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Starting School Series, Part 1: Organising the physical environment

Excited and a wee bit apprehensive. A new school year. A new bunch of kids.  An adventure. Take the short-cut between the demountables. Wonder. ‘What state will my room be in?’ Things are always moved for holiday cleaning! I’ve set aside four days to organise my room and prepare materials for the arrival of the children. Time to think, plan, experiment and create.

Four days to go: physical environment

Today, organise the physical environment. Significantly, it’s the physical arrangement of a classroom that reveals what a teacher believes about how children learn.

Bring my thoughts back to the task at hand.  Walk up one flight of stairs to the door. Put my bags down, insert the key and open the door. It’s quiet and dark.

Turn the lights on and look around the room. Can’t miss the big pile. Movable objects – tables, chairs, small shelves, cushions – off to one side. Folding doors separating the two classrooms are open. Fishnet that stretches across the concertina doors is intact. Wonderful! Most of the room is clear – a clean slate on which to design our learning environment. Perfect! Can’t wait to start moving things. But first…

Where to start?

1. List the class ‘areas’:

mat area for the whole class
reading, library, bookshelves
calendar wall
word wall(s)
computers and printer
art /wet area

construction materials
home corner/drama
morning message board
class display areas
children’s storage (backpack/hats/lunches)

2. List the stationary items – things that can’t be moved:

whiteboard (at large mat area)
IWB /data projector
shelves/hooks (for children’s backpacks/hats)
refrigerator (for children’s lunches)

electrical outlets
computer connectors (computer area)
sink/counter/wet area (art area)
display boards on walls
built in cupboards
bi-fold doors (word wall)

Stationary items determine some class areas

Mat area and whiteboard
My all important, whole class, mat area is at the whiteboard for shared writing, explicit teaching and teachable moments. In this classroom, the screen for a ceiling-mounted data projector is also near the whiteboard. Presto! Mat area.

The mat area is vital for whole class sessions – BIG enough for children to gather together comfortably. BIG enough for children to sit, stand and stretch. BIG enough for class story time, small group ‘co-operative show and tell’ and a large class circle for reporting/sharing times. For ease of class sharing, these items are adjacent to the mat:

  • calendar wall (for morning maths sessions)
  • big book stand (for shared reading)
  • pocket chart (for interactive reading)
  • audio and CD player (for music and interactive story books)
  • laptop (to use through the data projector onto the screen)

Children’s backpacks/hats/lunches 
That’s easy. An area near the classroom entrance holds two long shelves for backpacks/hats and the refrigerator is against the nearby out-of-the-way wall

Computers and printers are near electrical outlets and internet connectors. Some older classrooms never seem to have enough power outlets – for laptop, data projector, fish tank, CD player, electric pencil sharpener, battery recharger…  power boards may solve outlet problems but be aware of safety issues: no loose cords across the floor for children to trip on.

Another easy one. My art area is a wet area with vinyl floor, sink and counter. I add a collage trolley, a painting easel and tables for playdough/clay and collage.

Display areas
Two wires are strung across the room. Wonderful! Use them for displaying children’s work – paintings, drawings and writing. In addition, display boards hang on several walls.

Word wall
The fishnet word wall stretches in front of the folding doors and makes use of what is sometimes a ‘difficult’ area to use.

Other class areas: the sketch is in my head!

Things are going well. Several areas are sorted out around stationary items – things that cannot change.
Now, dig into the big pile of small furniture for the remaining class areas. Be creative!

Lifting, dragging, pushingbit by bit the pile shrinks. Out comes:
a metal, triangular bookshelf  (library/reading area)
large floor cushions (library/reading area)

the big book stand (shared reading, near mat area)
pocket chart (board, near mat area)

the morning message board (reading, door entrance)
the block shelf (block area)
maths material and shelf
buckets and boxes of mobilo, lego, duplo, etc.

children’s tables and chairs and
a pink,  plastic, play stove (home/drama area)

I used to sketch my room and roughly label the class or activity areas. But I’ve done this often enough. Today, the sketch is in my head!

Reflection: bigger area or smaller area?
‘Can the block area be improved?’ Last year it never seemed big enough. Can’t find anywhere else to put the out-of-the-way defined space (block roads and buildings are often left up over days and nights so the area cannot be in a class walkway). Make the block area bigger. Make the maths area smaller. That’s OK. Children don’t ‘work’ in the maths area – they take materials from the shelves and work at their tables.

Roughing-in class or activity areas
Blocks done. Maths shelves done. Home corner done. Bookshelves and large cushions done.  Mobilo, lego, constructions and puzzles – not done.
But now, place tables and chairs where children will ‘work’, putting tables together to make hexagonal tables or clusters of tables. Children facing each other at the tables encourages interactions, discussions, cooperation and sharing – my firm beliefs about how children learn!

Finding a home for the last table
Finally… the pile has vanished! The last table finds a home in the science /discovery area. Improve the tatty table with a cream, cotton cloth. That’s better!

