We all want to create the very best environment for our children in preschool and elementary school, right? But sometimes in the chaos of everyday life, it’s difficult to figure this all out.

If you’re like me, your kids have way too many things. Grandparents heap toys (and hopefully books) on them for birthdays and Christmas. Wonderful friends with kids just a few years older load us up with the toys their child has outgrown. At the church consignment sale, it’s difficult to resist that awesome toy that you child loves over at a neighbor’s house.

But at the end of the day, here’s what our children really need for a great learning environment:

They need to feel safe

Of course there’s basic physical safety. But safety is also found in rituals, trusting relationships, safety, and dependability.

I try to foster this with our girls in a variety of ways. On Sunday mornings, we have pancakes or waffles for breakfast. On Friday nights, we watch a movie together and eat dinner in the family room. There is a lovely rhythm to our lives that isn’t inflexible, but brings safety in its regularity.

They need to use their emotions

Humor, songs, and rituals all contribute to children using their emotions. Anything that we can do as parents to help them identify what they’re feeling and express their emotions is a WIN in our parenting.

Provide a multisensory environment

Using real materials is always preferable to a toy that only has one use. Building blocks that can become anything the imagination has to offer are preferable to toys that can only serve one purpose. Music, chants and rhymes in play create wonderful multisensory situations.

Playing outdoors is possibly the very best way to play in a multisensory environment. I am reading an increasing amount about how our children are nature-starved. Let your children run and play freely any time you can – in the yard, at the park, wherever you can find some green space to explore.

Help children plan and create

An important skill for our children is learning to think. How does that strike you – easy? Or incredibly difficult?

Here’s what we know. The more children receive opportunities for planning and reflection, the better learner they become. We need to look for ways to help our children reflect, predict, question, and hypothesize.

When my daughter Grace was five or so, she saw some sort of fashion show in a little cartoon. It became her mission in life to plan and implement a fashion show. So for round one, I let her pick out some outfits for herself and her little sister, create an invitation to have a few friends over for dinner, and she worked with my husband created a fashion show playlist. Before dinner, she and her sister strutted down the makeshift aisle of chairs to the playlist and that was a wrap. I thought I was finished with fashion shows.

But no. A year or so later, she began planning a much more involved fashion show. I’ll be honest – I used every diversion tactic to distract her. But she was determined that a fashion show, complete with new dresses and models and invitations and a “feast,” was going to happen. Sure enough, with lots of help that I eventually gave in and helped her, and along with five cousins, her fashion show dream became a reality.

Characteristics by Stage

According the NYAEC, here are some general characteristics of children that can help you in creating great learning environments.

Babies & Toddlers

  • Young infants (0 to 9 months) seek security.
  • Mobile infants (8 to 18 months) are eager to explore.
  • Toddlers (16 to 36 months) are working on their identity; they want to know who they are and who’s in charge.

Preschoolers: Ages 3 – 5

  • Thrive when they can experience new materials, roles, ideas, and activities—especially in pretend play
  • Take great interest in feelings and become better able to express their emotions and identify those of others
  • Make important cognitive gains that invite them to represent their world in pretend play, symbols, objects, drawings, and words
  • Show astonishing gains in language skills

Approaching kindergarten: Ages 5-6

Children at this age take great intellectual leaps, and go through a major shift, allowing them to develop more:

  • personal responsibility
  • self-direction
  • logical thinking

Growth affects development across physical, social and emotional, cognitive, and language domains.