Evidence Brief – Ideal Learning Environments for Young Children

Children are born learning, exploring and growing.

How they will develop depends on us. We know that during the first few years of life, more than 1 million neural connections are formed every second. Young children develop through rich, daily interactions with nurturing caregivers and educators, building brains and shaping physical, socioemotional and cognitive development for life. These early years represent a unique, flexible period of human development and a finite window for high-impact investment.

Because children are born learning, any environment can become an ideal learning environment

Early learning environments shape children’s present and future through mechanisms scientists continue to discover — from statistical learning to nervous system attunement to epigenetics. Because children are born learning, any environment can become an ideal learning environment — whether at home, in family- or center-based child care, or at school. While every child should have access to ideal learning environments from birth, far too many do not. With growing public investment, we now have the opportunity to create equitable ideal learning environments serving children, families and educators in any setting.

Our context

Early childhood is a crossroads of inequity and investment in our future

Childhood is a unique period in human development, and children born today sit at a nexus of inequity and opportunity. Historically, millions of children in the U.S. have been formally denied access to high-quality learning environments on the basis of racialized identity, gender, native language, immigration status and perceived ability. Systematic dehumanization of indigenous people, African Americans, immigrants, women, girls and non-binary people and people with disabilities has had profound influence on essential conceptions of children and childhood in the U.S.(2)

Children born today sit at a nexus of inequity and opportunity

Over the last century, advocates have worked to overturn explicitly racist, sexist and ableist laws, but children continue to face unequal learning opportunities from and even before birth.(3) While the opportunities and outcomes of white and well-resourced children in the U.S. are often considered the implicit standard for all, learning and socioeconomic outcomes are low across the board.(4) COVID-19 has laid bare and exacerbated these existing challenges.(5)

Structural racism and other inequities create stress and barriers for millions of families with young children in the U.S.

In the United States, racial categories were developed to justify the genocide of indigenous communities and enslavement of African Americans while constructing a unifying, economically advantageous “white” identity for disparate ethnic Europeans. Hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and other explicitly racist laws, forced assimilation schools, segregation, pay inequity, and other forces have created persistent racial inequities. In this brief we take a racial equity approach which acknowledges racism as a primary driver of opportunity and outcome gaps in concert with socioeconomic, gender, cultural and linguistic inequities.(6)

two boys learning

Photo by Allison Shelley

All children and families possess unique resources and the capacity for resilience(7), but racism operates at systemic, institutional and individual levels to harm children of color and their families.(8) Economic instability and poverty also cause direct and indirect harm, increasing the risk of health, cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional difficulties.(9) The effects of poverty can be seen at systemic, institutional, and individual levels from reduced access to nutritious food, health care and high-quality child care to increased familial stress which may influence brain development.(10) Finally, while gains have been made to acknowledge the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities, children with disabilities and special needs continue to face exclusion from learning environments in their earliest years.(11)

Millions of young children experience ACEs and toxic stress

The past few decades have seen remarkable advances in research methods that reveal how racism, poverty, trauma and toxic stress get “under the skin” to influence development. While these processes are complex and individual children may respond differently to the same experiences(12), it is now clear that these stressors fundamentally influence physiology and brain development.(13)

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) framework was a step forward in acknowledging the challenges faced by 1/3 of children in the United States.(14) However, trauma disproportionately impacts particular racial and ethnic communities including tribal communities(15) as well as Black and Hispanic/Latine communities.(16) Recently, researchers have argued for the inclusion of racism and other forms of discrimination as distinct Adverse Child Experiences.(17) Researchers are also studying the intergenerational impacts of ACEs and parent-focused supports that may help families cope.(18) Continued research on ACEs can guide trauma-informed practice(19) and insights on the mechanisms of structural adversity.(20) Importantly, trauma-informed approaches should be culturally responsive and developed in partnership with communities.(21) Specific traumatic experiences — whether due to climate disasters, forced migration, or a pandemic — will continue to have the greatest impact on our most underserved children.(22)

Significant numbers of children born in the U.S. today face racism, socioeconomic inequity, trauma and toxic stress. Children from affluent communities face risks as well. Parent stress, ACEs and other pressures can elevate risk for later substance abuse and emotional challenges for all children.(23) While children are sensitive to stress and trauma, no single experience will create a predictable developmental consequence, and children vary in sensitivity to their experiences.(24) Children’s overall experiences contribute dynamically to lifelong development and we must center children who face cumulative risk(25) while proactively creating nurturing environments for all.

