Environment is on my mind today…and I’m not talking about “the” environment, even though Earth Day just passed and it is an important topic, especially for parents of young children…but no, I’m talking about the physical environment…our surroundings, our space.

The main reason I’m thinking about it is because I learned about a new location to offer my RIE in the Wild classes and I tried it out with a couple of classes yesterday. I’m currently teaching 7 classes in 4 different venues, and each location has something unique to offer, which, in turn, elicits different interactions and behaviors in the children. Some locations have wide open fields for children to wander far away from their parents, some have bushes and trees to hide behind, most have at least a little wet grass, and definitely uneven ground, some offer lots of sticks and leaves, others have lovely loose soil for tossing and digging fingers into.

All have trees, wind, and sky.

All the stimulation we could possibly need: simply being outside invigorates the senses. Magda Gerber offered us the first ‘outdoor classroom’ in her home in Silver Lake…class was held partially inside, and partially out on her patio. Children were free to move in and out as they liked. Someday, I plan to have a similar indoor/outdoor flow for my classes…but for now, I’m sticking with an all-outdoor format. And I’m very happy to have found my new park location as my old one had all of the above, but also had many bounce houses and gender reveal (and other) parties, frequent dog walkers, vendors with colorful toys and rhythmic horns, soccer players, and ambient music from…well, I was going to say boomboxes, but it’s probably Bluetooth speakers.

In short, a lot of stimulation and distraction.

My new space has some of those, but far fewer, which I’m very grateful for because all of those ‘extras’ made it well…It wasn’t completely overwhelming, and there were still plenty of opportunities for children to notice one another, but it was a bit distracting. It took children out of the moment, and in RIE classes, we really want to stay in the moment. For children to have the opportunity to stay connected to other children, to us, and to themselves. In ‘regular’ RIE classes, offered indoors, we strive to tone down distractions in the space…walls are usually a neutral color with a little, carefully chosen, artwork. The equipment we use is made of wood, rather than brightly colored plastic or foam. We don’t play music in the background, or even hang mobiles or scarves from the ceiling. We even choose sheets and blankets with simple patterns or solid colors to spread out for babies. In short, we strive to let the environment simply become the backdrop for the children’s interactions and explorations.

In fact, the space you create for your child’s play and exploration, as well as care, is so fundamentally important to this Approach, that it is actually one of RIE’s basic principles. The reason for this is when you create a space where children can be independent in their movement…where they can climb and move freely without a lot of intervention from adults. Where they can freely touch and mouth most of the items in their space. Where they aren’t hearing a lot of “no, not there/whoops, don’t touch that/climb down from there”s. When children are in these spaces, you can start to really see how very capable they are. It helps you to slow down and look to see what they can do, instead of rushing to do things for them. This is why we serve snack at tables that are their height, rather than lifting them into a highchair. It’s why we use stools instead of chairs (because children can approach them from any side to sit on, and they are less likely to tip). It’s why we gradually introduce climbing equipment and it starts with simply a low platform or box…something they can take their time to climb on safely, without any worry or fear from us.

When you structure your child’s environment in such a way that they can move within it competently and independently, it helps you to really ‘see’ them as, well, competent and independent. When I was a full-time infant caregiver in a RIE based center many years ago, I remember how stunned I always was when I ran into families out “in the world.” I would always be surprised by how young the children looked…and that’s because the wider world isn’t built for infants and toddlers!

The other piece of creating a non-stimulating environment for children, one with just a few simple toys, laid out in an orderly way, is that…well, it just feels a little better.  An online article in Psychology Today describes how keeping the physical space around us clean and organized can actually reduce anxiety:

“We’ve evolved a preference for order and symmetry because, presumably, those things conferred an evolutionary advantage back in our ancestral environment. When things feel out of order, it can…make us feel scattered and anxious. Creating order relieves that anxiety.”

I have definitely noticed a preference for order in my classes…I always start the class with toys arranged in a systematic way of sorts. I might group items by color, shape, size, or texture, and I try to space groups of items out, being mindful not to overwhelm the space with objects. Over the course of the class, of course, everything gets scattered (as it should!), and we end the class by collecting all of the toys into one big container…both providing a visual cue to the transition that is coming up, but also bringing back a sense of simplicity and order. Sometimes, though, I notice the energy in the class shifts before the 90 minutes are up, and in these situations, often all I have to do is reorganize some of the toys, thus re-engaging the children in exploration.

As adults, we know our spaces can color our mood and energy. Take a moment now and think about a place where you feel centered, grounded…where your creativity flows…where you feel safe, secure, and competent. At peace. What makes it feel that way to you? Now think about your child: does your child have a space in your home to feel that same groundedness, security, and competency?