Is there such a thing as an environment that supports democratic principles? Do we even need to worry about this in early childhood programs? If there is such a thing, what does it “look” like?
Environment is such a powerful force. It can make us feel comfortable or tense. It can support making independent choices or it can control choices. Is it a “yes” or a “no” environment? Does it invite or reject? Does it support group work or does it support competition? Is cooperative learning embraced? It’s your third teacher: You, the children, and the environment! It can work for you or it can work against you. Educational environments should promote thinking, democracy, and equitability. Specifically, a learning environment should promote expression of ideas, free participation in discussions, comparing and contrasting of ideas, and lots of interactions. Does your environment support these things?
What is it that you value? What values do you want to instill in your kiddos? Does your environment provide it? Be brutally honest. For example, if you want children to be comfortable, do you ensure that there is plenty of soft seating, that they see images of others who are similar to them, that the colors are calm and provide a neutral backdrop to materials, children, and display? The need to belong is powerful! Creating that sense of “I belong here” can build relationships and may prevent some behavior issues! Belonging is essential for the motivation to learn! If you want to support democracy, or belongingness, in your classroom here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to think about:
- Ensure that all ethnicities of children in your group are represented in books, dolls, materials, and display. (Of course you can include other ethnicities! Just ensure that all children in the group can see “themselves”). But be sure to avoid any stereotypical representations. Authentic and realistic is best!
- Ensure that there are spaces for children to work together and alone.
- Provide a “peace table” with a feather or flower or wand that can be used as a “talking” tool. Children can be asked to resolve issues at the peace table.
- Acknowledge kindness: Add silk flower stems to a live plant to acknowledge kind acts in the classroom. A child or person must recognize a kind act of another and stick a flower in the plant to represent the kind act. Watch kindness grow!
- Read stories, role play stories, conduct puppet plays to illustrate sharing, turn-taking, friendship skills, and conflict resolution. Allow the children to solve the “problem”.
- Resolve “issues” in the class as a group. Talk about an “issue” rather than a person. For example, “I’ve noticed that we have a problem with grabbing and pushing to get things in our class” and then, “How can we solve this problem?” Let the problem solving begin! And ask the class to help you with seeing it through.
- Do include photos of the children in your group. Family boards are great. Photos of children working together on a project…great! Rules that illustrated by photos of children in the group…fantastic!
- Offer group projects that are created over time: Murals and assemblages of found materials can be easily incorporated into any study topic.
- Set up activities and experiments for group learning.
- Make lists of ideas. Make graphs. Make Charts. Display!
- Display children’s individual and group art.
- Plan class parties as a group.
- Use “population” control. When we control how many children play in an area, we take away opportunities for self-regulation and problem-solving. Use this as opportunities to problem solve and allow children to self-regulate (they will!). Also, ask yourself how you can enhance areas that are under-utilized. Maybe you need more dramatic materials in the science area like a lab coat, goggles, and gloves to make it more interesting.
- Ignore tattlers: Don’t redirect children to a “tattle jar” or a “tattle bear”. The message with this type of response is you don’t want to hear it. Instead, ask them how they can help…Help them be a part of the solution, not the problem! Children will learn that if they bring a problem, they can contribute to the solution.
- Forget to include parents! What makes their homes welcoming? What are things they have in their homes that could be included in your program? Familiar objects can not only create that welcoming atmosphere but also provides a sense of belonging.
- Give the answers to questions. Find the answer out together. Ask, predict, compare, contrast, analyze, discover, and LEARN TOGETHER.
I’d love to hear other ways that you promote DEMOCRACY in the early childhood classroom environment!