Despite these challenges, every child possesses unique potential. Our context necessitates a clear focus on racial and socioeconomic equity (including careful attention to barriers based on home language and/or disability status), but the research in this brief highlights the dynamic ways that all children learn, grow, and adapt. Early childhood is a period of hope, renewal and reimagining no matter our present challenges.

We stand at a peak and a starting point for scientific research

In key areas of research about young children, scientists largely agree. Groundbreaking findings in the last twenty years have shed light on myths and mysteries about child development.(26) At the same time, the research community is just beginning to systematically address research gaps related to racial, cultural and linguistic equity and neurodiversity.(27)

Historically, research conducted in developmental and learning sciences in the U.S. has been guided by white theorists and philosophers, led by white scholars, and funded by white-led private and public entities. Studies have disproportionately sampled neurotypical, white, middle-class or affluent children(28), and have often been guided by a deficit mindset toward children who are not white, standard English-speaking, or neurotypical.(29) Research institutions should commit to action on these inequities in pursuit of inclusion and better science.(30)

THE RESEARCH WE HAVE

THE RESEARCH WE NEED

Primarily informed by white American and European theorists and philosophers
Informed by theorists and philosophers from all cultures and racial/ethnic identities
Disproportionately led and funded by white researchers and program officers
Led by researchers and funders who reflect all communities
Research questions informed by racism and deficit mentalities about children and families
Research questions informed by explicit antiracism and culturally sustaining approaches to all children, families and communities
Methods are not informed by communities or subjects
Community members are active participants who shape and evaluate research
Limited sample sizes and analyses that ignore or simply control for race
Large, diverse samples and analytical approaches that acknowledge and include racism

(31)

Guiding insights

EL reading together

Photo courtesy of EL Education

In this section, we briefly highlight recent discoveries about child development before examining research related to each of the nine principles of ideal learning environments.

Children develop dynamically and holistically

Cognition, emotion and physical development are overlapping elements of complex learning systems that allow humans to store memories and knowledge, apply insight to novel situations, make decisions and create.(32) These cascades of physical, neural and emotional development are regulated and influenced by the environment, especially daily interactions with caregivers and educators.(33) We now understand that children’s growth across domains is deeply interwoven. For example, physical milestones like walking can trigger bursts of language growth, and language development further influences cognitive and emotional growth.(34) 

We now understand that children’s growth across domains is deeply interwoven

Avance parent and child

Photo courtesy of AVANCE

Many researchers now study relationships between systems previously considered separately, including stress, the immune system, cognition and emotional regulation.(35) For example, early experiences shape the development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to guide stress responses, influencing lifelong health outcomes as well as a child’s ability to learn. These early physiological regulatory systems are closely related to later executive function, cognitive and mental health outcomes.(36) It is now clear that exposure to trauma or toxic stress in early childhood may have cascading effects on physiological, socioemotional and cognitive development for years to come.(37) Supporting every child’s holistic wellbeing and development is essential.

Variability is normal and development is adaptive

Cantor and colleagues’ (2018) synthesis of recent child development research emphasizes that human variability is the norm(38), including in a single child’s abilities from hour to hour and variability in the timing of milestones from child to child. While developmental milestones are useful for reference, each child’s developmental pathway is unique and adaptive, in constant interaction with biology, context and caregivers.(39) 

Each child’s developmental pathway is unique and adaptive, in constant interaction with biology, context and caregivers

Historically, deficit-based thinking about race, cultural and linguistic diversity, socioeconomic status and neurodiversity has pervaded early childhood research.(40) Researchers have begun to utilize adaptive models of development, but more effort is needed to move beyond a pathologizing view of difference in children.(41) If we embrace the reality of human variability, practice should shift toward responsive, personalized guidance to support every child’s unique development.(42)

Epigenetic research demonstrates how nature and nurture work together

Epigenetic studies are beginning to shed light on how early childhood environments actively shape genetic expression. Simply put, human nature needs nurture. It now appears that rich early learning environments not only support individual development, they may alter genetic expression across generations.(43)

Principle 1: Decision-making reflects a commitment to equity

Equity is a bedrock principle of ideal learning environments, but it is far from realized for most children and families or operationalized in research and policy. Equity begins with the belief that every child has unique, limitless potential and ideal learning environments should be proactively antiracist, inclusive of all cultures, languages, and genders and designed to serve all learners. Beyond the learning environment, an equity approach can guide progress at every level of early childhood systems. 

