Like many other preschool educators, I’ve spent these past months wondering and
worrying about what preschool will look like when we reopen. How do we maintain
the essence of early childhood education - children socially interacting and
playing with each other – while trying to maintain some physical distance between
There isn’t an easy answer, and what teachers and
schools will be able to do will vary widely, depending on local regulations,
resources, community values, and school philosophies. As I’m thinking about how
to set up classrooms in a way that inspires play but encourages children to
keep some distance from each other, I realize this isn’t completely different
than things I’ve done before.
The key to setting up a classroom environment is intentional planning - using the physical environment as a “third teacher” to help guide, inspire, and provoke learning. How we arrange furniture, materials, and toys influences how children will interact with that space and those objects. Sometimes that planning has involved ways to encourage children to space themselves out in the classroom, and make room for play.
In the past, my planning focused on ways to reduce children’s conflict and stress so that they could work and play constructively while building relationships, and eventually be ready to share space and play cooperatively with peers. Now there are new reasons to give children more room to play, but the strategies are still the same.
Often teachers plan a single focal activity for the day – an art project, science experiment, or sensory experience that’s so engaging that everyone wants to do it right away! Or teachers put out the new manipulative or fresh batch of playdough and the entire class runs excitedly to play with it. Instead of having a single attractive activity, multiple interesting activities spaced away from each other can help children naturally move apart from each other. If the brand new magnet tiles are on one end of the room, and the fresh playdough is on the other, it’s easier for the children to spread out and not play in the same space.
2. Define space
Some of my favorite teaching tools are individual trays and bins. So much of children’s time in school is spent defending their space and materials from other children. For some children, worrying about someone taking their toy can become so paralyzing that they can’t relax and play. Trays and individual work stations define space, so that children can feel a sense of ownership, but can also be set up to physically space children apart from each other.
3. Provide multiples of materials
As an adult, you wouldn’t want to have to share a pen with someone else to take notes at a meeting. But we often set up this situation for children – a child wanting to paint a rainbow needs to wait until another child is done with the purple before putting on the final stripe. Having enough materials means children can stay focused on their play, and feel secure that they will have what they need. Having duplicate materials in individual work space also limits the need for passing and sharing objects that might also spread germs.
4. Loose parts
Providing multiples of materials can be challenging. For store-bought materials, it might not be possible to have enough to set up individual spaces. Loose parts especially found and recyclable materials can be an easy way to split up materials. Bottle caps, rocks, sticks, shells, and beads are things there are many of. Sticks, leaves, pebbles, and other natural materials have the added benefit of being renewable – after play, they don’t need to be cleaned, you can just put them back outside and gather more.
5. Rethink your space
The biggest challenge in planning for this coming
school year is reinventing how we think of classroom space. Meeting needs for
distancing and cleaning might require rearranging traditional centers, removing
materials and furniture, and using space flexibly. I’m going to miss the scenes
of eight children building together in the block area, but I’m also thinking of
the times I separated the blocks into two piles, so children who were
struggling with cooperative play could build independently. Having two block
areas, or art centers, or a large multi-use space divided into smaller work
stations might be an option. Or rethinking how outdoor space or multi-purpose
areas could be used to in new and different ways.
There are no easy answers for preparing for this very different school year. But some of the questions might not be as new as we think. Looking at ways that we have helped children make room for each other before can help us think of how to plan their space now, and might even lead to all sorts of growing and learning that we didn’t even anticipate.