Setting up your care environment is an exciting endeavor. You get to use your creativity and style to create an enriching space that helps children learn and grow!
If you are an experienced teacher, you may already have solid ideas about how you want to set up your space – especially if you follow a teaching philosophy such as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, etc. that helps guide environmental choices. That’s great! These tasks will be mostly review for you, but may spark some new ideas.
If this is your first time setting up a care environment, you might feel a little overwhelmed – but that’s okay! We’ll help guide you through best practices and give you plenty of ideas.
If your budget is tight, we’ll also help you strategize around what you need now and what can wait until later. It’s important to note that if you need a license, your inspector will not expect your environment to be complete. They are mainly checking so make sure it’s safe and that you have the very basic things you need to get started.
Before and after examples
When you’re just getting started, it can be challenging to imagine transforming part of your home into a nurturing and enriching environment.
Wonderschool has helped over 100 providers transform their space. We’ll pair you with an expert in Early Childhood Education who will give you 1-on-1 support and advice as you set up your space.
Here are some common questions or misconceptions we hear a lot:
- I live in a small apartment and can’t visualize how it could be a classroom or care space.
- I don’t understand how I could make my living room function as both a living space for my family and a classroom.
- I want to do most of my program outside and not sure how.
We’d like to give you some inspiration. Here are some real before and after photos from Wonderschool programs.
Most Early Childhood Education experts agree that young children learn best through play. For this reason, it is a common practice to organize your care environment into several “play and learning areas.”
Using play and learning areas allows children experiment with a variety of hands-on activities that will help them develop important intellectual, emotional, and social skills. The materials and supplies being offered in these area should be 100% accessed by the children, not by the provider taking them down from a shelf and handing them to the children. Many ECE experts refer to this as “child-led” or “child-directed” play and learning. This promotes self-help, independence, and autonomy skills
We’ve outlined 10 play and learning areas that you can incorporate into your space. Please note that these centers do not have to be all in separate places. It is okay for some activities to overlap and occur in the same place. For example, you may have one table that is the “activities” table where children may bring their different materials to interact with to one place – one child is playing with “science” materials, one child is using playdough (a sensory material), etc.
However, it is a good idea to separate loud and quiet activities, as well as clean and messy activities. Try to keep some space open between the areas where those activities take place.
You also do not need to incorporate every single area. The main idea is to give children a wide range of activities and experiences to promote their development.
Play and learning areas
1. Welcome area
A welcome area is meant to help parents feel informed and comfortable when entering your program, whether on a tour as a potential family, or as an enrolled family.
This area should include:
- Your sign in/out sheet or app
- A Parent info bulletin board, where you post current/important information such as:
- Any important notices or reminders to your families
- Your school calendar
- Bios of you and your staff members (make sure to include photos!)
- Your daily or weekly menu
- Your daily schedule
- Your weekly curriculum or lesson plans
- Information on when to keep their child home if ill
- Any documents required by your local licensing regulations. This usually includes your child care license and whom the parents can contact to make a complaint.
- Photos of children engaging in the environment (optional)
Check out this article on building trust and communication with parents as an extra resource.
2. Circle area
You can gather the children in this area at the beginning and/or end of the day. This helps createa sense of community and inclusion in your program. Most providers use a rug and sit on the floor, but you can get creative about doing circle time outside or incorporating furniture you already have in your home.
3. Eating area
Meal time is a rich learning and relationship-building time. Here are some considerations for this space:
- Make sure each child has space to sit at the table with some room
- Choose an easy to clean surface
- Doing meal preparation and planning before the school day is helpful to provide high quality food without making it too time-consuming or expensive
- Each provider will learn about general guidelines for children’s nutrition during their EMSA Health & Safety training
- Please ensure there are no sharp edges on your utensils
4. Block area
Children can improve their motor skills, practice problem solving, and learn to work with their classmates while playing in a block area.
Shelving and storage is important in the block corner; use a sectioned storage unit to organize the blocks and keep them visible. Try to keep this area away from the majority of foot traffic and other quieter activities because it can be quite active.
