Creating a powerful inside learning environment


Caring for infants and toddlers in a group care setting is a relatively new field in early childhood education in New Zealand. The increasing demand for care of this much younger age group has been swift, and caught many of us unprepared for the special nature of working with very young children and their families. Spaces for infants and toddlers often resemble simplified versions of environments for older children, with toys, furnishings and activity areas that do not meet the developmental strengths or interests of this younger age group. The design of a learning environment for children 0-3 years must address the unique rights of this age group during a time when a child’s developmental growth is great.

Children from birth to age three are primarily making sense of their world through sensory exploration and physical activity. Infants and toddlers are sensitive to their surroundings.

Baby in tunnel small.

Baby exploring

They need a rich sensory landscape and spaces that provide for safe exploration and active whole-body learning. Physical space must provide infants with a variety of interesting objects, textures and physical challenges, while not overwhelming them with too many choices or risks to their safety. A well-designed space for infants and toddlers supports child-initiated and teacher-facilitated learning. It is an environment that invites active learning and hands on experiences. Setting up a play environment for infants and toddlers should be based on what the children are ready for and interested in doing.

The challenge is to create a YES environment where the youngest of children can feel empowered.

Creating order and flexibility

A well-organised room has divided spaces of different size and function, with clear, visible boundaries. This assists infants to make sense of the environment and guides them into particular types of play and engagement. The prime objective is to group play spaces so they can enhance, yet do not interfere with, one another.

Room arrangement should support the holistic nature of child development, and it is important to keep in mind that not all the children will be involved in the same activity at any one time. Children need plenty of room to move about, to use materials and interact with others. Some children prefer to be very active while others will want time out from the demands of group activity. By providing protected and well-defined areas for play, we offer the children opportunity to focus on meaningful activity. To support the development of concentration, spaces should not be too stimulating, noisy or crowded.

Baby asleep on the cushion

Placing regular activity areas around the sides of the room provides a predictable environment for children. Keeping the middle of the room open allows for ease of supervision, frees movement between areas, and provides a space for special group interest activities. Children should be able to see clearly as well as move easily to the people and activities of their choice. Grouping certain types of activities together creates a more orderly environment. The diagram below illustrates activity zones that work well near each other.

Defining infant and toddler spaces

Very young children respond well to environmental clues within the play area. Use of colour, texture, or a change in level of surface can signal to children that something different happens here.

  • Provide rugs and mats
  • Use sturdy, low shelving
  • Provide mattresses and pillows
  • Include risers and platforms
  • Use colour to group materials together
  • Create personality or mood for each area
  • Create a neutral background for display of toys and material.

Building in flexibility when planning an environment for infants and toddlers allows us to respond to their developmental growth, and changing interests and abilities. Equipment and furnishings that can be easily moved or have complexity added are preferable to equipment that is fixed. This is necessary when children are seeking variety and extension each day. Keep some equipment stored to present to children as the interest arises. Include equipment and furnishings that can be easily altered or changed to suit the day and the children present. There are times when children of differing abilities can use the same equipment and materials with different levels of complexity.

 Basket with baby.

A responsive environment can accommodate the abilities of all of the children, the less mobile infant will require a safe space to stretch and roll, while older toddlers may have a desire to climb and see the world from a different perspective.

Creating softness, simplicity and comfort

Take a good look around. The best way to evaluate space for infants and toddlers is to get down to their level. Try to see the environment from the infant’s point of view. Infants spend a lot of time on the floor, so it’s important that the floor is clean and comfortable. View the ceiling and walls from this perspective. What do you see? Often overhead lighting can be harsh, every available wall surface covered in ‘educational’ posters, and shelves at the children’s level are over-filled with toys.

Infants and toddlers are highly sensitive to their surroundings. While they notice everything, they cannot necessarily make good use of everything they see. It can be difficult to make a choice when there is too much to choose from. Try to create a simple and neutral backdrop and empty wall space. Not only is this more restful but it allows for items and play objects to stand out. Make use of available space at children’s level for child activity. Build in learning opportunities, using the walls, shelving and furniture, to place items within children’s easy reach.

