Classroom Environments
  • 01 Feb 2024
  • 22 Minutes to read

Classroom Environments

Article summary

Click each link below to jump to the Classroom Environment sections:


The classroom’s physical environment, both indoor and outdoor, set the stage for learning. The physical environment sends strong messages to children and adults about what is valued, who is valued, and what learning can occur within the spaces designed. As the teacher, your mindset is visible in the environment. The type of activities and learning that go on are reflective of your mindset. The emotional environment created by the teacher is also important. You should look to see that the values between the physical and emotional environment show consistency.

The majority of a child’s day is spent in the physical environment you design. Design your space in a way that offers children the opportunity to feel comfortable owning the space. It is their space as much as yours.

No matter how your space currently looks, you must continuously reflect on the space and use of space to make updates and changes that provide improvement.

When you are in the mindset of a reflective practitioner, nothing is ever indeed “done” or complete. While things should run smoothly, there are always opportunities to improve and enhance your program, thoughts, and experiences for children for this year’s particular group of children.

The terms environment and space mean all indoor AND outdoor spaces children use. Sometimes, people consider only indoor space; however, outdoor spaces often have more space and opportunities to create than what may be available indoors. In most parts of the country, outdoor spaces can host a full range of activities, not just gross motor play, throughout the school year.

Indoor & Outdoor

Here are a few questions to think about as you design your environment, both indoor and outdoor:

Environmental Messages to Children

What messages do I want to send to children about this space? Does a child say/think/feel this in your physical environment?

  • This space is mine. It is designed just for me as a preschooler.
  • My teacher trusts me to use these materials and put them in my reach so I can have access.
  • I know where things are, I can access them, and it makes sense to me.
  • I am becoming more independent and want to do things for myself. My classroom has everything organized so I can use what I need and help take care of the classroom when it is time to clean up.
  • I am learning a lot of new things as I become more independent, and my teacher trusts in me.
  • I am a competent and capable learner, and my teacher gives experiences to show and grow my learning. My teacher listens to my classmates and me.
  • Both our spoken words and non-verbal cues send messages about how we use the physical environment.
  • I feel at home here. This is MY classroom.

Environmental Messages to Families

What messages do I want to send to families about this space? How might an adult family member respond to the environment?

  • Wow, my child is trusted here.
  • Everything is at my child’s level so that they can be a part of the action.
  • The organization tells me a lot of thought went into this space.
  • There seems to be just the right amount out. It is not overwhelming and feels intentional and meaningful in this space. My child can learn and grow, feeling safe here.
  • My child, and all children, are represented here (e.g., photographs, books, posters, etc.).
  • This space tells me that teachers care about my child.

Discovering Current Messages About Physical Environment

What messages are currently sent by the physical environment?

Entry Space
• Does the entry space welcome families? Include images of families, comfortable adult-size furnishings, other pictures, and messages that say, “both you and your child are welcome here.”
• Are messages for families framed and phrased in a positive, inclusive way? (e.g., We love our ECDC families. Your family is important to us).
• Even if a program’s make-up is not diverse (e.g., race, ethnicity, language, ability), are visuals diverse? Would a potential new diverse family come to visit and feel represented?
• If using bulletin boards, are they current and inclusive of child-created elements? Bulletin boards should be free of faded, torn, or outdated material.
• Is there a current lesson plan posted and dated where families can easily view it? It is fine to post modifications for learning activities in addition to the lesson plan. Still, individual modifications and accommodations must not be displayed, due to confidentiality and legal reasons, including HIPAA and FERPA.

Indoor Furniture and Ambience
• Is the furniture arranged so that there are not large spaces for running indoors?
• Are furniture pieces arranged so that there is line-of-sight supervision for teachers?
• Does the furniture arrangement, including area rugs, help define boundaries of various centers and send visual messages?
• Are there larger, open spaces for centers that need more space to work (e.g., construction/block) and smaller, cozy spaces that allow more personal space to rest and recharge? It can be overwhelming for some children to share space with so many others for so many hours a day.
• Does the classroom utilize daylight from windows, whenever possible?
• Are lamps used to create a homey feel, adjust light levels in the room, and to bring more so light options than fluorescent lighting can (pics of hanging lamps, touch lamps, area/bedside lamps in classrooms, twinkle lights)?