Here are some ideas of what can go in this area:
- A set of wooden unit blocks
- Cars and trucks
- Railroad tracks and trains
- Toy people
- Toy animals. You could include dinosaurs one week, farm animals the next, and so on. Including these various “props” helps the kids expand into their creativity.
5. Dramatic play area
This area gives children opportunities to role play – it is also sometimes called a symbolic or imaginative play area. Dramatic play encourages creativity, self-expression, and knowledge of the community, and allows them to play out real-life scenarios they are experiencing. You can also use a dramatic play area to help teach children about other countries, cultures, and customs.
This area can work well next to the block area or even incorporated together in a small space. Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Play stove, refrigerator, and/or kitchen sink
- Dolls and doll accessories
- Dishes and play food so they can cook and make meals
- Dress up clothes for both boys and girls
- A basket of shoes and/or hats
6. Manipulatives (and math) area
A manipulatives area can help children develop their fine motor skills and learn beginning math concepts (such as counting, ordering, patterning, and spatial relationships). Children can practice their problem-solving skills and improve their hand-eye coordination by sorting counters and participating in other activities.
You usually need a table for this area (make sure it’s kid-sized) so if your space is small, it’s fine to use this same table for meals and other activities. Consider organizing the materials in this section on their own shelf in baskets or bins. Puzzles can be stacked up on a shelf or in a puzzle folder.
Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Lacing toys
- Stacking toys
7. Literacy / cozy area
This area allows children to take time on their own, away from others, while still being supervised. For older children (ages 3-5), this could be a “literacy library” and writing center with paper, pens, pencils, and so on. For toddlers and infants, it can be a “cozy corner.”
You can make this area by using a crib-size mattress and covering it with a soft blanket and pillows. If you keep a small couch in the room for yourself, the cozy corner can be in this area. Just be sure to keep the area big enough for you to get inside and sit with a child or two.
Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Paper, pens, pencils, stamps, like a mini office (for older children)
- Bin of books (books can also be in other places in your space)
- Stuffed animals
8. Art area
An art area provides a creative outlet for kids to help express their emotions and ideas. Children can experience different textures and use different materials as they create art. Fine motor skill development and improved hand-eye coordination are other ways an art area will benefit the children in your care.
Consider using kid-sized table and chairs for this area or easels. Tables should be easy to clean, because this table could also be used for other activities or eating meals. Store the supplies in caddies or tubs on a shelf that children can easily access. It’s also a great idea to have splash mats or aprons to keep things neat.
Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Collage and craft materials
- Glue, tape, and adhesives
- Paint and paint materials
- Colored and plain paper
- Child-safe scissors
- Pom-poms, feathers, sequins (be aware of choking hazards if caring for children younger than 3)
- Stamps and stamp pads
9. Sensory area
This area allows children to explore and learn with their five senses. For example, as children scoop up seeds or rice or other small items and fill up a container, they are discovering how much that container can hold before it overflows. Sensory play promotes spatial awareness, mathematical thinking, and scientific exploration and discovery. Sometimes sensory play is simply a great way for children to relieve their stress. Sensory play can be very soothing and relaxing to a young child.
It can be a good idea to put this area on the floor or on a table that is easy to clean. Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Playdough or goop
- Beans, rice, pasta, bird seed, etc
- Paper, straws
- Containers of various sizes and shapes
10. Nature area
A nature area brings the outdoors indoors and gives children opportunities to discover nature and science concepts. This area can compliment any outdoor space you have.
Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Pine cones
- Sea shells
- Magnifying glass
- Rocks, fossils
- You can also lead some directed activities with bugs, animals, and other found nature objects (such as bones, shed skin of a snake, etc.)
11. Music and movement area
Including a music and movement center in your preschool classroom encourages children to be physically active and gives them opportunities to experiment with sound and music.
However, many teachers choose to have music and movement as more of a directed activity rather than a free for all as allowing open access to musical instruments at all times of the day can lead to uncomfortable or disruptive noise in the classroom. As such, many teachers keep musical instruments in a closed storage area and pull these out at a particular time of day (such as circle time) when they lead the children in a directed musical or dance activity.
