Children are incredibly responsive in their early years. How children are treated during this time will dramatically affect their view of themselves and their world. When children are included, they feel valued and respected and are more likely to positively view their educators, peers and learning (Pennsylvania State University, 2022) – which is where an inclusive learning environment fits in.
The learning environment should be a safe, welcoming and nurturing place. When it is, children build confidence and feel a sense of belonging. This triggers their desire to discover and enables them to learn.
However, educators face a number of considerations when creating an inclusive learning environment for all children.
Considerations for creating an inclusive learning environment
It is widely recognised there are three tenets of inclusive practices in early childhood: access, participation and supports (Pennsylvania State University, 2022). By considering each of these educators can work towards a learning environment where all children are actively included.
Often access is thought of in terms of physical accessibility to the learning environment. For example, play equipment raised off the ground can be inaccessible for a child with a physical impairment – and this is an important consideration.
In Including All Children, Anne Vize discusses how identifying and managing environmental barriers does “a great deal to level the playing field.”
She encourages educators to do a walk around and consider the following:
- How the regular environment might affect a child?
- How new and unfamiliar environments might bring up their own set of challenges?
Additionally, she recommends creating a map to mark down any areas that could present a barrier. This can be of one’s setting or a location for an excursion.
An example Vize uses is an excursion to a bushland.
Using Google Earth can help educators review the area. They can ascertain if there is likely to be difficult terrain, steps or poor parking facilities. It can also provide information on any major roads close by, close medical facilities and where to meet in an emergency.
Physically inclusive spaces are those that allow each child the opportunity to access and explore indoor and outdoor areas as independently as possible. Careful planning and adjustments can minimise barriers and support independence.
However, as educators know, inclusion extends beyond physical access to the learning environment. Inclusive learning environments are those that recognise and reflect each child’s gender, ability, religion and so forth.
For example, some children learn through words (either verbal or written). Others are visual learners. Having both written and visual charts of the day’s routines can accommodate both types of learners.
New Zealand is a multicultural country. Our early childhood settings should reflect our diversity.
An important early step in planning is having up-to-date data on the people who live locally. This allows educators to tailor the learning environment to their community.
For example, think about the reading materials available and the illustrations in these. Are there a diverse range of characters in terms of race, culture and physical ability?
Participation within an inclusive learning environment
Even if children have access to the learning environment, they may not engage with it in the same way.
Therefore, children should have multiple and diverse opportunities to participate fully within the learning environment. Often this involves providing children with a choice about what to use, how and when.
Our Inclusive Practice resource advocates for creative and imaginative play. This play allows children to express themselves freely and make and do things by themselves.
Children should have the opportunity to explore available resources in their own way, with or without an end product. They should be given ample time to be creative and engage fully in the process.
Inclusive spaces also maximise each child’s opportunity to interact with other children and adults.
Educators will know some children are comfortable speaking in a group, while others may prefer to communicate one-on-one or non-verbally. It is important to provide time and space to connect with all children. For example, is there a space for quiet conversations with a more shy child?
The learning environment extends to the daily routines within an early childhood setting. While having a predictable schedule and consistent routines may seem mundane, they provide ‘extraordinary learning in everyday opportunities’ (The Education State, 2023).
For example, provide children with a labelled place to put their belongings. This helps them actively manage their belongings as they arrive and leave daily. In doing so, they are building independence, resilience and thinking skills.
Additionally, the predictability and structure of routines support children with anxiety to participate because they know what to expect. If educators are going to make changes, tell the child beforehand and give them a clear idea of what will happen.
The third feature of inclusive learning environments is supports – educators are not alone. Forming partnerships with families and other professionals ensures they can provide individualised support and promote inclusion.
Examples of inclusive learning environments are those with a warm drop-off area or that host a Family Meet and Greet. These provide opportunities for educators to connect with families and share information about a child, such as the differences between school and home.
Including All Children uses meals as an example.
A child may be used to having their main meal in the middle of the day and a light snack in the evening or saying a prayer before eating. When educators communicate with families, they can find the best way to work with their child.
Final thoughts on inclusive learning environments
Inclusive practice in early childhood is about creating opportunities for all children to engage in daily experiences instead of planning alternative or separate experiences for any child.
An inclusive learning environment is no different.
By considering access, participation, and supports, educators can create an environment where children feel safe, confident, and a sense of belonging.
Pennsylvania State University. (2022). Building an Inclusive Environment in Early Childhood Classrooms. Retrieved from https://extension.psu.edu/programs/betterkidcare/news/building-an-inclusive-environment-in-early-childhood-classrooms
The Education State. (2023). Routines: Extraordinary learning in everyday opportunities. Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/providers/edcare/Three-Year-Old-Kindergarten-Teaching-Toolkit/Tip-Sheet-9-Routines-V4.pdf