Outdoor Furniture & Ambience
• Does the space look like the community, using safe, native plants and topography to represent the area? Are steps taken to soften the hardscape by adding so objects and soft surfaces (e.g., grass, mats, old comforter) for infants and young toddlers’ comfort?
• How have indoor centers been extended to provide opportunities to continue similar play outdoors (e.g., seating area with books, infant/toddler-sized sensory table, mud kitchen, materials for building, wall/fence painting), and infant/toddler gross motor play?
• Are there spaces for individual or small numbers of toddlers to work and play that offer uninterrupted space as well as easy supervision? In what ways have I maximized the physical space provided to benefit children’s development and well- being throughout the day?

• Are materials intentional, meaning there is a purpose to including it in the environment (e.g., not because it’s “cute” or theme-related)?
• Are colors used and displayed in meaningful ways, and not overwhelming to the eye?
• Are natural materials and natural colors used?
• Is the space comfortable and homey, not institutional? Remember, children may spend 11 hours a day in this environment.
• Does the space represent the children and families expressly, and the community generally? Ask families to bring in family pictures, share family messages, and use pictures of the class’s children throughout the room. Including baby dolls, puzzles, artifacts, toy people sets, and other toys representing various races, ethnicities, and abilities in positive and affirming ways (e.g., not token or costumed) is essential, even if the group of children and families are not diverse.
• Does the space look like the community? This may include photos of local buildings and locations recognizable to children represented in a homemade book in the construction area, images of the local built environment superimposed on blocks to encourage play. Are well-loved materials included, so long that they are in good condition?

Quality and quantity of materials
• There are enough materials for a given center so that multiple children can use materials reasonably.
• Because toddlers have a difficult time sharing, identical materials are presented in sets equal to the number of children in the group to reduce frustration over materials (e.g., for a group of six, there are six puzzles available, six buckets and six shovels).
• Materials include authentic (real) objects whenever possible (e.g., actual kitchen tools and pots and pans in the mud kitchen). While child-size is important, so is authenticity.
• Variety, so that materials can be rotated to maintain interest.

Living things for children to care for
Plants - There are many hearty plant varieties, including those that may not need much/any light. For plants at child-level, consider plants that are not poisonous if ingested. For plants at child-level, consider plants that are not poisonous if ingested. Plants can also be on top of high shelves or hung in baskets to bring nature indoors. Plant selection is also important outdoors and varies significantly based on your space, location (planting zone), and the sun/shade available. In many parts of the country, plants are an important part of creating outdoor classroom space. Follow your local licensing rules regarding plants (indoor and outdoor).

  • Toddlers should be involved in caring for plants.
  • Toddlers must learn how to handle plants so as not to damage them carefully.
  • Include books about plant care as references in the classroom.

**Animals **- Choose classroom pets that you have researched, considering all of the animal’s needs. Some choices may include fish, hermit crab, rabbit, guinea pig. For pets that can be petted or handled, consider getting them while young and handling frequently. Follow your local licensing rules regarding pets in your classroom. (any other links - articles about classroom pets, anything from CDC?).

  • Toddlers should be involved in caring for the pet(s).
  • Toddlers must learn how to treat animals (e.g., don’t poke their bodies or faces) and how to read the animal’s cues (e.g., relaxed versus tense) to have positive experiences.
  • Animals must always be handled with adult supervision, and children should wash their hands afterward.
  • Include books about animal care (specific to the pet(s) you have) as references.

Accessible Materials
• Accessible materials are those which children have access to. Accessible materials are within child reach and at child level. They don’t need to ask to get them because they are accessible. Available materials are those that the teacher has available (e.g., books for new themes or arising interests, additional manipulatives, things to rotate) but they are not out for children to use at their level. Both have their place in an early childhood classroom.
• Are materials accessible for children to use (versus adults having to get and control access to materials)?
• Does the room arrangement send messages to children about where to use materials (e.g., A table adjacent to a shelf of manipulatives says this is where to bring the manipulatives, a so mat for babies on open floor space with toys arranged to explore near)?
• Are materials for infants and toddlers accessible to them, with unsafe materials (e.g., cleaning supplies, choking hazards) inaccessible to children? Are extra consumable materials (e.g., chunky toddler crayons and markers, butcher block paper) readily available for me to restock and make accessible for specific activities?
• Are extra non-consumables (e.g., theme-related materials, additional books, props) organized and available, even if not in the classroom / outdoor space?

Intentional Organization
• Can children see, reach, use, and return materials without assistance, promoting independence?
• Are materials organized in logical ways, based on the space/center (add examples)?
• Are all materials purposeful, used, and useful?
• Are unused or unneeded materials removed to prevent clutter and promote the intentional inclusion of materials?

Promoting Independence
• Can the children in my group access the things they need to be successful independently?
• If I provide some support or experiences, how could children become more independent?