Equity begins with the belief that every child has unique, limitless potential

Antiracist and inclusive practice supports underserved children and can benefit every child in the learning environment.(44) Importantly, we should let go of “colorblind” approaches, and replace them with proactive, inclusive models of learning.(45) For example, Farrington (2019) argues that social-emotional curricula will be more effective if they are explicitly antiracist.(46) Motegi (2019) describes an tribal community pre-school activity in which educators explore indigenous reconciliation through children’s personal stories, blending language, cultural and social-emotional development.(47) The movement for Universal Design in Learning centers children with disabilities and special needs to create learning spaces that engage all children equitably.(48)

In research, an equity lens can lead to novel insights about the unique resources Black families(49), tribal communities(50) and multilingual families(51) possess in support of child development. Equity research can bring individual bias to light, including bias toward Black children that leads to disproportionate punishment and expulsion.(52) Orienting toward equity can also reveal the benefits to young children of color when they have educators who look like them(53), as well as the benefits of diverse learning environments for all children.(54) 

Today, more researchers are focusing on the developmental effects of racism and other inequities, but these factors have been inconsistently operationalized in past studies.(55) While models like Bronfenbrenner & Morris’ (2007) bioecological approach can be used to consider racism as a variable operating at multiple levels on children’s opportunities and outcomes(56), new, explicitly antiracist and inclusive child development frameworks are emerging.(57)

Photo courtesy of Educare Seattle

Equity as a mindset can help policymakers identify and remove structural barriers for children and families(58), helping policymakers critically examine funding, licensure and lotteries and mitigate inequities experienced by the early childhood workforce.(59) In the development of early childhood curricula, an equity lens can challenge and improve content and practice.(60)

Finally, an equity mindset can lead to more effective educator development pathways. Proactive approaches that center cultural competence(61), an asset-based approach to multilingual learners(62) and anti-bias, anti-racist strategies(63) can influence educator training and professional development programs.(64) As Escayg (2019) notes, existing anti-bias programs are in need of critical development through an anti-racist lens that includes an analysis of systems of power.(65) 

Existing inequities create risk for millions of children, influencing lifelong physical, cognitive, emotional and academic outcomes.(66) While high-quality early learning environments can buffer the effects of adverse experiences, we must also work to dismantle the policies and systems perpetuating this widespread harm

Today, our fragile and underfunded early childhood systems fail all but the most fortunate families. Children who may benefit most from high-quality early learning environments are less likely to experience them due to inequitable access. For example, children experiencing poverty have reduced access to high-quality child care programs and well-prepared educators.(67) While federally-funded programs like Head Start provide the opportunity for high-quality learning environments, access to high-quality Head Start programs varies.(68)

Gaps in access are compounded by other inequities. For example, Head Start serves a lower percentage of Hispanic/Latine and Asian eligible children, compared to the national average of eligible children served.(69) In a recent study, Hardy and colleagues (2020) found that Black and Hispanic/Latine children have reduced access to a neighborhood Head Start slot compared to white children.(70) Children with special needs are often excluded from classrooms and are more likely to be expelled and suspended compared to children without disabilities.(71) Emergent bilingual children are often mis-disagnosed with language disorders and may be over or under-represented in special education programs(72), and children in immigrant families are less likely to have holistic, high-quality programs as they transition from Pre-K to Kindergarten.(73)

We must proactively advance equity at every level in early childhood systems

We must proactively advance equity at every level in early childhood systems. A business-as-usual approach will only allow opportunity gaps to persist. Despite the challenges, all young children and their families possess cultural wealth, strength, and agency. Over the last century, enormous progress has been made on human rights and social and racial justice, led by the people most impacted by the injustices they worked to remedy. We need a re-imagined early childhood system to serve all families well, and it should be shaped by the communities it serves.

