Fostering Engagement Within Inclusive Settings: The Role of the Physical-Social-Temporal Environment in Early Childhood Settings
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The physical-social-temporal environment of any early childhood setting exerts a powerful influence on children’s development and learning (DEC 2014; Hebbeler & Spiker 2016). This influence is pervasive, operating across all contexts and routines. To create inclusive environments for every young child, early childhood educators must intentionally design and adapt the learning environment based on children’s diverse and unique assets, strengths, abilities, and needs (which are sometimes undiagnosed or still being determined in formal ways) (NAEYC 2020). By making even small adjustments to everyday routines and activities, educators can promote the engagement of and be responsive to young children with varying abilities.
Three types of modifications to the learning environment help to ensure the setting is developmentally appropriate and inclusive to all children:
- Physical modifications are alterations to the environment, such as a selection of seating options, arrangement of furniture, material selection and distribution in the environment, classroom-wide visual supports, and lighting.
- Social modifications are planned interactions among children, such as social scripts to support communication and problem solving, use of “buddy” systems, and reinforcement of specific social skills that encourage a sense of belonging and meaningful friendships.
- Temporal modifications are adjustments made in the timing of routines and activities, such as ensuring the daily schedule is balanced in teacher- and child-directed experiences, activity level, and group size; altering the length of a routine; and using cues such as minute warnings and timers for transitions or environmental changes.
Foundational to maximizing the impact of the classroom environment are the concepts of inclusion and engagement. Inclusion goes beyond a particular location—it does not just happen in one part of the classroom or in one room in a building (Brillante 2017). Rather, inclusion for children of all abilities involves active engagement among children and adults with and without disabilities in collaborative interactions and joint learning experiences (Strain 2017; Laumann et al. 2019). These defining characteristics can and should occur in all early learning environments.
Environmental modifications act directly as a catalyst for inclusion (Boyd et al. 2008) and for addressing individuality as a core consideration for practice (NAEYC 2020). In order for meaningful inclusion to happen though, a paradigm shift must occur. Orr (2009) noted that teacher behaviors toward children with varying abilities in the classroom inhibited peer interactions if the teacher did not carefully and intentionally design and facilitate child interactions. This finding was corroborated by Reska, Odom, and Hume (2012) when they determined that social interactions for children with different abilities were frequent and meaningful only when child-directed interactions were actively and intentionally promoted. Environmental modifications can effectively promote engagement for children of all abilities, and every early childhood professional can plan and implement changes like the ones we present to build an inclusive learning environment.
In this article, we introduce three young children and their early learning environments, including their common routines and learning experiences. The children, educators, and environments are based on our experiences as educators, child care providers, administrators, researchers, and—most importantly—family members of young children with varying attributes, abilities, and disabilities who are learning in early childhood settings. After introducing each child and learning situation, we identify research-supported modifications to the physical-social-temporal environment that their teachers used to build on a child’s interests, experiences, and strengths to support growth in particular areas. These modifications illuminate how early childhood educators in any setting can encourage more active child engagement and more inclusive contexts for learning.
Xavier’s Outside Play Time
Xavier is a 6-year-old kindergarten student. Xavier lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger sister. He enjoys active play on the playground and riding his bike. He also enjoys dancing. Xavier attends an elementary school in his local school district in a classroom with 25 children. His teacher, Ms. Perez, is in the classroom at all times, and one “floating” paraprofessional, Ms. Garcia, supports the classroom two hours per day, primarily in the morning during small-group learning. Xavier has many strengths, such as his sense of humor, his love for reading, and his willingness to take on helper roles. Although Xavier does not have an IEP and is not diagnosed with a disability, he demonstrates some behaviors his teachers find challenging throughout the school day.
Recess or outside time is one part of the day that is the most difficult for Xavier even though he enjoys vigorous gross motor activities, like running and biking, and he exhibits an interest in playing with his peers. He runs away when it is time to line up, throws wood chips, and sometimes pushes and tackles other children. Ms. Perez wants to work with Xavier and his family to help him play safely on the playground by providing him with many opportunities for choice and extensive play.
Encouraging choice making during play is an effective strategy for fostering child independence. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the difference between free (or self-guided) play and “free for all” play, which can lead to a chaotic environment and greater instances of challenging behavior (Pyle & Bigelow 2015). Periods of the day that include vigorous physical activity are particularly important for young children like Xavier. High-level physical activity with choice and playful learning can also integrate social routines for children that, with physical-social-temporal environmental modifications, encourage positive engagement and minimize challenging behaviors (Favazza & Siperstein 2016).
With responsive planning and guidance to promote Xavier’s engagement, Ms. Perez used playground time to encourage his cooperative and complex play even though the environment contained a selection of fixed structural elements. For example, she designed games on the slide with one child at the top, ready to slide down, and Xavier at the base, constructing a tower of foam blocks to be knocked down. Xavier and his peers took turns sliding down the slide and building the foam blocks tower at the base. For Xavier, this activity supported his need for gross motor movement and high-level activity. It also connected him meaningfully to his classmates and replaced less appropriate playground behaviors with easily learned and replicated routines that provided him positive experiences with peers.
