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Covid-19: Rethinking Early Years Environments

Updated: May 15, 2021


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New beginnings.

It’s fair to say that the early years workforce has had a lot to contend with in recent months. Considering all the practical, logistical, physical and administrative changes you’ve had to make (literally over-night), I understand how physically exhausting and emotionally draining the last few months have been. Therefore, through this post, I’d just like to offer some reassurance and support for you all during these unsettling times and urge you to support each other and share your experiences, thoughts, frustrations and success stories with the wider early years community.

Top tip: Join a dedicated early years Covid-19 Facebook group like this one where you can ask questions, share ideas and get support from each other plus free advice from a range of experienced early years professionals, lecturers, and consultants.

As we try to negotiate this new territory and interpret the guidelines for coronavirus in early years settings, I appreciate there is still such a lot of uncertainty in the air. There are few things we can be sure of at the moment but what I am certain of is that things have changed! Whether we like it or not, things will have to be different - at least for the foreseeable future.


The Good news

For those of us running and working in high quality settings, we will already have high standards of hygiene, we will already be routinely washing and disinfecting our surfaces, toys and resources. We will already be steam cleaning our large soft furnishings and carpets and running our cushion covers and dress-up clothes through the washing machine. We will already maximise the outdoor area no matter how small and have maximum ventilation indoors. However, even settings with the best hygiene practices will have to turn it up a notch! It’s just an unsettling truth that we will all get used to over time.


Crossroads

With this in mind, many of us in the early years community feel we are at a crossroads. Settings across the country (and the globe) are reconsidering and redesigning their layouts, methods, resources, curriculum, key-person groups and routines. Some things will work, some things will not. Our processes, systems, policies and procedures will change and evolve with time and each setting will have its own unique approach and will interpret the guidance differently. We must remember not to judge each other but support each other as we enter the unknown and try to navigate this ‘new normal’ together.


As well as advice regarding cleaning, routines, layouts and transitions, the various coronavirus guidance offers loose recommendations regarding resources – in particular, which ones to keep and which ones to temporarily suspend. I’m not going to tell you what to do here, or how to organise your environments, that’s your area of expertise - ask the children, consult with the parents, involve your staff and use your knowledge of the children to act as advocates on their behalf. But, please, whatever your outlook is regarding resources and environments - remember this,

"The most important resource in the child's environment is the adult!" [i]

So let’s begin – What changes have we made so far?

As I said, each setting will interpret the guidance differently. Some settings have gone the whole hog and stripped their indoor environment of all unessential resources, others - I can barely notice a difference - with soft furnishings and porous resources still in place. Lots of settings have taken everything outdoors because they have the space whilst their indoor environment consists of a make-shift maze of one-way systems leading from their outdoor area to the toilets. Some indoor environments are temporarily wall to wall full of black sacks containing soft furnishings and hard to clean resources. Some are allowing play with soapy water, others are not. Some are continuing to use hard to clean loose parts, others are not. Confused? I find it useful to refer to the welfare requirements of the EYFS and the "Early years inspection handbook for Ofsted registered provision" which between them are pretty clear that settings must comply with health and safety legislation including hygiene requirements. (I am aware Ofsted inspections have been temporarily suspended but that doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to offer the best possible care). Don’t despair! You can get your enabling (washable) indoor environment back again – and dare I say, it will be even better than before!


A note about hard-to-clean resources.

Before I begin, I’d like to explain that I will be sharing some images of minimalist early years environments from around the world that are architecturally astounding! – I understand that unless you’ve got several million pounds in the bank you cannot replicate these types of transformations but I wanted to share these images for inspirational purposes only as we get used to a ‘new normal’. (I’m also aware that some of these images contain hard-to-clean soft furnishings but I still feel they demonstrate my point that minimalist environments can still feel homely and inviting)


Like me, you may have invested heavily in loose parts play, you’ve ditched all your plastic toys and equipment and replaced them with natural, open-ended resources only to be hit with a global pandemic – the kind that loves to lurk in porous, non-washable items that are shared between children.


