For most children, the first days of school are challenging and exciting. To make children comfortable, it's essential to create an environment that addresses all learning styles. In designing your space, you'll also want to offer a balance between cozy, quiet spaces as well as more active, engaging learning centers. When you set the stage for learning, you are working toward creating the optimum environment for children to learn, supporting their curiosity and growing independence.

Create a Multisensory Environment

Your classroom is a multisensory world for children. Just think of all the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings children experience in a day. This can be very intense for young children, particularly if they have never been to school before. Multiply that sensory input by the number of children in the group, and you have a fully loaded equation for both playful curiosity and sensory overload! The trick is to create a healthy balance between creative and sensory stimulation and a strong sense of security.

Focus on Varying Learning Styles

The child who enters your room each day comes with his own set of learning styles and sensitivities. Many of these styles are connected to sensory input. Some children are visual learners while others are auditory or tactile/kinesthetic learners. When creating your environment, be sure to have something that speaks to each of these different learning styles.

Work to Support:

Visual Learners

As you prepare your environment, it's helpful to stand back and take a "sensory inventory" of your space. Imagine you are a child entering your classroom. What sensory information is being broadcast by your surroundings? As you observe your room, isolate each of your five senses. First get down on children's eye level and use your sense of sight. What does a child see from his vantage point? The goal is to have equipment of interest placed on uncluttered tables and shelves. Remember to start with just a few items and add to them over time. Display an object of beauty or curiosity that you enjoy looking at as well as objects that the children will find pleasing. A bouquet of flowers, some unusual stones, an interesting plant, or a painting by a favorite artist will provide a place for all of your eyes to rest. Your visually oriented children will be engaged right away and will want to investigate more. Change these visual elements frequently to keep children interested. But remember, too many things to look at and use can be overwhelming for a child at the beginning of the year-even for your visual learners!

Auditory Learners

What sounds will children hear as they enter the room? Of course there will be the sounds of other children's voices, but what else will catch the ear of your auditory learners? You can provide quiet music, simple chimes, or even a sound machine to bring in the peaceful noises that can calm and center all children (but particularly the auditory learner). Consider using simple instruments and songs to mark transition times throughout the day. Place headphones in your listening area for children to listen to music, books, and stories on tape or video. Tape record children singing class songs and provide the tape for sing-alongs in the listening center.

Some auditory-oriented children can be overly stimulated by too much sound. Consider placing interesting (and sound muffling) dividers between your centers to create an area where auditory learners can focus. Pieces of cloth sheeting, bamboo shades, or even a clear shower curtain hung from a tension rod or the ceiling make wonderful dividers. Besides creating a sound barrier, it will also provide visual interest and a place to hang children's work! Best of all these dividers are flexible and can be adjusted to meet the ever-changing learning center needs of the children in your group.

Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners

Take a moment to investigate your room with your sense of touch and space. What are the textures that children can enjoy? What kinds of spaces are available for your tactile/kinesthetic learners to move through and manipulate? These children like to get their hands and bodies into things. Their manipulation of materials is an important way that they learn. All children are comforted and engaged by objects they can feel and touch. Provide bins full of buttons, smooth stones, or beans for children to simply move their fingers through and eventually examine, compare, and sort. Start the year with a clay or play dough table. Encourage children to mush, pound, and squeeze their way through the feelings that come up for them during the day. If you have the space, provide a small plastic pool filled with sand for children to explore inside! Provide soft elements for children to cuddle up in with toys, books, each other, and YOU. An old, clean loveseat or oversized chair can become a comfy resting place.

You can look at your curriculum with multisensory awareness too. When presenting a new educational topic, concept, or tool, use your sensory perception to be sure that you have activities and materials that support all learning styles.

Personalize Your Classroom

One of the first things children do when they enter your classroom is look for landmarks-things that are familiar to them. These can be toys or books they may have seen at home or in their previous programs. Perhaps they see photos of themselves, or drawings they sent to school before the year began. This helps children feel that they belong here-that there is a place for them. If you don't have access to photos or pictures before school starts, take them or have children create drawings on the first day. Ask children to find a special place to display these pictures where they can find them the next time they come to school.

Invite children into the classroom with an interactive bulletin board by the door. This board should have pictures children can explore. (Try hiding the pictures under a flap so children have to actually come into the room to find what is hiding!) Change the pictures frequently and add surprises so children will look forward to this place in the room each day.