Principle 2: Children construct knowledge from diverse experiences to make meaning of the world

Photo courtesy of Manny Cantor Center

Building on earlier constructivist theories, current studies continue to reveal the innate, proactive learning abilities of young children. Far from blank slates, children are born learners, actively exploring their environments and relationships to construct meaning.(74) While most other species are ready to move, feed and act on their own within hours of birth, human babies rely on close caregivers for years as they develop. This prolonged early learning period allows children to adapt to their environments in the context of close relationships.(75)

Young children are optimal learners 

From birth, learning and meaning-making systems are on by default.(76) Children seek, predict and adapt to data from their inner and outer worlds, including thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.(77) In the last twenty years, researchers have found that babies’ subtle eye movements may reveal the development of sophisticated attentional systems.(78) Their wiggling toes may actively build new sensory maps in their brains.(79) Babies may even use innate statistical capabilities to derive word units from the stream of language they hear.(80) Current studies continue to demonstrate that children’s remarkable learning abilities are deeply interconnected. For example, in studying links between emotion and language development, researchers have found that preference for infant-directed speech, which exaggerates rhythmic, melodic and emotional cues, predicted language acquisition in both preschool children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and typically developing children, suggesting that language processing is closely related to social processing.(81) 

Children’s learning abilities are deeply interconnected

Ample evidence demonstrates that young children develop holistically, but learning domains are often isolated in curricula and materials. Importantly, research indicates that social, emotional and cultural development are integral to all learning, so early childhood approaches should evolve to fully integrate these often disparate domains.(82)

Equity and inclusion considerations

Most children are born with the capacity to fluently learn multiple languages if they are exposed to them in the first few years of life.(83) Yet in the United States, young multilingual and multidialectical children are often seen as deficient in Mainstream American English rather than celebrated for the advantages multilingualism conveys over a lifetime.(84) While policy language about multilingual learners has recently evolved(85), there are still significant barriers to supporting all children and families in home language and dialectical continuity.(86) Future research should articulate key components of effective, culturally sustaining language development approaches like Dual Language Immersion models.(87)

In developing whole-child programs, leaders should focus on supporting every child’s development in culturally-sustaining ways rather than enforcing unexamined white cultural norms.(88) Diversity in children’s emotional expression and regulatory skills are to be expected and embraced.

Preschool students building

Photo by Allison Shelley

Educators need support to facilitate active learning

In ideal learning environments, adults guide children’s learning and discovery through direct interaction, facilitation of independent or small-group learning, and the protection of free time for play and exploration. Educators require knowledge of child development as well as the ability to thoughtfully prepare, observe and adapt the learning environment to stimulate curiosity and exploration. While ideal learning approaches intentionally facilitate children’s active learning(89), many educators who work with young children do not have access to these high-quality pedagogical approaches.(90)

Principle 3: Play is an essential element of young children's learning

With roots in 20th century theory(91), a broad body of recent evidence suggests that diverse forms of play come naturally to young children and support all aspects of learning and development.(92) Some researchers categorize play by type (e.g., sociodramatic, pretend, fantasy or free play)(93) while others define play by essential characteristics (e.g., joy, active engagement, meaningfulness or agency)(94) or developmental stage (e.g., gross-motor, parallel, object-based or cooperative).(95) As neuroscientists continue to shed light on the intertwined relationship between play and brain development(96), it is abundantly clear that play is a vehicle for learning rather than a distraction from it.(97)

Play is a vehicle for learning rather than a distraction from it

Play supports growth and development across domains

Findings across studies suggest that play can support social, emotional, language and mathematical development while facilitating curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills in children. In studying the relationship between social and emotional development and play, researchers emphasize the importance of free play, constructive play, dramatic play and outdoor play.(98) Researchers who have studied the relationship between language development and play emphasize the importance of dramatic play, dialogic reading and free play.(99) When examining the relationship between play and mathematical and problem-solving skills, researchers often focus on the effect of guided play using blocks and games.(100)

learning from blocks

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

Play is of such central importance to child development that advocates frame it as a right.(101) Its role in healthy development has been further emphasized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and others.(102) Yet children’s ability to engage in affirming, developmental play is limited by other factors, including an inappropriate focus on highly academic content in early childhood programs and limited access to playful learning opportunities.(103)

Rather than being prescriptive about any one kind of play, educators in ideal learning approaches consider play in tandem with equity, relationships, personalized learning and the environment.(104) All children possess linguistic, cultural and experiential knowledge which can serve as entry points to engage curiosity through play, and play with an infant will look different than play amongst three year olds or a mixed-age group of children. A personalized, responsive approach to play-based learning is essential.(105)

