Four Spaces for Learning

Rather than getting children ready for school, we need to get school ready for them. a quote from Docia Zavitkovsky, President, NAEYC 1984-1986, Founder of Play Matters, and lifelong supporter of parent cooperative schools. Our Source of Inspiration is The Young Child. In 2002, I pitched an educational approach and philosophy to the Board of Directors of our little parent cooperative school. I called it Through the Garden Gate.  I chose this title not because we have a gate that children, parents, and teachers must walk through to get inside the school. I was thinking about how they would have to eventually walk out of that gate into the wider world! I imagined that Through the Garden Gate would offer children the time, materials, space, and guidance to develop physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and artistically. To pull it off, we would need to change the use of our newly purchased space in a very non-traditional way. This plan would impact so many aspects of the school including budget, parent training, and mindset, but most directly, it would require that we change the hours that the children would attend the school. We would have morning and afternoon classes. This was not unheard of in the history of our School, my eldest attended the afternoon prek in the early 90's. But, in 2002, it would be a big shift and a shift that would effect these parents directly.

As part of the pitch, it was essential to define and create what I called the 4 Spaces for Learning, an essential component of Through the Garden Gate. These parents serving on that Board made the decision to walk with the staff through that gate on a grand adventure and since then, the teachers, parents, and children have crafted and refined this educational approach, truly honoring Docia’s words to make the school ready for the children. We have created something unique and specific to Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School. It was described by one of our parent volunteers in a speech presented at a Mocha Moms meeting a few years ago,

Now I have to tell you about our school building, because when you enter this place… it truly strikes you as magical.  I’ll never forget when I first toured four years ago during the Admission season… I was hooked on the beauty and warmth of the place.  There are 4 spaces for learning – the classroom, the project center, the imagination station, and the outdoor play space.  Each area provides the focus for different types of experiences.  Only one class occupies the school at any given time, and during their time there, the children rotate through these spaces together, as a group.  By dividing the school into distinct areas of focused learning, we ensure that each child experiences fully all that the program offers. In addition, the concept of a “time and place for everything” allows our kids to better explore and discover hidden talents and abilities, form friendships, strengthen skills, and enjoy the early childhood experiences unique to this school.

The 4 Spaces for Learning idea is grounded in practice, in theory, and from years of field observations and teaching experience. The premise is quite simple…every child becomes conversant in art, music, movement, and dramatic play. I have observed that if the environment is compartmentalized, children often respond accordingly. In other words, if a room is divided into centers, children will more often repeatedly find their way to pursuits they are most comfortable and familiar with. If children are asked to check-in at each center as part of a teacher-planned rotation, their play is not able to find the time or freedom to become comfortable in expression within that context – adults and peers are needed to scaffold and support interactions with materials and concepts. Teachers may resort to gimmicks and dangling carrots to entice reluctant participants. For example, I have seen/heard of painting projects tailored for boys or building projects tailored for girls. With Through the Garden Gate and our 4 Spaces for Learning, we begin with a simple premise and end up with spectacular results including enriched social language and problem-solving skills, incredible artwork, strong bodies and strong minds for every child.

Hands-on, experiential learning is essential – young children acquire information and express learning through art, through social-dramatic play, through hands-on exploration of materials. At our Cooperative School, we do not have centers, we do not manage traffic use within each space, i.e. limit use of materials or space by micro-managing children’s access. Rather, what we do offer are activities broad-stroke defined and supported by space, time, and materials. These are quite specific, for instance there is no paint in the dramatic play space and there are no dress-ups in the project center. This is not about containing messiness or noise -- these are important by-products of experiential learning -- it is about focus. This gives each child, regardless of interest or skill, the wings to take flight and soar. Children reticent to pursue dramatic play because of developing language skills are given ample opportunity to discover their voice of play in a space and time devoted only to dramatic play. Children reticent to touch messy paint/glue projects discover their voice of art in a space and time devoted only to artistic pursuits. Our parent volunteer continues describing what she has seen,

In our classroom, the children experience circle time, journal writing, math and science-related manipulatives, extensive and rich literature, and an opportunity to develop their emotional and social skills.  Here materials for their use are presented so beautifully that they beg to be handled and played. In circle and during story time, their emotional and social skills are honed as they learn to listen to others, share their insights, and respect each other’s space in the world.  We have moments of silence that are things of beauty… sharing stones that have parents in the classroom itching to share too!

The imagination station is where the beauty of the space with its display of children’s artwork, natural lighting, and beautiful costumes are only rivaled by what the children create in the space.  The social-dramatic play features improvisation, role-playing, and problem solving as a means to develop expressive and receptive language.  Children work through creative drama scenarios that give them the practice to work situations out and develop their communication.

In project center, the children explore art education introducing them to technique and execution, terminology, historical perspectives, and social contexts of working with expressive mediums of visual art.  One example is our self-portrait unit where science, social studies, and art are perfectly integrated into a beautifully expressed bias-free exploration.  The children painted their internal organs, followed by their skeletons, then covered that with blood vessels in red and blue, and then on top painted their muscles before covering it with perfectly blended paints they created themselves to match their own skin colors.  The children quickly figured out that though underneath it all we are all essentially the same, the beauty that we have outside that is so different is one to celebrate!

And finally, our outdoor space design features a mix of loose pieces, fixed equipment, and play-destinations that enrich children's bodies and minds while emphasizing nature and adventure. It is carefully designed to provide the children with rich multi-sensory experiences. The plan includes a campsite, a sandpit surrounded by stepping-stones and logs, benches, birdbaths, plantings, tubes, and a three-season teahouse. It perfectly complements our existing materials and introduces native bird and butterfly-friendly plantings and the children go outside every day, rain or shine.

What I love about the words expressed in this document is that first, this is a parent describing in detail an educational approach--she has become conversant in pedagogy! The 4 Spaces for Learning come alive in her descriptions. Her presentation also went on to outline how social studies, science, math, and literacy can be found in each of the four spaces as well as our music and movement programs.

And it does not have to be limited to just 4 Spaces! If possible, we would have a 5th space devoted purely to music and movement. Currently, these pursuits must share the schedule and land in our dramatic play space, the Imagination Station. We have found that a focused time on movement and music does indeed hone self-regulation, build both fine and gross motor skills, as well as literacy! Those are all bonuses, our goal still goes back to the simple things… know your friends, know yourself, and sing and dance out your ideas.

So much of our curriculum and learning goals are supported through environment and this is where the program walks alongside the Reggio-approaches' Environment is the Third Teacher. This means that the curriculum “work” happens well before children walk Through the Garden Gate. The environment includes schedule, staffing, materials, floor plan, and then content. A vital component of our successful learning environment is our approach to parent involvement. The more information we provide parents, the more successful we will all be in our combined effort.

Our educational approach and how we use our physical plan is unique in early childhood settings and along with our staff and parent co-opers, trained in nurturing social-emotional development and materials offered, are the key components of our curriculum. The 4 Spaces for Learning provide the foundation for the expressions of learning through music, movement, drama and visual art.