By Sheila Hanna
The first few weeks of school need to be calming, a time when you help children understand routines so they can begin to feel in control of their environment. New or very young children shouldn't be overwhelmed by too many choices of materials. Older and returning children need to see some old favorites and make choices about what they would like to do. Remember, your care in creating cozy, homey areas that reflect children's cultural backgrounds will lend reassurance that this is a safe place.
Special places where they can hang pictures of their families let children know that this is a warm place-their place. Here are other ideas for areas around your room.
Dramatic-play area. Stock up on props that will encourage children's pretend play, such as real, life-size utensils; culturally relevant items children see in their own homes, such as a pasta colander, espresso pot, wok, and tortilla press; and lots of general kitchen items. In addition, make sure you have lots of dress-up clothes for both boys and girls, dolls with blankets, and telephones with paper and pencils. If possible, label shelves and use outlines on the wall for hanging items so that children feel they know where things go and feel a sense of order. (Consider including props from parents' work places.)
Library or reading area. You'll need large, soft pillows and cheerful prints on the walls (consider materials for the pillows and artwork that reflect the cultures of families in your program), child-size rocking chairs, a comfortable small couch, and lots of books that focus on emotions and themes for this time of the year. Some suggestions: All I Am by Eileen Roe (Simon & Schuster), Barney Is Big by Nicki Weiss (Puffin), DayCare Teddy Bear by True Kelley (Random House), Jesse's Day Care by Amy Valens (Houghton Mifflin), On Mother's Lap by Ann Herbert Scott (Houghton Mifflin), Shawn Goes to School by Petronella Breinburg (HarperCollins), Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen (Simon & Schuster), and Will You Come Back For Me? by Ann Tompert (Whitman, Albert & Co.).
Keep a magazine rack for books families create at home about themselves, and ask families to tape themselves reading their child's favorite story for your listening center.
Writing area. Offer plenty of pads or loose paper, fat pencils, and envelopes. Be available to take dictation so that children can write messages to families.
Blocks. Clearly label the bottom and back of each section so that children feel in control of clean-up. Make sure you have an area where buildings can be left up; children's work can take place over time, and they can show parents their creations at the end of the day. Hang photographs of the neighborhood where the school is located: the drugstore, the deli, the bodega, the fruit market, the downtown area, their own street or house or apartment.
Art area. Offer painting from the beginning of the year, though you may want to start out with just a few colors, and be available to help children understand the routine. Children may also enjoy making collages using a variety of scraps or, just being able to color with crayons and plain paper as they look about the room.
Sand and water. Important to offer at the beginning of the year, these media provide soothing activities to get a little lost in or simply to participate in while scouting out surrounding situations. (Play dough is good too.)
Manipulatives. Set out a few items children can do by themselves, side by side with others, or with parents. Keep this area simple, adding new items a few at a time.
Snacktime. If at all possible, serve family style, encouraging children-to -help- set tables,pass-baskets of food to one another, and eat together. Make sure pitchers are small, unbreakable, and manageable. Take time to visit and afterward provide bowls with water and sponges so children can help clean up. Don't underestimate the reassuring effect good cooking aromas have on children when they walk into your room, especially familiar aromas that evoke the family's favorite snacks and foods.
Throughout your room. Make sure you have a pictorial schedule of the day so children can begin to learn and feel comfortable with routines. Children's cubbies can display their own pictures or photos of their families. Children may also like to keep boxes with a few collectibles from home-a key chain, Mom's lipstick, extra photos, toys they aren't ready to share-that they can look at whenever they want. Have one place where you hang pictures of everyone on the staff and all of the other members of the community children might see or with whom they might interact.
Cozy spaces. Try to set up a few private cozy spaces where children can retreat, spaces that allow children to be observers. Children, especially at the beginning of the year, need to have places where they can get away.
Remember: At the beginning of the year, less is better. Children will become more invested in play when they don't feel they're in the middle of a kaleidoscope.
About the Author
Sheila Hanna is curricular chair of early childhood education at Westchester Community College. She is an early childhood consultant and has lectured nationally and internationally. A mother of three children, Ms. Hanna has worked in the held of early childhood education and child care for 30 years.