Outside activities also expanded Xavier’s play ideas and supported different behaviors than those he had been using. By incorporating tricycles, bicycles, and ride-on cars, Ms. Perez prompted—initially by structuring and teaching them herself until children began playing them independently—play scenarios such as gas stations, car washes, and drive-through windows. She introduced materials and taught roles to Xavier and his classmates along with playful and rich language to use while physically participating. This balancing between self-guided play and structure is important for many young children, especially for young children like Xavier who enjoy gross motor movement but who are still emerging in self-regulation and sustained, positive interactions with others.
Summary of Environmental Modifications to Maximize Xavier’s Engagement
- Physical: Alternate the use of fixed materials on the playground to create situations that increase opportunities to learn and use them for safe physical movements.
- Social: Plan, encourage, and when necessary, teach engaging and reinforcing play opportunities that build positive relationships with other children.
- Temporal: Promote Xavier’s understanding of play ideas and expectations by offering optional but enjoyable planned play sequences.
Nevaeh’s Self-Guided Play
Nevaeh is a 4-year-old girl in her second year at a community preschool. She enjoys playing with materials like sand and water at the sensory table. Away from the sensory table, Nevaeh often engages in other forms of sensory play such as spinning, humming, and rolling a car back and forth. Nevaeh watches other children play and smiles at them but does not join them in play. At a recent family conference, Nevaeh’s family indicated that they would like to see her play more with her siblings at home in their apartment.
Nevaeh’s teachers, Ms. Lydia and Ms. Lu, recognize that Nevaeh is demonstrating delayed growth in her play skills beyond sensory play and that she is not engaging with other children. She uses a small amount of language and has been diagnosed with delayed cognitive development. Nevaeh indicates joy and appreciation by smiling and making sounds. To express fear or dislike, she pushes away items or physically turns away from them. During open-ended play time, Nevaeh quietly sits alone in a center or plays independently at the sensory table. She prefers to manipulate materials with her hands instead of using tools such as shovels, buckets, cups, or funnels at the sensory table. Sometimes, Nevaeh uses tools with hand-over-hand assistance from her teachers. Ms. Lydia, Ms. Lu, and her family are committed to including Nevaeh meaningfully in her class during all times of the day.
As children enter the second year of preschool and into the early elementary grades, their play skills generally become more elaborate and cooperative (Barton 2010). Self-guided play is an optimal time to use environmental modifications to support every child given their varying abilities. For example, defining and temporally identifying the steps, or sequence, of the free play routine could support Nevaeh’s more sophisticated play skills, such as parallel play. At the onset of free play, Nevaeh’s teachers provided her with a visual schedule cueing the beginning, middle, and end steps of the routine. Explicitly teaching expectations is critical for children like Nevaeh so that they can see what the activity involves and what they can do. The teaching team also used simple, visual breakdowns of the sequential elements of the play activities (building a tower with blocks, completing a puzzle, making a pizza in the dramatic play center) that she could do in parallel with her classmates. The visual schedule, combined with visual supports breaking down the play activities, increased her independence. In addition, Nevaeh’s teachers used the visual schedule to adjust the length and duration of play activities for Nevaeh by eliminating certain steps or by combining steps to promote her independence and to respond to her developing strengths.
Ms. Lydia and Ms. Lu also incorporated strategies to further play and interactions with other children. First, peer modeling was used to teach Nevaeh about the steps in a play sequence. For example, she observed a classmate send a car down a ramp to knock down a stack of blocks, and Nevaeh restacked the blocks for the next child. Then, her teacher made preferred or necessary play materials less obviously and readily available, which helped Nevaeh to engage in independent problem solving. By not having the materials immediately available, Nevaeh was also given time to observe her peer models, learn what the next step was, and think about how to complete the individual steps without adult prompting, which increased her independence. Some materials or toys were made more challenging to obtain by placing them higher up on a shelf or by putting them in a plastic bin. This encouraged Nevaeh to get help from a classmate to get what she wanted or needed. Her teachers also helped other children learn how to respond to Nevaeh’s communication that she needed help. Together, the various reasons for using this strategy built a foundation for inclusion.
Summary of Environmental Modifications to Maximize Nevaeh’s Engagement
- Physical: Limit and strategically place materials to promote interaction and independence.
- Social: Support Nevaeh’s development of play skills and encourage social interactions with other children by ensuring they are reinforcing.
- Temporal: Clearly define the steps of the routine and play sequences with objects or pictures.
