Setting Up For Success in Your Early Learning Environment

How being mindful of the physical environment can help foster seamless music-making.

It was Reggio Emilia who first formalised the idea of the environment being the third teacher, and when it comes to setting up a space in an early learning classroom, this philosophy can make all the difference to your success as an educator. Before we even begin looking at strategies for creating a setting that children can thrive in, it’s important to identify our own goals for individual children, as well as the group. Just what does “success” look like for you when it comes to supporting kids in music exploration? For me, I look first for the following elements:

1. Engagement
We are educators, not entertainers! When children passively watch music-making just for the sake of it, they are missing out on a vital component. Having the opportunity to explore, experiment and engage is where the magic happens. Of course, the opportunity to observe is also all part of the learning. The difference is whether you, as an educator, can recognise the subtle signals that a child is engaging in the session and then build on that interest. Using your skills in observation can mean you are providing the children with immediate feedback and encouragement. You can respond in real-time.

2. A sense of calm
Don’t get me wrong, I love a stomp around the room, a loud roar and a bunch of hopping bunnies as much as the next person but we’ve all seen how quickly things can spiral when it comes to little kids! When children feel safe in their environment and when educators can trust their own setup, planning and facilitation, stomping, roaring and hopping can be fabulous components to a program. The trick is to ensure you can expand the energy and then pull back when needed.

3. Learning outcomes
For me, these outcomes are drawn from any and all developmental areas. Does a child pass a shaker egg to his peer? Wonderful! Does a toddler use her pincer grip to select a colourful scarf? Success! After months of observing, a little one volunteers an animal sound during a song? Be still, my beating heart! Learning outcomes don’t just have to be taken from music education. The turn-taking, motor skill development and confidence to engage are all laying the foundations for successful music-making.

Now that we’ve unpacked a little more around what a success looks like, let’s get specific on how to create a physical space where many of these elements can organically unfold. We’ll be looking at the classroom as a whole, as well as incidental learning spaces and formal/informal group times. Some educators find using a floor plan useful, so you can have a bird’s eye view and ensure your space is being set up intentionally.

Acoustic Dampening

Ever walked out of a social gathering or meeting and felt overwhelmed? It could have been that the acoustics in the room were all wrong! Trying to enjoy music in an echo chamber can have a similar effect on little ones, so it is important that we dampen the acoustics in any space that will be used by our little music-makers. The good news is that acoustic dampening can be done using many props that you may already have access to. Essentially, these props are absorbent; they literally absorb the excess noise so you are left with the truest sound from your group. You can dampen the acoustics in a room with:

 A nice, cosy couch

 An additional rug or two on the floor (being mindful of tripping hazards.)

 Soft materials hanging on the walls. Cork art, felt boards etc can also look inviting!

Introducing just one or two of these elements can make a big difference. Observe the changes in your students before and after using acoustic dampening and let me know if you noticed a difference in behaviour.

Removing Distractions

It’s hard for kids to pay attention when there is sound, movement or something exciting happening in another part of the room. Even having another educator in the room, setting up morning tea can be enough competition to grab focus away from you. Another aspect of the dynamic of the classroom to consider is the volume of your own voice when interacting with our co-workers. Just as we can model behaviour to the children in our care, we can also model keeping our voices down when speaking to other staff members. Speaking in a low voice is a powerful tool in creating calm! Of course, removing all distraction from a room is next to impossible but by defining play spaces, keeping voices low and being mindful of when we choose to undertake routine activities like cleaning, we can create an environment that is far more likely to see the outcomes we desire. Remember that quiet space = active listening.

Timing is everything

Delivering a group music time straight after lunch when kids have full bellies and sleepy little bodies is probably not going to lead you to great success. Choose your timing wisely when you know that the majority of the children will be focused and relaxed. The same goes for setting aside enough time to get the most out of your music session. Going on for too long may lead to restlessness and fidgeting but too short will rob the children of the opportunity to explore, be hands-on and tactile with the process. You know the children in your care best so use your intuition to schedule your formal group sessions at the very best time possible.

Provide play spaces with cues

This is where planning activities can be really fun! Imagine the delight when an individual play experience, such as a sand-tray with water and dinosaurs, is extended with stories and songs about T-Rex! Children are natural world-connectors; they see links between the things they are experiencing, even if they cannot verbalise the association just yet. Here are some other ideas of activities and the ways they can be extended with music, but your own observations will provide a wealth of ideas for this too:

  • Having all the colours of the rainbow available at the painting easel and then introducing colourful scarves and songs about rainbows to move to.

  • Encourage performances. If a child notices a big puddle outside, all you need say is “We can’t go over it…. we can’t go under it….” to inspire a complete retelling of the chanting story, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.’

  • About to read a story about a farmyard? Make sure your sandpit is filled with farm animal figurines so that when the children go outside, they can continue to explore farm noises.

Setting up your space for success may take a few adjustments to your routine, physical space or the culture of communication within your room. But as I mentioned above, even making a couple of changes can make a big difference in the success of your music-making sessions. It’s encouraging to see children begin to engage more, behave more calmly and start to demonstrate the learning outcomes you desire to see. Keep going- observing, adjusting, trialling and reflecting- and before you know it, setting the space for success will become second nature to you.

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