Increasing child control while teachers are in charge
• Does my environment have me controlling what and how children access materials during most of the day, which does not promote independence?
• Have I set up the environment so that children know I am in charge, but they have control over many parts of the day and what/how they interact with the environment?
• Have I included children in setting up the environment?

Involving Children

Do children have a voice in how the physical environment develops during the year?

  • The physical environment continues to grow as the class grows.
  • I keep adjusting things (adding, removing) as needed, but not in a way where the environment becomes unpredictable to children.
  • I include children in conversations and the work of adjusting the physical environment because it is OUR classroom, not just mine. Even with infants and young toddlers who may not be able to share a lot of ideas using expressive words, I recognize them as people and include them as I talk about changes and moving things. Toddlers can help move things, reasonably for their age, which helps them know where things will be.

Sharing Power With Children In Design of Physical Environment

  • Am I willing to give up some control and share power with children in designing the physical environment during the year?
  • I am willing to have conversations with children about how the space is working / not working and get feedback from children.
  • I am willing to have conversations with families about how the space is working / not working and get feedback from families.
  • I am willing to use children’s and families’ ideas to adjust parts of the environment that are not working for the class.
  • I am willing to include children in making adjustments because their input and valuing their voices are vital to their development.

Ideas for Maximizing Design of Indoor & Outdoor Classroom Spaces

  • Every physical space, indoor and outdoor, will have its physical challenges and drawbacks. Do your best to take advantage of every space available and maximize its use. Here are a few ideas:
  • Design attractive and inviting spaces with available furniture. Remember, less is more.
  • Create learning centers with ample storage for materials organized in a way that makes sense.
  • Designate a large group gathering area where the entire group can fit comfortably. This is often where block/construction play occurs during center time, due to space needed for this type of play.
  • Think of classroom organization as a place for everything and everything in its place.
  • Add related materials on Monday, and additional materials on Wednesday, depending upon observations of need and interest. This will encourage exploration and enhance children’s learning and curiosity.
  • Locate quiet areas apart from noisier ones. Remember, children need variety based on individual needs and preferences and cycles throughout the day.
  • Children spend as many as 11 hours in your space, which can be overwhelming to certain children.
  • Display children’s current art throughout the classroom. Be sure it is art rather than craft.
  • A well-organized classroom encourages children to interact predictably and efficiently. Predictability in schedule and organization helps children to gain confidence in trust in you and school.
  • Set up activities in a way that encourages independence, with materials accessible and organized nearby.
  • Design individual workspaces with carpet squares, trays, work mats, etc. This helps to define personal space and sends a message as to how many children can comfortably work in an area.
  • Display photographs of children engaged in activities and those of children’s families in attractive ways.
  • Label shelves and storage containers with words and pictures to encourage independence in getting and returning materials. Write words in languages prevalent in the community, utilizing family/community resources if not within the center staff.
  • Create a “lost and found” container for loose objects. Promote creativity with a variety of enhancements, including natural materials, found/recyclable materials. Sometimes, these are called loose parts. (can do a whole section on loose parts).
  • For teacher-directed activities such as small groups or large groups, organize materials in advance for the task. This reduces child wait-time and enhances attention during teacher-directed activities.
  • Use print in meaningful ways, from labeling and organizing materials to children’s names and other important words. A print-rich classroom establishes a connection between the spoken word and the written word.


Messaging to families

Have a space set up where you can easily post messages to families on a dry-erase board. This is often near where sign-in/sign-out occurs, or near the classroom door, depending upon how your building is set up.

General Setup

The classroom must meet the needs of the children who use the space and the teaching staff. Included are essential environmental considerations for several centers and setups, but keep these factors in mind when it comes to classroom setup:

  • Remain flexible. Centers and their location can move as it makes sense to do so.
  • Materials can move. Materials do not have to “live” in only one area. For example, books belong in every center (examples ahead), clipboards and pencils are useful in multiple spaces.
  • Stay organized. Containers (including inventive ones) and labels, and “a space for everything, with everything in its space” help children feel secure knowing there is a plan.
  • Less is more. While it is useful to have additional materials to add, what is at children’s level (accessible) should be enough without being overwhelming. Having too much out can make clean-up overwhelming.
  • Supervision is key. Check your room set-up from several different spaces where you are likely to be when children are throughout the area (indoor and outdoor). While children need and deserve privacy and space, your setup should also allow for manageable supervision without interruption.

Indoor and Outdoor

Many activities can occur both indoors and outdoors.