Stand back and survey
I’m happy. Some areas are established around the stationary items. Other areas subsequently fall into place: reading/bookshelves/cushions; maths/hands on materials; science/discovery table; blocks; construction/mobilo/lego; home corner/drama.

Stop by the office. Pick up class list. How many students? 25 – a full class. Check for familiar names – younger brothers or sisters of children in previous classes. Scan the birthdates. Later, use the class list to make name charts, name cards and class book pages for the first day. But for now, put the list away. It’s time to go home.

Coming Next:
Starting School Series:
Sorting materials and making a calendar wall.

What words work? A list from early years teachers

Last week’s blog asked, ‘What words work’ for early years’ teachers in shaping children’s behaviours? Here is the list so far, in alphabetical order… 17 ‘Words that work’:

Either/or…  “Either you keep your feet to yourself or you leave the group.”

Good choice…    “Are you making a good choice?” “Good choice?” “Poor choice?”

I like…     “I like your good listening.”

I like/love how you …..    makes praise more personal, and genuine

I like the way… “I like the way you are both co-operating at the blocks.”

O.T.T…. said quietly to the child as a reminder that an action is ‘Over The Top’.

Quality …     “That is quality work!”

Sandy (a child) is now the teacher… “Listen to her while she teaches you about a fantastic way to work the problem out.”

Sensational…  “SennnnnSATIONAL” – with hand actions. When someone does something special (sensational work or behaviours) tumble one hand over the other and end up in thumbs up position (whilst saying ‘sennnnnSATIONAL’)

Stop, look, listen…  with accompanying hand movements.  Always said slowly and clearly with the expectation that everyone will be doing each action as they are called.

Switch on…   help our bodies to be ‘switched on’ and ready to learn

Switch off…   things that cause us to ‘switch off’ learning

Thanks…  “Thanks for the tadpoles, Tom.”  “Hats… and to the door, thanks.”

Choice…   “It’s not a choice.”  “Wearing shoes in not a choice.”

Negotiable… “This is not negotiable!”

When…  and then…  “When you have finished xyz then you can do abc.”

You did it!     Reinforce or celebrate when a child does a skill correctly; if he fixed something by himself or with little help. The child often excitedly says, “I did it!” on realizing his accomplishment.

Once again, ‘Thanks’ to the early years teachers, parents and Speech Language Pathologist who kindly took the time to share their ‘Words that work.’ 

Let’s continue the learning journey. Feel free to share more ‘words that work’ in the comments box below. The more the merrier!

What words work for you? Thank you… and a quick reflection

In my last blog ‘What words work for you?  Shaping children’s behaviours in your early years classroom’ I mentioned that one of my favourite ‘words that work’ is ‘Thanks’… as in… “Close the door. Thanks.” Upon reflection, I thought it may be helpful to explain that I use ‘Thanks’ in this context because I am expecting that the door WILL be closed — it is not a choice, it is not a ‘please’, it is not a ‘can you?’.

I also use ‘Thanks’ to show appreciation and gratitude… as in… ‘Thanks for bringing the green tree frog, Alistair,’ or ‘Thanks for the great idea, Hilary’.

‘Thanks is always positive.

Lastly, ‘Thanks’ to those early years teachers who have kindly taken the time to share their ‘Top 3 Words that work.’

Do you have 3 favourite ‘words that work’ to add to the list before it is compiled and published on Thursday?

Thinking about school – over coffee

Can we meet at 9:30? At the southern end? See you then!

Three friends happily greet each other, find comfortable seats and order coffees and teas. School starts next week. We exchange books: Interactive Writing, Literacy Work Stations, Narrative Inquiry – but today, we don’t take the time to peruse and discuss them. Instead, conversation flows around the new school year. “Have you been into your room yet?”  “How many children in your class this year?”  “Will you do anything differently?”

We discuss concerns about typically ‘touchy’ topics—levelled books, sight words, home reading…. and today, the new Australian curriculum. We share classroom ideas—about building word walls, using new picture books, adapting aspects of the Daily5.

Finally, we encourage personal growth interests—blogging, Pinterest, photography – pursuits that are important to our professional and personal lives, despite family commitments, work constraints and never enough time. We’ll continue to text, email and meet over coffee.

In the meantime…

Here are two resources to help you get started with school:

1: A re-publish of my Starting School Series of blogs which will be e-mailed to my blog subscribers daily this week, including:

4 Days to go – organising activity areas: mat area, computer area, word wall…
3 Days to go – unpacking, sorting and starting the calendar wall…
2 Days to go – selecting reading, maths, science & art materials…
1 Day to go – message board, name tags, book baskets, hands-on materials…
First day – getting children reading, writing and drawing on day one…


2: Three downloads of rhymes – ideal for beginning readers in the first weeks of school. Click on a title and save or print your copy:

10 Rhymes to start the year
Ten lyrical rhymes to use with your beginning readers.

8 Number Rhymes
Eight great counting and number rhymes for beginning readers.

8 Transition Rhymes
Eight ryhmes for early years teachers to transition children smoothly from one activity to another.



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