Covid-19: Rethinking Early Years Environments
Updated: May 15, 2021
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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.
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]