Effective Learning Spaces; Maintaining a Physical Environment that Nurtures Your Child (English)

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The quality of the physical environment can impinge upon a child's learning and development directly. A well-planned environment can set the tone for what a child focuses on, and how the child plays and moves around. It can also contribute to a sense of emotional well-being.

Take for example, an environment that is chaotic, disorganised and untidy. Not only is it a safety hazard (the child can trip and fall over toys placed haphazardly on the floor), it can also foster erratic, noisy and disruptive behaviour. The child does not see organization around him/her, and hence does not learn to appreciate it, or work towards it, in daily living or learning. When this happens, disorganization can lead to more disorganization, which can unwittingly result in a child who `flits\' from toy to toy, or from activity to activity.

In contrast, an environment that is ordered and tidy can foster calm, attentive and cooperative behaviour. Providing children with a selection of toys, equipment, activities and materials that are placed on specific shelves, areas or even boxes, can develop important behavioural self-management skills. The child knows where a specific item is, and where to get it. More importantly, with encouragement, the child can easily learn to place the item "back where it belongs", which is an essential and helpful life-skill. Ask any harassed mum or nanny!

An effective learning environment however, is more than its organization. Sometimes, elements involving colour, texture, and even movement, can influence the "atmosphere" in the room, as well as affect the young child\'s ability to see, listen, think, feel, and of course, learn.

In the late 1970's, two Dutch therapists by the names of Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul set up an experimental sensory tent at an annual summer fair to test the idea that a multi-sensory environment can effect positive, real, and sometimes lasting changes in mood, behaviour and relationships. Constructed simply as a roof on poles with plastic sheeting devices, this first sensory tent was filled with simple effects such as a fan blowing shards of paper, ink mixed with water and projected onto a screen, musical instruments, tactile objects, scent bottles, soaps and flavourful foods. It was a tremendous success, and it gave rise to specially-designed rooms that now go by the name "Snoezelen" (a contraction of the Dutch verbs "snuffelen" - to seek out or to explore - and "doezelen" - to relax). Nowdays, not only is Snoezelen widely used in education and care settings for adults and children with developmental problems, mental disorders and even depression caused by aging, it is a well-known inclusion in mainstream populations as an antidote to stress.

A number of basic principles to enhance the individual's emotional state and ability to learn can be identified from the "Snoezelen" concept. I have sought to outline what these are below, in the hope that it would allow us, as parents, to re-look some of the components within our own homes that can be better channelled to serve and benefit our children further.

{mospagebreak}COLOURS, LIGHT & SHADE

There is a whole body of psychological research that highlights how colour has a direct effect on human mood and emotions. Blue and Green for example, are said to have a calming and peaceful effect respectively. Yellow on the other hand, is bright, happy and stimulating. Orange can fight depression and stimulate good humour, whilst Red can energise. Too much Red however, can make people feel irritable, impatient, and even angry.

A number of years ago, the Children's Probation Department in California discovered that children tended to have fewer outbursts when placed in a pink room (which may also explain why we chose pink to be one of the dominant colours on the second floor in Wee Care!). In Snoezelen, children are exposed to colour effects through optic displays and panels, bubble tubes, mirror-balls, colour-wheels, acrylic wands that glow in the dark, as well as coloured panes through which natural light can shine. At home, a parent might want to consider sun-catchers against windows, Do-It-Yourself stained-glass, fluorescent wands and decals for the evenings, in addition to walls, floors and soft furnishings in carefully-selected colours.

Having said this however, much has also been said of how too much or too little light can inhibit the child\'s ability to work at a task effectively, and so a good balance must be struck when considering the areas in the home where the child tends to work or play in frequently. Good quality light creates good visibility and visual comfort, and involves brightness, contrast, as well as the quantity and the color of the light. Contrast between an object and its immediate background, with little glare, must be sufficient to enable the child to view an activity clearly. There should be sufficient light to avoid eye-strain and the possibility of headaches. Inconsistent lighting from room to room, or from area to area, can be associated with visual problems that are the outcomes of compelling the child's eyes to adjust to different levels of light frequently.

TEXTURES, SOUNDS & SMELLS

In Snoezelen, children are exposed to play materials and furnishings that encourage touch & feel experiences. These include `hedgehog' and `koosh' balls, spiky rings to twirl around your wrists, vibrating mattresses and pillows, ball-pools, bean-bags of varying sizes and shapes, water- or air-filled cushions and heavy security blankets. My own children love burrowing under our family\'s pillows and cushions (the more, the better!) and I personally love what is called the body-sack (a tight piece of fabric used in some forms of dance that you can stretch, curl up and move around in). What is more, at the end of a heavy day, especially when work (and homework!) stress threaten to wreck havoc in our home, I resort to music from the cello to unwind and to calm the children down. I know of others who prefer sounds from instruments such as the bamboo flute, the oboe, and pan-pipes; whilst others enjoy the sound of water, the human heart-beat, bird-songs and even farmyard animals! To top it off, Snoezelen also encourages vapourising essential oils into the atmosphere. Many web-sites give a list of oils that are used for certain "infirmities"; such as Jasmine (which is said to decrease anger), Rose (to relieve anxiety), Grapefruit (to build confidence), Lavender (to relieve depression), and Sandalwood (to alleviate irritability).

MOVING ELEMENTS & OTHER VISUALS

I used to love visiting my former professor\'s home before she left Singapore. The minute I entered, I would feel a great sense of serenity. I always wondered what affected my perception of the living room, and whilst I used to think that "it must be the music she plays" or "it must be the height at which the ceiling is placed," I also recall the beautiful wooden mobiles from Germany that used to dance from her lamps as well as her children\'s paper-creations (much like Japanese origami but with a German flair) that would sit proudly on the coffee-table, or peek out from little nooks and crannies everywhere. These visuals and moving elements would fascinate and interest me to no end, and I would feel like a child re-discovering some new creative truth in the world!

Importantly though, I learnt to think of how the child's bedroom or learning space can be intrinsically interactive, with little or no human interference, simply because of the inclusion of these kinetic components. I have sought to place pin-wheels and wind-chimes in my balcony, or to construct my own mobile from shells, sticks and shiny cellophane. And, in a converse twist to the idea of movement, I have also thought deeply about the Snoezelen idea that movement should be child-initiated and child-directed too. In a multi-sensory room, the child is allowed to jump into swings, chairs, tyres and hammocks suspended from the ceiling, balance on wobble-boards or balance discs, or sit and turn in spinning saucers. For children with a more kinaesthetic preference to learning, these forms of movement can be deeply comforting and assuring.

In conclusion then, let us take a closer look at the physical environment in which we bring our children up in, and not just believe that learning is all about filling the human brain up with facts, data and information. When we provide a setting in which there is a gentle stimulation of the primary senses, children can experience self-control, autonomy and exploration-achievements that overcome inhibitions, enhance self-esteem and reduce tension. Free from the pressures of expectations and adult-directed "teaching", they can recuperate, and relax!

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