Infusing literacy and math throughout each center

It is helpful for children to experience literacy and math in meaningful ways. This starts with a classroom set up across centers. Here are a few suggestions:


  • Include board books in every center (e.g., books featuring cities, farms, buildings in the construction area, books about butterflies or lizards in the sensory/science center).
  • Make writing and mark-making central (e.g., have small clipboards and toddler-size crayons accessible for mark making).


  • Organize materials to encourage 1:1 correspondence.
  • Organize materials by color to encourage classification. The first way children classify objects is by color.
  • Offer opportunities where counting is logical (snack, manipulatives, organization like ice cube trays).
  • Tools for measuring (measuring spoons and cups, sensory table containers marked with amounts).
  • Provocations (how many cubes can you stack)?

Quiet/Relaxation/Safe Space

  • Separated from more active play areas.
  • Logical space for just a few children.
  • Soft surfaces and objects, a rug or carpet, stuffed animals, and puppets Visual sensory toys (e.g., liquid motion sensory toys, sensory bottles, stress balls).
  • Pictures and photos of family displayed nicely on a wall, shelf, or binder.
  • Muted/filtered lighting or controlled lighting (lamps or lights with separate switches, curtains/blinds for windows).
  • Cozy space.


  • Shelving for blocks and accessories and containers for accessories.
  • Organized and labeled blocks (at least two types, enough for a reasonable number of children in the space).
  • Accessories that are always accessible, including construction or theme-related books.
  • Accessories that rotate, with extra accessories available to teachers.
  • Classmate blocks or cut-outs.
  • Overhead projector for shadow play and projection.

Dramatic play

  • Shelving and containers for props and supplies.
  • Housekeeping furniture sized for toddlers (e.g., kitchen set, pots and pans, dishes, table and chairs, cribs).
  • Science/Sensory Table
  • Shelving and containers for science materials.
  • Space to use materials (e.g., table, floor space).
  • Scientific materials for general use (e.g., hand lens, microscope, tweezers, classroom pets, eye droppers, measuring cups and spoons, magnets, play dough, clipboards and pencils for sketches and plans).
  • Scientific materials for specific themes or studies (e.g., books, robots, entomology, nature items, incubator, rocks, seeds, shells), with additional materials available to teachers.
  • Light table and overhead projector for shadow play and projection experiments.


  • Shelving and containers for writing materials.
  • Space to write (e.g., table or desk and chairs).
  • Standard writing materials sized for toddlers (e.g., small clipboards and chunky pencils, plain copy paper, well-organized markers, and crayons).


  • Shelving and containers for organized storage.
  • Toddler-size easels (preferably two, side-by-side).
  • Areas to dry, store, and display children’s work (indoor or outdoor).
  • Area to hang smocks.
  • Nearby access to child-level sink(s).
  • Non-consumable materials (e.g., sponges, paintbrushes in varying sizes, paint cups, smocks, play dough props, stencils, shatterproof mirrors, pipe cleaners).
  • Consumable materials accessible to children (e.g., various types of paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, sharpened pencils, various washable paints (purchased or homemade), play dough, glue and glue sticks, chalk) Consumable and non-consumable materials for rotation, available to teachers.
  • Overhead projector for shadow play and projection experimentation with design, light, and color.

Gross Motor

  • Toddler-size tricycles and helmets, including trikes with a back seat (e.g., taxi, bus, rickshaw).
  • Wagons.
  • Parachute.
  • Balls (and air pump/needles).
  • Large paintbrushes and rollers (think to paint your house) with buckets to paint water on fences, sidewalks, and building.
  • Sand toys, including vehicles.
  • Water table and toys.
  • Books and a book basket with a handle.
  • Outdoor easels (or fence surface) for painting.
  • Items for various uses, such as cones and beanbags.
  • Natural objects, stored in containers for use (e.g., pinecones, acorns/walnuts/seed pods, tree cookies, seashells, rocks, sticks).

Shared Use Spaces

Small Group

  • Space and seating for the small group of 3-5 to work with the teacher (e.g., table and chairs, individual mats/carpet squares on the floor).
  • Adult-level counter or top of the shelf where the day’s prepared small group materials are ready.
  • Location giving teacher visibility to scan the environment, and providing some separation from other activities.

Large Group

  • Space and seating for the whole group to gather, with teacher seating visible to the entire group (e.g., carpet for children, with low teacher chair).
  • Display/storage space for day’s large group materials, preferably movable (e.g., big book display and storage or teacher’s learning center/chart stand).
  • Access to cued-up music (e.g., CD player / portable Bluetooth speaker connected to iPod/phone).