We’ve been seduced by the Pinterest and Instagram images of environments draped in hessian and faux ivy and you’ve got more willow balls and driftwood twigs than you can shake a stick at! (no pun intended). You’ve spent a lot of time (and money in some cases) procuring natural resources such as sticks, pine cones, tree bark, moss, driftwood twigs, willow balls, coconut shells, wood chip, bell cups, log cuttings and corks to name a few, only to be advised by those in authority that hard-to-clean equipment and resources should be temporally suspended! I feel your pain! But don’t despair, these important resources will make a comeback and there are plenty of alternative loose parts play materials that ARE washable – more on that later!




Over the last few weeks, I’ve had many discussions with friends and colleagues about how to provide the right environment at this time. Over and over, I’ve heard “What am I going to do?” “All our resources are natural!” “None of it is easy to wipe clean!”. If your setting has developed into an emporium of hard to clean knick-knacks and boot-sale bargains in an attempt to create that sought after Hygge-inducing homely environment,

many of you are asking the question “Does sterile have to mean uninviting?” Thankfully, with careful thought, the answer is “No!” – here’s how:

Japanese minimalist philosophy

Japanese minimalist philosophy is characterised by leading a happy, clutter-free life. According to minimalism ‘less is more’. Fewer toys and resources, equals less clutter and more happiness and well-being. This approach is popularised by the likes of Marie Kondo, author of ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. The idea of minimalism according to Marie Kondo is to do away with all non-essentials – to exist in an environment that is streamlined and elegant, where there’s only room for the necessities and each one has its own place.


When I read Marie Kondo’s book a year or so ago, I drew two significant comparisons with early years practice which I’d like to discuss. Firstly, like many others, I couldn’t help but think about the Montessori method, which in essence is a seemingly minimalist approach and secondly, I noticed the spiritual/religious aspect of Kondo’s approach that fosters ‘Awe and Wonder’. For those of you that are not familiar with Marie Kondo’s method - here is a quick overview.


Montessori and minimalism

Montessori settings, refer to “the prepared environment.” This means that the early years educators take a lot of care to prepare their classroom with the children in mind. If you have ever walked into a genuine, authentic, high quality Montessori classroom, you probably noticed how calm it felt and that the activities were carefully prepared so that everything was ready for the children to experience success. You possibly noticed how children return their learning items, look after them and even clean them. The children have a sense of calm and self-awareness (that, by the way, lends itself well to social distancing) and they can concentrate for longer periods of time. You probably noticed that everything was in its place and that there was beauty and elegance for the children to enjoy in the form of carefully considered plants and artwork. In Montessori settings, there is nothing unnecessary in the space - a minimalist approach with a touch of cosiness so it feels more like an ultra-modern home than a classroom. Maria Montessori herself said that:

“Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness” [ii]

Awe, wonder and minimalism

It is widely understood that Marie Kondo’s minimalist approach is based on an ancient Japanese way of life called Shinto. Coincidentally, Shinto is referred to as:

“a religion of awe, [and] wonder... It’s a natural response to the mystery of existence. Children typically have it, but adults lose the sense of wonder through being mired down by the mundane nature of modern life.” [iii]

As an early years educator obsessed with sparking children’s awe and wonder any which way I can, Marie Kondo’s method of surrounding ourselves with minimal items that spark maximum joy in order to experience the real awe and wonder of the world around us really struck a chord with me!





Sensory-friendly spaces and minimalism

As a side-note, I’d like to share my thoughts on ‘sensory friendly spaces’.