When thinking about providing quality spaces for children, most of us would agree that a home-like setting is desirable. Yet, very quickly, a group-care setting for babies can become an environment dominated by noticeboards, commercial and juvenile art, and brightly coloured toys and furnishings. Compare the centre environment to the one you return to at the end of a long day. Generally our homes are comfortable, soft and inviting. They reflect our personalities, cultural and family histories, hobbies and interests.

There are ways to counter the institutional feel of the environment provided in group care, to include features of our own home settings. Personalise the infant and toddler environment with family photos, objects of interest, art prints and treasured items from their world. Create a rich environment using colours, pillows, rugs, pot plants, curtains, and knick-knacks. To add aural and visual interest, include mirrors, wind chimes, displays of natural materials, and a few well-placed mobiles.

Include adult-sized furniture and child-sized furniture in the room. A couch can provide a physical challenge for children, a great space to climb up to read a book, have a cuddle and have some time out, to squeeze behind or to jump on. It’s important for adults to be comfortable and available to spend time with children. By including sturdy toddler-sized furniture, we provide children with a sense of belonging - the sense that ‘this is a space for me’.


  • Plants
  • Art prints
  • Lamps for localised lighting
  • Family photos
  • Art objects
  • Natural items
  • Flowers
  • Fabrics
  • Places of privacy

Providing open play materials

Babies need an environment rich with opportunities to explore. Infants and toddlers are beginning to learn the properties of objects and materials. They develop a familiarity with soft things, hard things, heavy things, things that make a noise, and so on. A good deal of the touching, mouthing, banging, patting and throwing of toys is done to test the nature and properties of objects.

Baby with jar.

Water baby

Play objects that can be manipulated in a variety of ways have been shown by research to best enhance infant exploratory play and learning. Provide open play materials that children can explore, manipulate and understand at a level suitable to their individual development. Simple play materials allow children to discover their many possibilities, that there is no right or wrong way to use these materials. Any object that is safe, easily providing a range of textures and shapes, enhances sensory interest. Materials for infants who are sitting can be simply presented in baskets. However toddlers, who act on the environment in more sophisticated ways, need plenty of materials to combine, sort, fit into, load, and dump.

Allowing for movement experiences

Both infants and toddlers need opportunities to move freely in an environment that provides safe and challenging spaces. Infants are learning to move and need a protected area big enough to allow for kicking, batting, rolling, and creeping. Make good use of corners in the room or along walls to create safe areas for babies.

Older, more mobile infants are ready to explore their surroundings more actively. Climbing, jumping and running are important activities for toddlers as they learn control of their bodies. Keep the middle of the room as an active zone to provide opportunities for infants to practise these skills. Improvise and create a multi-level environment that invites movement. Use mattresses, boxes, couches, pillow mountains, covered tyres, steps and platforms. Changing the shape of the landscape each day provides variety and new challenges.

Managing changes in the environment

Take a step back and have another look at the spaces you provide for infants and toddlers. Are the areas well defined? Are there a number of places to be alone or with a friend? Consider the needs of all the children in the environment. Create changes in the environment gradually, and introduce new materials or develop new spaces over time, and observe the children’s response. Even familiar materials presented in new and simple ways can be appealing to young children. Remember that play items do travel in the hands of toddlers, but providing clear, visible boundaries reminds children of where things belong.

Keeping the environment simple encourages children to find something of interest and become actively involved in play and exploration. A well-planned environment will empower children to make their own choices and support the holistic nature of their learning. It will also provide a setting that supports the development of social relationships with peers, and the adults who care for them.


Gerber, M. (1979). The RIE manual for parents and professionals. Los Angeles: Resources for Infant Caregivers.

Goldschmeid, E. (1986). Infants at work: Babies of 6 – 9 months exploring everyday objects [Videotape]. London: National Children’s Bureau.

Greenman, J. and Stonehouse, S. (1997). Prime times: A handbook for excellence in infant and toddler programmes. South Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman.

Post, J. & Hohmann, M. (2000). Tender care and early learning: Supporting infants and toddlers in child care settings. Ypsilanti, Michigan: High/Scope Press.

This paper was developed by EC Coordinators, Stuart Guyton and Lisa Terreni, and is available for download in PDF format in the reference box to the right.

Last updated: 19 August 2009