A recent review of 26 play interventions across 18 countries and five continents concluded that free and guided play provide greater cognitive benefits for pre-schoolers than teacher-based play or games. In their review, the authors emphasized the importance of child choice during play to facilitate growth and development.(106) Recent research also suggests that outdoor play may be especially supportive of children’s physical, cognitive and social emotional development.(107)

cutting apples

Photo courtesy of Montessori Partnerships of Georgia

Equity & inclusion considerations

While considerable research has shed light on the importance of play for child development, models, measures and play in practice are highly influenced by culture.(108) Mainstream frameworks of play and learning also center and normalize the experiences of children without disabilities(109), yet children with diverse abilities may choose and benefit from a wide variety of playful learning experiences, and optimal play-based learning looks different for each child according to their moment-to-moment interests and needs. While play-based interventions may enhance the cognitive and social emotional development of children with disabilities(110), Goodley & Runswick-Cole (2009) caution that rigid expectations of how play-based learning should look can pathologize children with disabilities who play in non-normative ways.(111)

Children with diverse abilities may choose and benefit from a wide variety of playful learning experiences

Photo courtesy of SDI Productions

Children’s unique identities and interests may draw them toward or away from particular play opportunities, so explicit gender inclusion and antiracism in play are essential.(112) Racial identity development and social and emotional development during play may be closely related. In Iruka et al. (2020), the authors discuss several important considerations related to racial and gender identification of young children during pretend play, including stereotyped expectations and children’s awareness of power differences between roles with different racialized identities. As they discuss, even very young children actively develop ideas about race, gender and culture, and naturally engage with these ideas during play.(113) For example, Sturdivant and Alanís (2021) found that Black preschool girls demonstrated a strong preference for non-Black dolls during play. Sturdivant (2021) found that these choices were informed by children’s understanding of the privilege associated with white dolls. While play can perpetuate harm(114), positive racial identity development has been shown to support cognitive, social and emotional growth, so play is an important area of focus for antiracist educator practice.(115)

Explicit gender inclusion and antiracism in play are essential

A more expansive and inclusive view of playful learning should center the experiences of children with disabilities, children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and children who have experienced trauma. Researchers today can articulate proactive, inclusive and antiracist theories of play to inform the field.(116) 

Principle 4: Instruction is personalized to acknowledge each child's development and abilities

From the earliest days of life, children express unique preferences, perspectives and capabilities. Human beings are excellent learners because we can apply our own memories and associations to complex new problems(117), and children learn by connecting new experiences with their existing knowledge.(118) Sensitive educators can engage each child’s interests to build socioemotional, language, math and creative skills. Educators’ ability to authentically personalize learning may be particularly important for racially minoritized children, multilingual learners and children with diverse learning needs.(119) 

Personalized learning improves engagement and child outcomes

In one study, Begus & Gliga (2014) found that infants learned more from an interaction when they chose the object they learned from. They also studied the role of student choice in learning and discovered that children who were allowed some choices about a game were more motivated to learn from it.(120) In a study with older children, Orellana & Hernandez (1999) studied children’s experiences in community learning environments, observing which kinds of environmental text (e.g., street signs and logos) children noticed and responded to in conversation. They found that children were bored when educators pointed out environmental text at random, but were eager to describe places they knew (e.g., their own street or their parent’s workplace).(121) In a 2008 meta-analysis of 41 studies on choice and learning, Patall et al (2008) found that providing choices enhanced learning, motivation and performance on a variety of tasks. Interestingly, they noted that providing children with a small number of choices (2-4) was ideal and that choice was most effective when there were no rewards associated with choices.(122) 

Personalized learning has also been guided by the idea that each child has a unique zone of proximal development(123), when a skill is just out of reach, but attainable. In ideal learning environments, educators guide personalized learning in many ways, from modeling, to child exploration in a carefully prepared environment to mixed-age or mixed-ability peer group work on an engaging project.

Personalized learning should be guided by equity

Photo by Allison Shelley

While the field is shifting toward the fact that every child’s developmental path is unique and dynamic(124), many educators and psychologists are still guided by outdated mental models that categorize and center “normal” (and often, white) children in our approach to all children.(125) Educators may also operate under mistaken beliefs that a child’s identity is innate and fixed, sorting children into formal and informal categories that will shape their learning experiences for years to come.(126)

Personalized learning is a hallmark of high-quality special education.(127) Many researchers and advocates are now working at the intersection of racial and cultural inclusion and disability to disentangle supports for multilingual children and children with disabilities. For example, Park et al. (2017) have issued guidance with the Council for Chief State School Officers while calling for additional research and tools.(128) Importantly, as Park et al (2021) describe, child-centered support rather than surveillance may be particularly important for children of color with disabilities.(129)