With my daughter due to start Reception class this September, I recently looked around several primary schools. I have to say, in almost all cases, I was overwhelmed by the ‘busyness’ of the physical environment! In almost all cases, every inch of the walls and ceilings were saturated with writing, text, colours, textures, objects, artefacts, ‘wow moments’, children’s work and instructions! I found it far too much to absorb and actually became quite bewildered and disoriented in some instances. Even the classrooms that erred on the side of neutral colours and ambient lighting still felt cluttered and oppressive (and in some cases a bit dindgy!) I couldn’t help but imagine how this could overwhelm any small child who was trying to make sense of his or her surroundings, let alone those with sensory processing issues and sensitivities!


Following this experience, I see the coronavirus guidance as an opportunity to de-clutter and create more sensory friendly spaces for our children! I personally think that paring down our resources and reducing the chaos in our environments is exactly what we ought to be doing regardless of the coronavirus guidance – this has just forced our hand a bit.

I understand this may not be welcomed by everyone – after all, you’ve worked hard on your existing environment and spent time and money collecting your resources so that children have a good variety that is both plentiful and interesting. I’m not suggesting you throw anything away but perhaps just think more carefully about what really needs to be in the setting. Consider what is surplus to requirement and how to store and rotate your resources accordingly. I’m also not assuming that you have storage space for all your ‘unessential’ items and yes – if your indoor area looks more like a storage facility at the moment while you operate mainly from outside, we will just have to muddle through the best we can, but over time, I hope that our indoor environments return in a way that is not only more hygienic but comfortable and homely through a minimalist approach.




Does minimal and ‘sterile’ have to mean uninviting?

The short answer is ‘No!’ What is most pleasing to me is that we CAN continue to spark children’s awe and wonder through carefully planned, enabling environments by adopting a minimalist approach which is not only inviting and homely but also conducive to the highest of hygiene standards that will withhold thorough cleaning, disinfecting and even sterilisation at this time.


The need for change - Planning for peace of mind.

Here’s an inspirational quote from Socrates before we get going:

"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new." [iv]

Hessian – This became super-trendy a while back (My own wedding in 2014 is testament to that), but the trend sprawled over from themed weddings and festivals into early years settings because of its neutral, warm tone and softening texture. Nowadays it’s not unusual to see nursery walls, ceilings and displays draped in hessian - which is not as much of an issue because children can’t touch it but many settings are choosing to remove hessian where it is in direct contact with the children as it is not easy to keep clean.

Top tip: Try a neutral-coloured, wipeable material like log/ leaf printed PVC available to purchase by the metre from several online stores or well-known home-ware shops.

Cable reels – These are very popular in early years settings. They are perfect for kneeling height and invite children to play in a unique way unlike a normal table top. Unless they are treated with the correct sealant, they will be hard to disinfect due to their porous natural wood. Some settings have chosen to keep cable reels in place but cover them with a wipeable PVC table cloth – the judgement call is yours.


Top tip: "Store your toys/resources in plastic baskets with gaps or holes in - these can be washed with hot soapy water and fully submerged in sterilising solution along with their contents. (The holes/gaps prevent dust build-up and allow for air-drying).”

Wooden toys/building blocks – these items are intended by the manufacturer for use as a toy, as such, these items are treated with a sealant that means you can wipe them clean but they are still porous and cannot be submerged in water or sterilising solution. Continuing use of these items is a judgement call. Some settings have suspended use of wooden toys and building blocks because they cannot be submerged in sterilising fluid, other settings are confident that a wipe down with soap and disinfectant will suffice! A common sense approach is necessary here – if younger children are regularly mouthing these resources then perhaps reserve them for the older children. If use of items such as these that cannot be fully cleaned causes undue anxiety for staff and parents – then perhaps a temporary suspension is in order? It’s your call!


Top tip: Keep a plastic ‘to-be-washed’ bin with a lid in every area (out of reach) – if a child mouths/sneezes etc on an object and you can’t clean it there and then, just pop it in there to be thoroughly cleaned as soon as is practicable (don't forget to wash your hands afterwards)

Treated wooden furniture (Community Playthings and the like) – These are treated so that they can be washed down with hot soapy water and disinfected and allowed to air dry. You cannot saturate these too much because they are still slightly porous but many settings will be advised to continue using these to maintain that much needed warm wooden tone that contributes to a homely feel.