Be purposeful about helping children develop a sense of their own identity within the group. Hide children's photos or name cards in the room. They will delight in going on a "me" treasure hunt each day. When the objects are found, children can put them in an "attendance" jar or basket to show they are here today! This will be among the first steps in personalizing the environment and emphasizing the importance of each child's role in the room.

Offer Opportunities for Ownership

Children have a good sense of place when they feel some ownership and success in the classroom. Make simple picture signs for labeling classroom areas and for giving directions (such as washing hands and flushing). Children will feel a sense of accomplishment when they can "read" the signs themselves.

Invite children to help you create areas of the room together. For example, you can bring out boxes of manipulatives for the math area or props for the dramatic-play area and ask children to help you set things out. Invite them to investigate the materials so that they understand their uses. Encourage them to suggest where to place the objects in the learning centers. Remember that children tend to take better care of materials in a center (and put them away correctly) if they have been involved in the process of setting it up!

Promote Family Connections

There is no underestimating the power of family, both the children's families and the classroom family that you are all creating together. Take pictures of families during the first days of school or invite the children to bring in their favorites. These photos provide a sense of personal and cultural identity for children within their new classroom family.

You can start to fulfill children's need for a sense of closeness in your classroom by creating a special "Family Room" as a learning center. This can be placed in a cozy area of the classroom. It might also be identified by a large appliance box that has a door and windows cut out of it. Think of it as a small and welcoming space for children to get away by themselves or with a friend. One wall can be a family photo collage that children can add to during the early months of school. Ask children to suggest what they would like in their "family room" and encourage them to bring in these items from home. For example, children can bring in music, fabrics, or old clothing that can be used for some dramatic family play in the area. Periodically, children can take turns bringing in a family favorite snack to share with their friends too! They may also enjoy making a simple magnetic family game to use on a cookie sheet, drawing or bringing in pictures of each member of their family, pasting small magnet strips on the back of each, and then using them on the cookie sheet to play with their "family members" while they are away at school.

Spark Children's Curiosity

What happens when you are curious about something? You investigate, you examine, and you experiment. A child's curiosity is often the motivation that gets him through the door in the beginning of school. We also know that curiosity is a key element in brain development and learning. Here are a few ideas for sparking children's curiosity this year.

The Curiosity Corner. Create a small area, table, or even a box where children can explore new and unusual things. The concept of the area is to provide materials for children to look at that may be new to them, such as nature items, art, or tools. Change the item or items every Monday so you have something for children to look forward to after the weekend away. This is a fun way to introduce a new project or theme. Starting a focus on rocks? Bring in a variety of stones, crystals, carved stone sculptures, and unbreakable magnifiers!

Use Your Five Senses to Investigate. As you know, children want to explore things first by touching them. But what if they could only use one sense at a time to explore the item in the curiosity corner? This expands children's understanding not only of the items, but also their own sensory perceptions. Put some objects in a clear, plastic shoebox and invite children to observe them without touching. What happens when you look at it from the top, bottom, or sides? What do you notice that you didn't see before? Another time, put something inside a feely bag or box for children to explore and identify using touch alone. You can also hide something behind a screen and have children take turns making sounds with it for others to identify and guess.

Introduce a New Word. Young children are curious about learning new words-the bigger the better! Choose a day each week to introduce a new word. Write it on the wall in your group-time area. Use it frequently, to the point of exaggeration. "Good morning everyone, today is an extraordinary day. I had the most extraordinary thing happen on my way to school. There on the corner was a woman waiting for a bus with the most extraordinary hat I have ever seen." Talk about what the word might mean and encourage children to use it all week. At the end of the week, invite children to make drawings to go with the word and place them in a "Word of the Week" class book.

Problem of the Week. Your art center can be an excellent place for inspiring curiosity and experimentation. Once a week, set out a particular type of recycled material (spools, clean and empty food packaging, rings, paper towel tubes) for children to explore independently. Provide a problem for them to solve with the material. How many ways can you use this material? Can you use the material to make something that hangs, something that is tall, something that rolls?

There is so much to think about in the beginning of the year. We all want to do our best for children and their families. When looking at your classroom and preparing your program, feel confident that you're on the right track when you've considered the importance of identity, security, curiosity, flexibility, family, and community.