Daniel’s Circle Time
Daniel is a 4-year-old boy who loves animals. His family has dogs, and he is learning to take care of them at home. Daniel, his moms, his three older siblings, and his nearby relatives speak Spanish at home, and he is learning English in his Head Start preschool classroom. While at preschool, Daniel smiles regularly at teachers and other children. He laughs and becomes excited when he enters the classroom, during lunch and snack times, and while playing outside. He actively engages with a variety of materials such as blocks and sand during center time.
Mr. Miller and Ms. Harris, the teacher team in Daniel’s classroom, struggle to understand why Daniel does not join circle time with his peers. Recently, in order for Daniel to stay involved during circle time, Ms. Harris sits on the floor with him in her lap and prompts him to engage in fingerplays and other motor imitation. While Daniel enjoys these activities, he is not making progress toward participating independently nor is he building relationships with other children during this time. The classroom team wonders what other changes they can make to the learning environment to support Daniel’s engagement during this daily routine.
Active engagement during circle time can vary for each young child. Some participate verbally—answering questions and sharing ideas—while others participate by observing or by following along with motor movements during song and dance times (Strain et al. 2009). Even with planning for different levels of engagement, circle time in Daniel’s classroom relied heavily on children’s understanding and use of spoken English. To be more inclusive of varying language abilities, including for Daniel as a multilingual learner, his classroom team implemented several environmental modifications.
First, they used gestures to offer cues or clues related to the topic of focus. Being within close proximity of Daniel helped him clearly see the gestural cues. In addition, Mr. Miller and Ms. Harris used picture cards as a routine within a routine, or subroutine. In this case, picture cards showed an image of one key segment of circle time (a subroutine) with the word printed in English and in Daniel’s home language. Regularly occurring subroutines (songs, morning message) are excellent candidates for creating this type of pictorial depiction (Strain & Bovey 2011). Given these supports, Daniel had an environmental cue to indicate the beginning, middle, and end of the subroutines and of the overall circle time routine. Along with building language skills, Daniel was able to more actively engage and to do so more independently over time.
During song time, it can also be appropriate to use a circle monitor (any adult in the room who moves at the back of the circle behind the children). The circle monitor, Ms. Harris, encouraged Daniel’s engagement. For example, one day the circle time song was “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and the circle monitor prompted Daniel to touch the corresponding parts of his body as they sang. Smiling was also used to reinforce Daniel’s learning and participation. Over time, as Daniel learned the vocabulary, Ms. Harris reduced her prompts and cues. This combination of practices was effective in building Daniel’s skill, confidence, and engagement. Daniel was able to participate in storytelling activities by acting out movements, turning the pages of a big book, and engaging in motor games with his peers. His confidence transferred to other times of the day as well. He began completing large floor puzzles and initiating turn-taking games with his peers.
This commonly occurring classroom activity (singing during circle time) presented opportunities for fostering social interactions with other children. A modification Daniel’s teachers made during song time included a buddy system, in which Daniel was paired with a student who knew the motor actions and song routines in English. Daniel’s buddy sat nearby, modeling what to do during circle time and sharing any props or other materials to assist with participating. This simple modification connected Daniel to his classmates and built his confidence to reference them to learn how to follow classroom routines, to transition throughout his day, and to participate in multi-step group games without adult support. The buddy system also supported other children to include Daniel in play more effectively by offering more direct modeling and play-organizing suggestions such as, “Daniel, park your car in the garage beside mine!”
Summary of Environmental Modifications to Maximize Daniel’s Engagement
- Physical: Use seating in proximity of an educator so Daniel can see gestural cues.
- Social: Support classmates to provide visual and verbal models and encouraging sentiments.
- Temporal: Use an adult as circle monitor.
Changes in Practice Toward Meaningful Inclusion
In the previously discussed vignettes, we provided a number of environmental modifications for typical routines and activities in early childhood settings that increase engagement and inclusion for every young child. These can be done without requiring extensive one-to-one adult support, once the modifications are established and new expectations are taught. The scenarios described highlight simple yet impactful ways that educators can make changes to the learning environment to foster active engagement and meaningful inclusion.
Photographs: © Getty Images
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Alissa Rausch, EdD, is assistant research faculty in the Positive Early Learning Experiences (PELE) Center at the University of Denver in Colorado. She began her work as an early childhood educator working in inclusive preschool classrooms. Now, her work centers on providing technical assistance to implement inclusion in practice, systems, and advocacy.
Jaclyn Joseph is the executive director of the Rise School of Denver in Denver, Colorado. Formerly, she researched inclusion and social and emotional competence. Her most important title is mother to two kind and brave daughters, one of whom has multiple disabilities.
Phillip S. Strain, PhD, is the James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Education at the University of Denver. Phil has worked to develop instructional practices, comprehensive service systems, and fidelity measures to enhance quality inclusion for five decades.
Elizabeth A. Steed, PhD, is an assistant professor in the early childhood education program at the University of Colorado Denver. She has published articles, presented at conferences, and served on state leadership teams focused on improving the social and emotional competence of young children. [email protected]