Every child’s developmental path is unique

Developmentally appropriate practice has been shown to promote cognitive development(130), and has shifted over time toward meeting children where they are and building on their strengths.(131) Because learning happens in the context of each child’s home language and culture(132), educators should use culturally sustaining practices to support multilingual development.(133) Indigenous language revitalization in early childhood programs presents an urgent priority to support tribal communities and revive the majority of tribal languages in the United States that are currently endangered.(134) 

Principle 5: The teacher is a guide, nurturing presence, and co-constructor of knowledge

Because children actively learn from their environments, educators can engage curiosity while cultivating new skills, habits and knowledge. Older theories about the nature of learning include emphasis on curiosity and discovery(135), and a number of recent studies affirm that guiding children’s discovery is more effective than overly-didactic, teacher-focused instruction.(136)

Effective educators guide children’s discovery

guiding

Photo courtesy of American Montessori Society

In one study, Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe and Golinkoff (2013) compared two ways of teaching children about triangles. In one condition, they simply told children facts about triangles. In the other, they gave children clues and a goal to figure out the “secret of the shapes.” Children who were given clues and encouragement not only learned more initially, they also remembered more a week later.(137) Meacham, Vukelich, Han, and Buell (2016) examined conversational patterns between children and educators in Head Start centers, finding that children used more language when teachers continued discussing the topic children were already on, rather than imposing a new topic.(138) A number of studies comparing child-centered programs to programs that rely more on didactic instruction have found differential effects on academic and life outcomes.(139) In one meta-analysis comparing three types of instruction — explicit instruction, assisted discovery and unassisted discovery — Alfieri et al, 2011 found that programs in which educators facilitated “assisted discovery” showed the greatest benefits for children.(140)

Programs in which educators facilitated “assisted discovery” showed the greatest benefits for children

By guiding active learning, educators support children’s executive functions — self-regulatory skills that develop in early childhood and are predictive of later academic and life outcomes.(141) These overlapping skills include attentional control (paying attention to a specific task), working memory (keeping information in mind in the short-term), and inhibition (avoiding distractions).(142) Closely related to physiological self-regulation, executive function skills seem to be affected both by prolonged periods of stress(143) and positive adult scaffolding.(144) Importantly, executive function skills support agency, which all children possess and can express from a young age. While children with special needs and disabilities benefit from choice and self-direction, they may be most vulnerable to a loss of agency in the learning environment.(145)

Educators hold positions of power and influence, and they need support

As they facilitate learning, educators are also social and emotional guides for children, who co-create culture in the learning environment.(146) Educators who are warm, responsive and self-regulated help children learn to manage their own emotional experiences.(147) As Farmer et al. (2018) describe it, educators have an “invisible hand” influencing classroom social dynamics, which may be especially important for inclusion of children with learning disabilities.  

As guides who shape children’s knowledge, social perceptions, emotional regulation and identity, educators hold positions of enormous responsibility and influence in the lives of young children. Unfortunately, early educators are not without racial biases, and educator development programs should be proactively built on principles of antiracism and inclusion.(148)

To guide each child’s active learning, educators must possess knowledge of child development, sophisticated self-regulatory and facilitation skills and a commitment to antiracism and inclusion. Educator development programs aligned with the principles of ideal learning support these capabilities in educators, not just in formative training, but through ongoing coaching, reflective observation and holistic assessment practices.(149) 

Principle 6: Young children and adults learn through relationships

From the first days of life, babies tune in to what matters in their environment by interacting with caregivers, educators and peers.(150) This give-and-take dance can be observed in patterns of touch, heart rate, facial expression, vocalization, eye gaze and brain activity(151), and will shape the development of children’s stress, immune and emotion regulation systems.(152) While much of the research on this moment-to-moment synchrony has focused on mothers, similar tools have been used to study father-child, grandparent-child, and educator-child interactions.(153)

Photo courtesy of Educare

Time spent in nurturing relationships is essential for brain development as infants develop up to one million new neural connections per second, which are directly shaped by interactions.(154) Numerous studies have shown how relationships influence long-term language(155), social(156), and executive function outcomes in children.(157)