Here are some items you can include in this area:
- Small drums
- Egg shakers
12. Nap area
When creating your nap area, think about a space where lights can be dimmed or curtains can be drawn, away from any hustle and bustle that may be happening in other parts of your program. For example, if you know lunch clean up will be happening in the kitchen during nap time, you may not want children trying to sleep right near the entrance of that space.
Ideally, you’ll want to keep 2 feet of space between nap mats or cots, and you may want to keep individual sheets, blankets, or bedding in a separate cubby for each child. Children can help put on and take off sheets or fold their blankets at the beginning and end of nap time. This helps empower them to participate in the routine and contribute to the community – even very young children can participate in this! Stackable cots or nap mats can be stored in a closet or separate room when not in use, so as to not take up too much space during your regular program hours.
Considerations for age groups
Wonderschool encourages all of our providers and teachers to create a learning environment in their homes with developmentally appropriate materials and activities, based on the age group of children in care.
Quality childcare can be found in all types of spaces. The physical environment, the space arrangement, and the equipment and materials available can either promote or impede quality care. (Here is a great article from Community Playthings that goes into more depth: Creating a “Yes” Environment)
“A developmentally designed environment supports children's individual and social development. It encourages exploration, focused play, and cooperation. It provides choices for children and supports self-directed learning. A developmentally designed environment also supports the caregiver-child relationship. It minimizes management and custodial activities, allowing caregivers more time for interaction, observation, and facilitation of children's development.” – Early Childhood News
If your program is only for preschoolers, our guidance about play and learning areas should help you create an enriching, developmentally-appropriate environment.
Remember, materials should be set up so that they are easily accessible to children and so that they facilitate active exploration by students. We also encourage teachers to label the different areas of the classroom to help children learn organization skills.
Over the next few pages, we’ll discuss considerations for setting up spaces for infants and toddlers.
Community Playthings and WestEd’s Program for Infant/Toddler Care (PITC) collaborated to put together an amazing guide about considerations for setting up environments for infants and toddlers. You can download it here.
Young infants (0 to 8 months):
Young infants need to feel a sense of trust, safety and security. Their sense of trust, trust in their caregivers, their environment and most importantly trust in themselves starts with respectful caregiving. Their development occurs based on a warm and loving relationship with their caregivers. Infants gain self-esteem and confidence when the adults they interact with are responsive, predictable and nurturing.
“We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.” - Magda Gerber, RIE
Infants learn by exploring the world around them. They are also beginning to learn a sense of themselves in the world. Creating an environment made safe to touch, taste, feel, see and hear allows the opportunity for the infant to begin negotiating and learning about the world around them. One important item in an infant environment, for example, are a collection of mirrors at their level.
Mobile infants (6 - 18 months):
As an infant become more mobile their whole world changes. It opens up to a whole new opportunity for exploration. Thus the environment needs to be set up to honor this new world. Opportunities to sit, crawl, pull to a stand, learn to get down from that stand and eventually walk all need to be addressed in their learning environment. Some equipment that could be included are risers and small padded areas, pull up bars to practice pulling up, standing, cruising and eventually walking.
Toddlers (16 - 36 months):
Toddlers are beginning to gain their own sense of identity, but still need to feel safe and secure in order to purposely explore the world. Per PITC and Community Playthings, “an environment that offers chances for independence, participation, and cooperation helps toddlers develop competence and a strong sense of self.”
A toddler's primary agenda is to MOVE! They run, they pound, they throw, they knock over things, they kick...they move in the most creative ways. And they climb, one of the highest frustrations of any toddler teacher.
The environment for a toddler program needs to support what is the natural agenda for children of this age, which is to move and explore. Additionally, the concept of emergent curriculum becomes even more important for this age group as children more actively explore their own interests and physical capabilities and develop through trying new activities, movements, and skills. As such, as a teacher, your role is to introduce new equipment and materials for toddlers to explore and interact with.