Soft furnishings, rugs and cushions – Some settings have chosen to keep soft furnishings and rugs in place, although I will stress this:


"Public health advice is to remove all soft toys, and any toys that are hard to clean, such as those with intricate parts. Where practicable, remove soft furnishings, for example pillows, bean bags and rugs." [v]

it is recommended that rugs are replaced with wipeable mats and cushions if possible. It is wise to discourage children from resting their faces on ‘shared’ cushions or assign a cushion for each individual child. This of course, will require close supervision so that they don’t share.

Top tip: I personally love the effect you can create from these affordable wipe clean gym mats from Ikea – (you can just about see one in this photo) I can imagine them being used in a cozy, minimalist book corner or reading nook with natural greens and warm neutral tones.


Books – it has been suggested that we select fewer books for each ‘bubble’ then rotate between ‘bubbles’ after they have been wiped clean and quarantined for several days. Here, I also see an opportunity to take a leaf out of Steiner’s book (no pun intended – again - sorry) and tell stories rather than read them from books to compensate for having less books for the time-being,

"Telling stories is better than reading them, because the child must imagine his own pictures. This ability to imagine is an important step in preparation for reading." [vi]


Sensory resources such as water, sand and playdough - Due to the potential for germs to spread in these resources, it is advised that they are temporarily suspended. We could take inspiration from Japan here. It is common that children who attend early years settings in Japan have their own tin of white, light-weight clay or ‘Nendo’ and tools that stay in the nursery and are replaced by the parents when necessary. As a whole group, they make their own creations and there is no squabbling over tools or colours because everyone has the same. A different approach - slightly restrictive - but worth a try?




Individual trays of resources - Another important point about many early years settings in Japan is that children bring in their own resources that are kept in the setting– the children each have a large cubby hole which houses all their belongings including clay, individually labelled crayons (each crayon is labelled!) paper and bedding!

Top tip: Have a system more akin to reception class – where children have their own large tray where they can store their own pencils, paper and with close supervision - water bottles that are kept in the setting and cleaned by the staff.

Light - There are several ways to create calm and tranquility without the traditional soft furnishings that we are used to. Lighting plays a vital role in providing enabling environments and without a doubt, natural light is essential. Those settings with smaller windows and limited natural light can compensate for this with carefully placed ‘warm white’ lights that are out of reach and offer a homely touch (these don’t have to be as fancy as this picture – but it’s good for inspiration)




The 7 senses

We may be temporarily limiting sensory exploration in the form of touch, taste and smell in the name of health and safety but don’t forget about our other senses! I see this as an opportunity to use, develop and really hone in on the children's other senses – you never know, something unexpected and amazing could happen!


Don’t overlook the following senses:

Hearing – a chance to use calming music and sounds, animal noises, waves, nature, panpipes, water falls, wind-chimes, classical music and more.


Sight – use carefully considered ambient lights, rainbow wind chimes, out of reach projection wheels, colour changing lava lamps, disco balls, hurricane tubes, light tubes and more.


Vestibular (related to movement and head position) - try socially distanced children’s yoga, tai-chi, gentle rocking, stretches and animal walking.

Top tip: Children’s yoga is just what children need right now – a time for calm, deep breathing and socially-distanced stretches.

Proprioception (bodily awareness - where our limbs are in relation to our trunk, the sense of effort, force and heaviness) – try socially distanced gymnastics or karate, plus pushing and pulling activities (sweeping and mopping), and heavy lifting activities (tidying up and shoveling).

Top tip: Stick fun foot prints/dinosaur prints/paw prints on the floor to help children maintain safe distances

Recommended resources - A resurgence of plastic!

