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The importance of environmental aesthetics to educator and child wellbeing

Imagine walking into an early childhood education and care (ECEC) space that is dominated with loud splashes of colour and mismatched furniture. Walls cluttered with children’s artwork, as well as children’s creations piling up on the benches. The outside view obscured by poster-painted windows. Toys strewn across tables and floors. Shelving which houses plastic containers with an assortment of random objects. Children’s clothing dumped unceremoniously on the floor or under and around bags. The noise level rising as everyone competes to be heard and the room appears to be in complete disarray.

How do you feel right now reading this? Stressed? Anxious? Wanting to get away? Does the room described evoke images of chaos, disorganisation, lack of control and confusion? How does it make your mind feel?

Abraham Maslow on environments

The environments where children and educators work and play are crucial to the way we feel, the way we think, and the way we behave. Abraham Maslow carried out an experiment in the late 1950s testing the theory that the physical environment can determine wellbeing.

He created three rooms; a Beautiful Room, an Average Room and an Ugly Room, whereby university students had to rate a collection of photographs based on the energy and sense of wellbeing of each image. Maslow concluded that those who viewed the images in the Beautiful Room, rated them higher on the scale, determining that environment can affect our outlook and how we feel.

Many educators are familiar with Maslow’s five Hierarchy of Needs. Fewer people are aware that he added three more needs. The sixth of these nine needs is Aesthetic Needs. Maslow describes aesthetic needs as those that are met by finding appreciation and beauty within our environments, leading to a higher sense of connection to all things beautiful.

Think about those places that create a sense of serenity, peacefulness, and calm for you. What comes to mind when you think of environments that support productivity, contemplativeness, happiness and relaxation?

Traditional images associated with serene feelings may be of nature; the bush, the beach, grassy paddocks, mountains.

What about inside environments? Serene indoor environments that may resonate with you are those with clean, uncluttered, organised surroundings, featuring plush decor, natural timber furniture, plants, colour co-ordination and a connection to the outside environment.

If we think about our own ideal harmonious place, we can potentially tap into the core essence of what an ECEC space that supports wellbeing can feel like.

Sensory overload

Without the playfulness of activity and children within it, spaces in ECEC settings, obviously appear peaceful! There’s a stillness to any space when it is devoid of humans. Omitting this human energy and the jumble of play in an environment, changes its dynamic.  This of course, is not a true reflection of an ECEC environment.

The minute you add an array of colourful, busy children who are immersed in activities into a room, sensory overload can occur. Especially if the room is not purposeful or meaningful in its layout and contents.

It is important to consider this factor when designing the ECEC spaces. Children, adults, equipment, materials and equipment can add to the clutter and chaos of a room.
It can be helpful to take a step back, look and reflect upon our spaces without people and activity in them.

Reflective questions for planning and creating spaces

  • Where is furniture best positioned, thinking about movement and supervision of children?
  • What wall could be used for the children’s artwork? Sprawled artwork can clutter rooms. Does all artwork need to be displayed? Does any? Who is it displayed for?
  • Are there clear views to outside spaces, or at least, to an area of plants, if you are in a room that doesn’t connect to an outside environment? Where are the natural spaces where eyes can rest?
  • What colour schemes do you have going on in your room? Are they complementary to each other?
  • Do you have continuity in your storage, such as all the same glass jars or cane baskets?  Organisation and simplicity help us to feel more calm.

By striving to make our environments more neutral in colour, space, light, furniture style, storage choices and organisation, pairing it back to the basics; we allow the children and their productivity to be the showcase of the room. They become the colour and form of our rooms.

Having an understanding of why we present our spaces in the way we do and taking an analytical and meaningful approach to setting up environments, helps to determine the feel of the room.

What might an aesthetically pleasing ECEC environment look like?

The Reggio Emilia approach recognises and celebrates the environment as the third teacher.  In terms of aesthetics, the role and value of considered and planned environments in educating children is portrayed through the embrace of natural light, order, beauty and purpose.

Rudolf Steiner created an educational approach, that, amongst other aspects, believed the environment played a crucial role in educating children. Soft, pale colours were a focus in his belief, as well as connecting to the outdoors and creating home-like indoor environments.

In mainstream ECEC settings, a popular approach to this sense of beauty, harmony and engagement can stem from philosophies such as Rudolph Steiner and Reggio Emilia. By taking on board some of the concepts and theories behind the purposeful planning of space, educators can embrace the knowledge behind why aesthetics are important for educator and child wellbeing.

Some wonderfully creative ideas can come from these philosophies, as well as browsing Pinterest, Google Images, Instagram or following Facebook Groups that place emphasis on beautiful, productive, natural environments.

Educators may think about incorporating animals, fish tanks, or hanging pods for self soothing, draping sheer fabric to soften the acoustics, sheepskin rugs on chairs, curtains on windows, dimmer lights, plants, fairy lights, one wall for art displays, lots of natural materials, neutral coloured walls. It is important to consider having some blank walls and windows, to allow educator’s and the children’s eyes to find a place to rest. The list can be endless.

There are many ideas about aesthetic improvement. The correct approach for each service and setting will depend on service philosophy, community context, policy and procedure and a variety of other factors.

Next time you are in a cluttered, noisy space, inside or outside of an ECEC context, notice how it makes you feel and then compare this feeling with your next walk on the beach or in the bush. See if you can analyse what the difference is. Why do you feel this way?

Maybe once we tune into this reasoning, we will be able to develop our understanding of how our environments can determine our mood. Then, as educators, we will have the ability to create beautifully rich aesthetic environments to not only support children’s learning but our wellbeing as well.

This article was produced by Nic Russell.  Nic has worked in the sector for 30+ years, is a Yogi and also teaches ECEC at Chisolm. Nic’s website can be found here.