connection to a community of learners.
We want children to establish a sense of place at school – a sense that they belong here and are welcome. We want to create an environment that children will want to engage with, explore, and connect with as they develop the emotional comfort to express themselves and create at school.
What have we been thinking about as this new school year begins?
It’s important that children see a family presence in their classroom so that they feel a personal sense of validation, respect and acceptance. Photo albums of children enjoying family activities and “Books About Me” that highlight each child’s family, favorite activities, and qualities offer children a concrete way to share family culture with their peers and teachers. Child photos on blocks or in other classroom centers offer a direct invitation to join activities in our classroom space.
It’s important that children can “make sense of” their classroom environment – that they can feel and understand how to successfully engage in the centers that teachers create. Materials in easy reach and with clear labels, clear boundaries and open walkways (so that play is uninterrupted), furniture and props well scaled to the children, and centers well placed so that the activity level, volume, and scale of the play create a sense of freedom as children engage. All of these allow children to independently determine where to go for more or less active, collaborative, social or private play.
It’s important that the children’s shared experiences at school are visible over time and are valued. Photos of children engaged with materials, homemade class books on common themes or with child photos, stories, plans, or other child-generated writing posted in view, documentation of common interests, questions or projects underway, all help deepen each child’s sense of connection to community activities and classroom life.
As the children deepen their sense of belonging in their own classrooms, teachers begin to look for ways to connect children to the other classrooms and the other people who share our space. Our Welcome Room displays offer an opportunity for children to engage in conversations and activities of shared interest across the whole school, as does our saltwater tank. Planning whole school singing times, sharing playground games, gardening together, thinking about our “neighbors” when we walk through the hallways, all help children develop each child’s sense of belonging to a school as well as to a classroom.
We want children to make connections to nature, and to develop the capacity to engage with and investigate their full environment. Taking advantage of sunlight and shadows inside, looking up at the clouds and sky, thinking about the animals we see, hear, or guess might live near our school, assuring that natural materials like stones, seashells, pinecones, or seeds are available indoors and investigated outdoors, encouraging children to think about motion through water or sand play or by “catching the wind” outdoors, are all beginning experiences that help us encourage children to slow down, observe, investigate, research and appreciate.
Having experienced the first week of this new school year, we are now watching how children will receive our invitations, and what will unfold in each classroom and across the school. We are off to a great start!