Modifying the Environment to Respond to the Changing Needs of the Child

Whether in the home or a child care center, the environment must change in response to the growth of children. In addition to the obvious changes suggested and necessitated by children’s physical growth, such as the move from a crib to a bed or mat, there are many ways in which we can plan and modify the environment to respond to changes in children’s emotional and intellectual growth.

When planning environments for infants and toddlers, it is wise to keep in mind our goals for the children. By identifying our objectives in working with children, we can focus more clearly on the physical setting, and use it effectively to support our long-range goals.

In keeping with a few key elements of the RIE philosophy, here are some suggestions for modifying the environment to respond to the changing needs of children.

RIE goal: Independence

Although “independence” is a loaded word, carrying with it connotations of detachment from other people, we choose to use it to describe a young child’s capabilities and areas of competence. When we say that we have the goal of independence for infants and toddlers, we mean that we allow and encourage them to do what they can do, to resolve some of the age-appropriate problems that they will encounter.

In order to foster this type of independence in young children, we can use the environment to make available those things which we adults have observed the child is ready to access. This requires some forethought and planning, not only regarding just what we want to have available to young children, but how physically to arrange the space.

Naturally, when working with very young children, very low furniture is needed. Open shelving, crates or cubes turned on their sides or low bookcases are all satisfactory storage areas for the playthings and belongings of infants and toddlers. Not only do storage areas need to be low, but they also need to be kept very orderly. A toy is not really accessible to a child if it is not kept in essentially the same place from day to day. In order to obtain something, a child must know both how to get it, and where it is. Along these same lines, only those things which are genuinely available to the children should be stored in the accessible areas. Those things which need adult supervision should be stored in higher or closed areas, to be brought out when the adults are available to watch over their use.

The same storage principles hold for items of clothing which we expect children to be somewhat responsible for, such as shoes and jackets. Low shelves, pegs in a wall out of traffic patterns or cubbies will all serve to help children become more independent.

Facilities for handwashing can also be arranged to accommodate very small children. If a low sink is not available, a sturdy dishpan filled with warm water and placed on a low table is a good alternative. It can also be put away when hand washing time is over.

Of course, very low tables and seats are important in helping children develop a sense of independence.  Children will quickly learn that they are able to bring themselves to the table and leave it without adult help. In some styles of child care this would be undesirable, but the RIE philosophy stresses teaching children to make choices and decisions, such as if and when to sit at a table. (For specific information on very small tables and chairs, see the Fall 1983 issue of Educaring.)

While at the table, the type and presentation of foods can also foster children’s independence. Finger foods such as cheese, tender cooked chicken, slices of hard-cooked egg, chunks of raw, peeled fruit all can be handled by little fingers, making meals child-directed rather than adult-controlled times. (In fact, so appealing is the concept of independent eating that at home three year-old Thomas Beatty requests bananas “the way Magda cuts them.” To do bananas the “Magda way”, peel them, cut in half or thirds, then cut in quarters the long way. You end up with banana sticks that even young toddlers can pick up and eat easily.)

Expecting and allowing young children to have some control over whether they will be in- or outside at certain times may also be desirable. If very young children are to be responsible for moving from one area to another, the door itself should be responsive to their needs. A door that can be kept open with a strong hook or latch will make it safe for children to move through alone; a lightweight screen door may need a second handle at toddler-height to accommodate small people. Conversely, if we want to be certain that children do not move from one area to another, it is our responsibility as adults to make certain that doors or gates are closed and latched securely, that children are truly unable to open them independently. It is not realistic to think that very young children will be able to understand why they should not open a door or gate which they are capable of opening.

Finally, the RIE philosophy advocates the idea that infants and toddlers should have access to one another, under the guidance of responsive adults. Independence, babies doing what they can do, includes being aware of other people, adults and children, and learning about the self through interaction. In an environment where young children are kept separated or restrained in swings, walkers and the like, the opportunities for encountering one another are eliminated. Rather, infants need an environment with large open spaces and enough simple equipment and materials to avoid too many squabbles over possession. Within such a carefully-planned space, infants can be free to move toward and away from one another, to explore the area and meet one another while the adults remain alert and available to move to where they are needed. Babies can reach out to and touch each other, even climb with and over each other without becoming distressed. Of course, adults must keep them from touching eyes and pulling hair, but in an open environment these incidents are infrequent. Engagements over toys are inevitable, and with adult support, even infants can begin to resolve both the issue of possession and the feelings that follow such disputes.

Naturally, every home and each center is unique, with problems and possibilities all its own. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will be useful, and ideally they will suggest more ideas for your individual situation. We would love to hear from you with ideas, suggestions and problems relating to the physical environment you work with, either at home or in a center. Future issues of Educaring will explore this topic further.

EDUCARING® Volume VI,  Number 1, Winter 1985