Environment Considerations for Mealtimes

  • Rolling plastic or metal cart (2-3 levels) that can be in mealtime area as needed, and then rolled out of the way.
  • Easy access to food, serving containers, utensils, and plates/silverware (e.g., top of shelf/teacher counter, a cart).
  • Child-safe space and means to clean and store cleaning supplies.
  • Appropriate-size seating and chairs to accommodate all children and staff sitting together, including low teacher-size chairs that fit the table.
  • Close access to child-size handwashing sink(s).
  • Plan for how children will clean up (e.g., bus tub for dirty dishes, trash can nearby to scrape plate, dump milk in the sink rather than trash can). Set up the environment according to your plan.

Environment Considerations for Naptime

  • Cots or mats stored on rolling frame/container to reduce staff fatigue and speed process of naptime set-up and clean-up.
  • Laminated floor plan with a dry erase marker to indicate each child’s cot placement available for all staff.
  • Place children strategically to minimize distractors.
  • Arrangement to allow easy supervision as the teacher moves around the room.
  • Play/stream quiet music.
  • Reduce light (e.g., cover windows, turn main room lights off, use small lamps/night lights as needed) Reduce the temperature slightly, if possible.


It is essential children make digital connections as they are growing up in a digital world. However, technology must be purposeful and intentional as an open-ended tool to extend learning, grow relationships, and share understandings with peers and significant adults (i.e., family and teachers). Technology includes those items that improve the quality of life. Learning Beyond Paper provides age- appropriate technology connections throughout the curriculum.

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collaborated in the development of the Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief in 2016 to promote developmentally appropriate use of technology in homes and early learning settings.

The Departments’ four guiding principles for the use of technology with early learners are as follows:

  • Guiding Principle #1: Technology—when used appropriately—can be a tool for learning.
  • Guiding Principle #2: Technology should be used to increase access to learning opportunities for all children.
  • Guiding Principle #3: Technology may be used to strengthen relationships among parents, families, early educators, and young children.
  • Guiding Principle #4: Technology is more effective for learning when adults and peers interact or co-view with young children.

Examples of Technology in the Preschool Classroom

  • A cash register in the housekeeping center for children to play grocery shopping.
  • Assisting children with using a digital camera to take pictures of their work.
  • Using the computer with a child to search for an age-appropriate website to answer a child’s question or interest.
  • Providing a variety of audiobooks/player in your reading center.
  • Collect outdated cell phones (take out batteries) for children’s exploration.
  • Model appropriate technology behavior.
  • Provide opportunities for children to share technology tools to encourage interactions.

Visit the Resources section for additional for additional examples of technology in the classroom.

Health & Safety

Teachers are required to follow Health and Safety Policies and Procedures, which address the health and safety of children, families, staff, and volunteers. Child Care programs develop these policies based on the local and state regulatory agencies that approve and monitor childcare programs. Additionally, if you program is accredited, there are health and safety requirements included there as well. Sometimes, nutrition is included with health and safety.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s accreditation Standard 5 is Health. The Standard is: The program promotes the nutrition and health of children and protects children and staff from illness and injury. Children must be healthy and safe to learn and grow. Programs must be healthy and safe to support children’s healthy development. The NAEYC accreditation standards, including what to look for in an accredited program for each standard, can be found in the Resources section.

In February 2020, the COVID-19 virus resulted in stricter requirements to help stop the spread of the virus, which changed the health and safety guidelines of Child Care program operations. The Center for Disease Control issued guidelines for Childcare providers which can be found in the Resources section.

Health and Safety Practices

As the classroom teacher, you will consistently model health and safety practices that children will take part in to keep everyone in the classroom as healthy and safe as possible. Some policies and procedures may be school-wide or dictated by regulation (i.e., licensing or funding source), and others may be specific to your classroom.

These include health practices and procedures for hand washing, toileting, toothbrushing, sneezing and coughing, nose-blowing, and what to do with objects that have been mouthed. You’ll want to make sure you know that safety practices and procedures are for things such as handling scissors, responding to an evacuation or shelter drill, moving safely in the classroom vs. outdoors, cleaning up a spill or mess, and keep ourselves and our classmates safe. You should expect that you will repeat expectations and model consistently over time. This repetition is typical with young children, so find songs or poems to help everyone remember, and approach it with a cheerful, non-judgmental attitude as you remind and re-share. There are many teachable moments for you to capitalize on when messes occur, or there are missteps. You will want to show as much patience and compassion as possible while teaching children about health and safety throughout the day.

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