By Dora Jacildo
In the field of early childhood education there are many assessment tools that demonstrate what a high-quality environment for children 0-5 years old looks like. Rating scales and checklists give program administrators and teachers a very clear sense of how the environment should be set up and what materials should be included for each age grouping. The primary focus is on providing a safe, supportive and engaging experience for the children, families, and teachers at the facility.
Zero to Three (January 2009) published a list of the characteristics of high-quality environments, which included:
At Children Today, we realize that for children experiencing homelessness, the environment plays a significant role in their ability to develop roots. This, for many children, becomes the most predictable and consistent environment in what may be a very chaotic life. The teachers specifically design environments that reflect the children’s culture and community in order to emphasize the importance of being culturally relevant and surround the children with things that are familiar to them. We make sure that the children’s primary language is spoken to them throughout the day and that they see images of people like them in our books, posters, and toys. Our environments serve to help children feel less isolated by reminding them that there are others like them and that their feelings about their experiences are worth exploring in the classroom and in the curriculum.
There is great emphasis placed in creating private spaces for children in the classrooms. We recognize that being homeless is a very public experience and living in a shelter means sharing communal spaces all the time. Every child needs time to be alone, to have privacy, and to succeed at an activity without being interrupted or having to negotiate with other children.
We also know that given the traumatic nature of homelessness, many children have difficulty self-regulating and need an environment that is soothing and secure. With this in mind, we pay close attention to the children’s senses. This means that the colors we chose to decorate the classroom, the lighting we chose to use to enhance the space, the odors that we use to clean or deodorize a space and the sounds we expose the children to are intentional and designed to help children feel safe and relaxed.
Many years ago we enrolled a little boy into our preschool program. He had recently been placed in his father’s custody after his mother had gone to prison on a drug related charge. The little boy was getting to know his father, adjusting to living in a shelter, and attending day care for the first time in his life all at the same time. After a couple of months enrolled in the program, the family secured housing. One day, the little boy walked into his classroom and kicked off his shoes…they flew into the air! Dad smiled and told the teachers that he knew his child felt at home with us because he did the same thing at their new house.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.