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“We should be focusing on the youngest amongst us” was a statement a friend and experienced educational building architect said to me recently, and it really stuck with me. We were discussing the importance of early learning through the lens of the learning environment, and how that environment has a large role to play when it comes to thinking about the needs of the whole child and their future.

One of the fastest ways I know to have people focus on the importance of these early learners is to inform them, or remind them, that by around the age of seven the foundation has already been set for how children will learn for the rest of their lives. The world is changing and the skills we need to thrive and succeed are having to evolve simultaneously – and we all need to become lifelong learners. Learners who can problem solve and think critically. In other words, from the very start we need to teach the youngest amongst us ‘how to learn’ and have a healthy relationship to learning. The goal is to foster future generations to be considerate, capable citizens with the potential of being the future leaders and change agents the world needs.

In order to achieve this, multiple factors need to be involved: The connection to the child’s main carer and educator, their physical environment, and having their social, emotional and physical needs met. It’s therefore imperative we provide continuity of care from daycare, to preschool, to kindergarten, and beyond.

As these young learners are introduced to each of these new milestones and new environments, the first and most important aspect is that the child has a strong sense of belonging; of feeling welcomed and being safe. No deep learning can take place if those factors aren’t met. Thinking back and discussing our own first day at a new school, the most common statements I still hear are ‘I felt frightened’ and ‘I couldn’t escape’. Children need calm, peaceful environments with minimum clutter, where they can find a space to feel safe and less exposed, like a nook where they can rest, recuperate and potentially explore with curiosity and then when they’re ready, re-join the group and engage with the world again. The more flexible these nooks within a classroom are, the higher probability that children will find the solace they need more quickly, and are more likely to start interacting and playing with their peers sooner.

Great examples of flexible nooks are rooms within rooms, somewhere like a large play cube or play loft. They provide protected space but also offer two essential things: movement and open-ended play, both of which allow young children to self-regulate by shifting their focus and aiding in relieving stress and anxiety. Children learn the ability to manage their own behavior and emotions much faster when they can move their bodies. And free open-ended play – whether you’re 6, 16 or 66, is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, and ability to problem solve. Educators can also encourage movement and free, open-ended play at anytime in any space.

The best practice for rest, self-regulation and open-ended play is being outside – it naturally instills calm in children and allows them to form play partners on their own terms. When you watch children play outside they very often create their own nooks from whatever materials are available, whether on their own or in groups.

These practises of intentional outside time, movement and free play support children’s social, emotional and physical needs, and they help support educators in their work as well. The educator then becomes more of a guide in the learner’s journey and it affords them more time for the human connection children crave in order to thrive.

I’d like to summarize with this great quote from Dr.Stuart Brown from his book, ‘Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul’. It’s one of my favourite books, and a highly recommended read!

“Given a chance to be themselves and to engage in Free Play, great things can happen! Children learn to solve problems for themselves. Our minds thrive on the challenge! When creativity and imagination flow, children develop their own thinking skills, and invent interesting and different ways of resolving situations. Consequently, when a child is asked to solve an academic or a real-life problem, they will be better equipped to resolve it using the skills that they have practiced and learned during Free Play. When they are settling into a new school environment they will feel more confident in themselves that they can actually “do this”.

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