Why Are Enabling Environments Important in Early Years?
Beyond parents, teachers, caregivers, and peers, there is yet another important factor to a child’s early learning. This factor is none other than the environment.
The early learning environment, which is not just a combination of spaces, but also the accompanying context within which learning and development takes place, impacts children significantly.
This high impact could reasonably be attributed to the fact that compared to other factors which contribute to a child’s early learning, the learning environment is more varied in scope, containing both visible and ‘invisible’ influences from diverse sources.
Of course, whether it is the emotional, indoor or outdoor, children thrive best in an environment that is enabling. But, what makes an environment enabling?
What an enabling environment looks like
First of all, an enabling environment should look/feel safe, warm, welcoming and interesting. A child getting into such an environment should be able to feel a sense of belonging right away, as well as feel comfortable and at ease.
The next things to consider are the resources and activities available.
Are these abundant, and a balanced mix of familiar and new? Do the activities meet the needs of all the children involved, while encouraging collaboration, problem-solving, exploration of personal relationships, role play, and active imagination? Do they enhance emotional and social skills? How about creativity?
Apart from offering rich and varied experiences, an enabling environment, on one hand, offers sufficient space indoors and outdoors for learning, play and exploration, and, on the other, poses minimal threats to the children within it while they are engaged in same.
In such an environment risks, where they can’t be eliminated, are well-managed, and the children are adequately protected from harm.
Any environment in which a child’s individuality is respected and encouraged, and the teachers or caregivers understand the necessity of building warm and supportive relationships with the child, can also be said to be enabling.
Knowing what each child is interested in, paying close attention to their needs, allowing them to make choices and respecting those choices, being observant and recognising when they are motivated to learn or when they would rather play or rest, are all to be expected of caregivers in an enabling environment.
In an enabling kindergarten environment, all staff understand, not just how best children learn, but also the value of purposeful play in conjunction with academic activities.
Why enabling environments are important in early years
So what are the benefits derived from enabling environments? Why should such environments be regarded as so important in early years?
The benefits/reasons are numerous, but here are a few to consider.
To start with, since enabling environments are welcoming, nurturing and interesting, children within it tend to be relaxed, open, upbeat, more receptive to learning, and more eager to express themselves through play or other means.
These benefits may better be appreciated when we consider that environments which lack the qualities mentioned above tend to give rise to a stress response in children, which can very easily impact their learning abilities negatively, make them withdrawn and less communicative, etc.
In an enabling environment where there is no lack/shortage of varied experiences and opportunities for young children, it is inevitable that their learning and development will be enhanced.
Having the freedom to play in an outdoor or indoor environment which – as a result of the numerous opportunities and experiences it offers – challenges a child’s usual routine and expectations, enables children to experience and experiment with different aspects of learning, build sustainable social relations, and develop more confidence in their ability to navigate various scenarios.
Since children’s experiences influence their motivation and approaches to learning, rich experiences in enabling environments help them to develop desirable scholarly qualities, including persistence, flexibility and initiative. Interesting and motivating experiences also go a long way towards determining a child’s behavior and disposition in later years.
Being able to make choices is a good thing, especially for children in their early years. When a child’s individuality is recognised and respected, and they are allowed to choose, they are likely to achieve much more because they will naturally go for materials, activities, or situations they are most comfortable with.
In other words, freedom of choice – which is one of the features of an enabling environment – is a motivating factor that usually leads to high attainment; and lack of choice, on the other hand, hampers achievement in most, if not all, areas of learning.
Also, allowing children to choose what they do and how they do it contributes to their development of high self-esteem.
Emphasis on play is a notable feature of an enabling kindergarten environment.
The Apple Tree International Kindergarten, for example, provides such an enabling environment where purposeful play is highly encouraged. Play, as an important learning tool, goes a long way towards helping children develop language skills and strong cognitive abilities; it also enables them improve in the areas of self-regulation (by encouraging self-talk) and social competence as they get to learn the rules for social interactions.
Children in an enabling environment with adequate facilities for play also tend to become more flexible in thinking and risk taking. This is because play is known to promote abstract thought by separating meaning from an object. An example of this is when a child turns building blocks into a “car,” “house,” or some other object.
Play as a feature of an enabling preschool environment could also help to enhance the children’s cultural awareness because it gives them the freedom to practice familiar cultural roles while trying out new ones. It also allows them explore the expectations of race, gender, and class, while testing and resisting these cultural conventions by setting up and breaking down boundaries within their play groups.
Indeed, the importance of enabling environments for children in their early years cannot be overstated. If you want your child to excel in all aspects during this period, a good idea would be to immerse them in environments that have been intentionally designed to be enabling.