August 3, 2023

Tom Hobson: Change The Environment, Not The Child

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Tom Hobson teaches the littles in Seattle. Here he reflects on the power of simple room arrangement.

When I first started teaching, I set up our classroom as I would have a living room, thinking in terms of seating and “traffic flow,” making sure the passageways were wide enough, that there were no places where one could get “trapped,” and so forth. The reality I discovered once actual children were on the scene was that I’d created a race-track that said, quite clearly, “Run in circles,” and that’s what they did. After weeks of scolding the kids about running inside, I finally re-arranged the furniture and the behavior disappeared.

One of the aspects of the Reggio Emilia model for early years education that I think about often is the concept of the three teachers: 1) the adults, 2) the other children, and 3) the environment, which is where design comes in. Quite often, I’ve found that repeated troubling or trying behaviors have little to do with the children themselves and everything to do with an environment that forgot to consider how actual children behave. Things hanging from above tend to tell children, Jump or Swing or Hang. Long open areas say, Run. Echoey spaces say, Shout. Dark and confined says, Giggle and Whisper. Bright and busy creates a different vibe than muted and uncluttered. And design flaws are not limited to the physical space. Sometimes the aspect that needs tweaking has to do with the schedule or the expectations or even the school’s philosophy, all of which I consider to be part of the children’s environment as well.

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