Considerations for Quality Infant and Toddler Environments:
Safe environments have:
- Developmentally appropriate equipment made of non-toxic materials such as wood
- Non-slip floors
- Stable shelves (bolted to the wall) and objects and fixtures with rounded corners
- Steps toddlers can use to reach changing table so caregiver does not have to lift them
An environment that can help protect children and adults from infection and illness has:
- Separation of the diapering and toileting areas from food preparation and feeding areas
- All areas kept clean (and disinfected, as needed)
- Sufficient water for children and caregivers to wash hands regularly
- Surfaces are easy to clean and suitable for all activities in area
- Rubber gloves for handling bodily fluids (urine, feces, mucus, and blood)
- Paper towels for children and caregivers to dry hands (licensing does not permit the use of cloth towels for hand-drying as this can spread germs)
A comfortable environment creates a calming atmosphere and can be characterized through having:
- Soft and natural colors on walls and furnishings
- Use of natural light, lamps, etc. rather than fluorescent lights
- A steady flow of fresh air (ideally from a window with secure screen)
- Acoustical tiles or rugs with pads to help absorb noise
- Soft cushions and pillows
- Back supports for adults sitting on the floor
- Materials are stored in a convenient environment both children and adults can easily see, find, and access them.
- Materials are grouped logically.
- Feeding and toileting areas are easy to clean and easy to work in.
- The need to lift or reach is limited.
- The environment has adequate storage (both open and closed) and its placement in the environment fosters ease and efficiency.
- There is a well defined entrance area
- This gives children a clear sense of space, predictability, and security and a welcome area is helpful for parents and children to address separation anxiety in a specific area
Child Size Space
- In quality environments, infants and toddlers can reach what they need, and explore what interests them—without the caregiver worrying about children getting hurt.
- Use tables and chairs that are small and low, making sure that the child’s feet are firmly planted on the floor and not dangling from the knees.
- Low shelving (24" high) allows children to see and reach toys.
- Place mirrors and pictures at child-height.
- Steps should be shallow, 4"-5" high and 8” to 10” deep (so that feet are firmly planted without heel backing off of the step)
- Additionally, having a handrail on all staircases is very helpful (and often required by Licensing)
- Include some adult size furniture, so caregivers can sit with children in comfort
- Equipment that is lightweight and mobile can be used for more than one purpose.
- Tables can be used for feeding, art, and messy activities
- Adjustable equipment can be adapted as children grow
- Storage or shelving can also double as boundaries between spaces
- Keep part of the space open, particularly in the center of the room
- Movement is incredibly important for infants and toddlers.
- Equipment must be provided to stimulate large muscle play and exploration.
- Different levels provide variety, diverse viewpoints, and numerous chances for movement. Use slopes, low steps, play pits, or platforms to create a multiple level environment.
- Surfaces with a variety of textures enhance sensory exploration.
- Fixed structures, such as climbers and slides, encourage cooperative peer play
- An environment that allows infants and toddlers to make choices supports their development and provides children opportunities to discover what they find interesting or challenging.
- Set up different areas of the room with a variety of activities, textures, and equipment. There should be spaces for large group activities as well as small, private spaces, active and quiet play areas, and room for messy activities.
Sample purchase list
We’ve prepared purchase lists that can help you create an enriching, developmentally-appropriate care environment.
Notice that we’ve marked some items that are required for safety and childproofing. The other items are suggestions. You should feel free to be creative and look around at what you like best. Also, if your budget is tight, you can substitute our recommendations with items you may already have as a parent. If you’re not a parent, consider shopping at thrift stores, garage sales, etc.
As a Wonderschool director, you get special discounts at these popular stores:
- Discount School Supply - 20% off all items (excluding drop ship). Free shipping over $99. Special financing option for WS network. Use discount code WONDER
- Constructive Playthings - contact Stacey McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org to use your 15% discount, make sure to say you are part of the Wonderschool network
- Your Natural Learner Curriculum - 20% off all curriculum sets. Use this link to order:http://www.yournaturallearner.com/product/a-childs-world-nature-inspired-pre-kk-program/
- Pretzel Kids Yoga Teacher Training & Curriculum - This discount is available to all current Wonderschool providers AND parents, so feel free to share the with your families! 20% discount for yoga teacher certification and preschool yoga curriculum. Use this link to access: http://bit.ly/pkandws
Choose the age option below that best describes your program.