I’m afraid lots of settings have resigned to the fact that we are going to have to tolerate a lot more plastic until normality resumes. Plastic toys have received a lot of bad press lately but there’s a reason why we make toys out of plastic! It’s time to bring out my personal favourite – Duplo - The original (and some say the best) resource for loose parts play! Click here for all the inspiration you need to make Duplo your number one resource this year!


Don’t overlook ‘old school’ washable loose parts/ STEM resources such as Unifix cubes, Numicom, Stickle bricks, Popoids and Mobilo to name a few - all of these items will undoubtedly make a come-back because they will withstand high temperatures and can be fully submerged in sterilising solution or steam cleaned! (check manufacturers guidelines first).

Top tip: Put hardy plastic toys like Duplo or Mobilo in a laundry bag and wash in a dishwasher or washing machine – hang the whole thing to dry in the hot sun to save time on towel drying everything.

Recyclable plastics – spend your summer collecting strawberry punnets, yogurt pots, ice cream and margarine tubs, bottles and lids - they can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before use (although they will melt at high temperatures) – the punnets will come in handy for storing small loose parts and the little holes prevent dust build up and can be drained. The rest will have a multitude of uses.


Washable tinker trays– of course, you don’t need me to tell you that you can still use plastic bottle tops, buttons, glass nuggets, plastic beads, nuts and bolts (beware of choking!) shells, shot glasses, metal / plastic curtain hoops and plastic pegs due to their non-porous, washable qualities.

Top tip: Replace untreated wooden tinker trays with plastic cutlery trays for the time-being.

Real cutlery, crockery, kitchenware and other breakables encourage children to respect their resources and have better self-awareness. Children are less likely to charge about when these resources are out and will more likely show care for their environment – all of which aid calming, socially distanced play!

Top tip: Nervous about making up your own sterilising fluid with thin bleach and water but also worried about spending a fortune on branded sterilising fluid/tablets? – look out for inexpensive alternative brands in budget stores and supermarkets.

Opportunities to strengthen partnerships with parents.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the co-education of our children has never before been so important! Parents have never played such a vital role in their children’s education since compulsory schooling began last century. I see this as an opportunity to embrace this partnership and enlist the help of parents in providing a range of experiences for children - particularly the ones that we have to limit at the setting such as sand/water play, playdough and natural resources.

Top tip: Produce a co-education newsletter for parents that stress the importance of sand/water/playdough and how they can inexpensively provide these at home for the time-being.

And don’t forget to breathe...

Dealing with the daily restrictions of isolated ‘bubbles’, limited resources and make-shift outdoor classrooms will no doubt take its toll on many of us! With all the advice and guidance in the world, when all is said and done, we are still going to have to dig deep in the coming months! Let’s face it? - nobody has all the answers and this is why, more than ever, we need to help and support each other within a non-judgemental, encouraging and ‘human’ environment. Never before have we had to draw so much upon our own patience, resilience and courage as a workforce. Never before have our skills, knowledge and experience been so important in meeting the needs of children, parents, families and society as a whole. We’ve got to try our hardest to keep our heads as we adjust to new procedures whilst bearing the brunt of the stress and uncertainty so that the little people we serve don’t have to! As L.R Knost (2013) would say,

It’s a time to share our calm, not join the chaos. [vii]

Over to you.

There’s still so much we haven’t covered so please share what you are doing in relation to any of the above or regarding snacks, drinks and lunches, transitions, children with SEND, outdoor classrooms and so on...don't forget to check out the super-useful links below! We’ve also set up a dedicated early years recovery phase support group on Facebook called "Early Years and Covid-19 - A place to share advice and support" – to join and comment, please click here!


Super-useful resources:

100 uses of sterilising fluid:

https://www.milton-tm.com/en/consumer/100-uses

The Nursery Manager’s Guide to Infection Control: https://www.principalhygiene.co.uk/uploads/images/sections/Guide%20to%20infection%20control%20(1).pdf