Today’s blog is a guest post from Cheryl de Jesus. Cheryl is a passionate Early Years Educator at the Australian International School in Singapore with over 10 years of classroom experience. She creates learning environments and provocations heavily inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy and is passionate about the integration of STEAM in the classroom.
I’ve had this thought for quite some time now ever since my team created this inside joke about how much effort I put into our classroom’s interior. They have coined the term “Cherylsthetics.” It’s portmanteau for Cheryl and aesthetics and it is used to describe the things that I like, consider beautiful and will go well with our current classroom design.
Aesthetic is really a subjective topic. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But as an educator, I think it definitely goes hand in hand with classroom inquiry and teaching content.
Why does aesthetic matter so much? My boss and mentor, Rachael Symes, has mentioned multiple times that our children deserve beautiful things and I couldn’t agree more. But beyond beauty, I believe that the way you set up your classroom is a representation of who you are as a teacher and how you design your space affects the people who use it.
The environment as the third teacher
Loris Malaguzzi emphasized the importance of the environment in children’s learning and development. But he isn’t the only person or even the first to highlight its importance. Renowned educators like Maria Montessori, educational psychologists Lev Vygotsky and many others have shed light on the impact of creating conducive spaces for all learners.
Reggio-inspired is a term loosely used to describe Instagram-worthy classrooms. Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it really means. One time, a teacher I know mentioned she needed to collect more pinecones because she needs her classroom to look “more Reggio.” I told her natural loose parts and a neutral color scheme does not make a Reggio environment.
The Reggio philosophy sees learning environments as lived spaces that support interaction and engagement of children. More than the materials and décor used, it is the thought process that comes with using those materials that make it Reggio-inspired. The choices you make when you create your learning space renders great influence on how play and learning are enacted.
The environment as a reflection of you
Anyone who walks into my classroom gains a better understanding of who I am as an educator, at least that is my goal as the classroom teacher. The way a teacher creates their provocations, the materials curated and the documentation displayed gives whoever walks in a glimpse into the depth of knowledge the teacher has for his or her craft and the curriculum.
For my students, I want them to feel safe but at the same time give them opportunities to explore, be challenged and exert autonomy. For their parents, I want them to feel secure knowing their child is safe, loved and engaged. And for my team, I want them to know that this is how we are inquiring as a class.
But beyond that, I design my environment for my own professional development. I constantly want to challenge myself and create spaces that will provoke inquiry and creativity. Pinterest is amazing but the world is full of inspiration–that’s why I love going to museums, flea markets and traveling. Inspiration is everywhere.
Your learners deserve beautiful things but so do you. Your learning space is a place where you spend a good eight to nine hours a day so I want to feel at home. The environment is essential in allowing both you and your learner’s opportunities to inquire, create and construct.
The environment and the price to pay
Does having an Instagram-worthy classroom have a price? I have taught far too long to know that it sometimes does. I know many teachers spend after work hours and their weekends at IKEA, Daiso, ArtFriend, and Spotlight in search of things that will make their classrooms look good. I know and I have had my fair share of shopping sprees for the love of my job.
But it doesn’t have to be that way (at least the spending bit). The city of Reggio Emilia suffered greatly after World War II. The philosophy was born out of the collaborative effort the community displayed and because they got creative. They built the school with their bare hands, used real materials because they didn’t have toys or classroom resources.
A few years ago, I used to work in a low-income neighborhood school where parents could not afford to pay school fees even after all the subsidies and government support. School funding was also at the bare minimum and because of that, the budget is limited and teachers are often left with no choice but to shell out classroom expenses from their own pockets.
I would have used my own salary to buy resources but because I was living on my own in a foreign country with minimum wage, I had to be wise with how I spend my money. The experience forced me to get creative with how I set up my learning space and the materials I used. I applied the Reggio approach to how I organized my space and curated my materials. I used bottle caps as counters and plastic food containers to hold crayons and pencils. We used empty cardboard boxes in construction play because the school couldn’t afford blocks for everyone.
Whether I work for a low-income school or a more affluent one with the ability to invest in resources, I now try my best to think of alternative ways and make do with what we have. In my current classroom, we have a dedicated Makerspace where children can create things with recycled materials, tinker with found objects and explore other loose parts. I encourage parents to contribute resources they would like to discard and also use them instead of buying toys.
The environment that works for you
As I have mentioned earlier, aesthetic goes hand in hand with content. It should complement your class and not the other way around. Being Instagram-worthy does not mean you have beautiful resources and the latest IKEA furnishings, it means having the ability to create an environment that enhances your classroom inquiry.
Don’t go running to your room and start revamping your place. When you make a change, think about how it will affect the dynamic of your classroom. Are your learner’s given space to explore and discover or is it too cluttered? Is your space open and inviting? Do you want them to just play with the blocks or do you want them to create things with the blocks? Simple changes such as moving your furniture at an angle or adding an essential oil for aromatherapy, adding some calming music as well as adding natural light can do lots of wonders.
Ultimately, you need to create a learning space that works for you and your learners. A functional and creative environment is what makes it truly Instagram-worthy.