Relationships can be a source of resilience or stress for young children

Relationships fluctuate over time(158), and patterns of emotional regulation or dysregulation in children’s relationships can increase stress or bolster resilience.(159) Researchers generally agree that key features define effective learning relationships: warmth, consistency, attunement, reciprocity, and joint activity.(160) However, any relationship also brings the potential for harm.(161) Racial bias, devaluation of home languages and cultures, and deficit-based thinking can create harmful learning relationships in which children are not fully seen and supported for who they are.(162)

Children’s relational learning environments are dynamic and develop over time

As children grow, they develop more sophisticated self-regulatory abilities.(163) Typically, this coincides with growth in their social network, and as children enter formal learning environments, educators and peers play an important role in learning and development. In addition to the importance of nurturing relationships with individual adults, children benefit when multiple adults in their lives reinforce familiar patterns(164), and when adults scaffold relationships with peers(165), who play a central and often unacknowledged role in one another’s learning. For example, Henry and Rickman (2007) found that peer ability in Head Start classrooms may have a significant, under-reported effect on children’s outcomes. After children enter formal learning environments, parents continue to play a central role in learning both through day-to-day engagement and support of school goals.(166) Ideally, family-educator relationships are trusting and mutually supportive, as children benefit when educators build strong relationships with families.(167)

Equity in relationships

children playing

Photo courtesy of Manny Cantor Center

Relationship-based learning is backed by a robust body of research, yet millions of children experience disruptions in their relationships with parents and other early educators because of systemic inequities. For example, Iruka et al. (2019) found that Black children are less likely to have close relationships with teachers and be in emotionally supportive classrooms compared to peers.(168) Conversely, strong relationships with educators can protect a child from the effects of structural racism(169) and other kinds of adversity(170), while creating supportive, culturally sustaining learning environments for all.(171)

Because any individual relationship can increase or buffer stress, researchers can clarify both universal and culturally-specific factors that support healthy relationships for every young child at home, child care, or school. Many tribal communities in the United States and elsewhere have longstanding, relational approaches to early childhood development(172), but non-white cultural wealth has often been ignored in research on relational wellbeing. Researchers now have an opportunity to evolve relational constructs (e.g., attachment and parental sensitivity) through a lens of racial, cultural, and linguistic inclusion.(173)

The quality of moment-to-moment interactions are particularly important to children’s growth and development

Relational learning happens in real time

Significant research to date has found that the quality of moment-to-moment interactions are particularly important to children’s growth and development. It is the nuanced, sensitive quality of these interactions that seems to matter most. Relational learning is dynamic, prompting important questions about how we support adults to develop the personal qualities and skills to nurture every child’s potential in the present.(174) 

Principle 7: The learning environment intentionally facilitates exploration, independence, and interaction

While the term “environment” is used broadly in developmental research, ideal learning approaches uniquely emphasize the importance of the physical learning environment(175), including considerations of designed learning spaces, open spaces for exploration, materials, furniture, look and feel and access to nature. The educator’s role in guiding children’s engagement with their environment is critical. In practice, educators can use the environment to enhance social, emotional, and cognitive development, balancing universal and individual needs and structuring spaces and schedules to facilitate flexibility, exploration and focus.(176)

How the built environment influences learning

As Choi et al (2014) and others argue, the physical environment plays a central role in children’s cognitive load and learning abilities. Researchers who have examined designed learning environments have found a variety of effects with implications for development. For example, Klatte et al (2009) found that in more acoustically resonant classrooms, children had more difficulty with speech perception, short-term memory and social relationships. Marx et al (1999) examined children’s question-asking in two classroom formations — desks arranged in rows and columns and desks arranged in a semi-circle — finding that children asked more questions in a semi-circle. Acer et al (2015) studied the effects of a preschool classroom redesign on children’s play behavior, finding that manipulative and dramatic play increased after a subtle change to make materials more accessible to children.(177) Finally, Fisher et al. (2014) found that children in classrooms with cluttered walls were more distracted, off-task, and learned less than children in classrooms with un-cluttered walls.(178) Hanley et al., 2017 found that similar effects were even more pronounced for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.(179) 

In one recent study, Barrett et al. (2013) incorporated many factors of environmental design into a multi-level model and found that light, temperature, air quality, ownership, flexibility, complexity, and color were among the most important environmental design factors related to children’s learning. These design considerations are not trivial; their model demonstrated that these factors account for approximately 16% of variability in academic performance.(180) 

Color and lighting considerations

Some researchers have focused on the influence of specific components of the designed learning environment, including individual colors and dimensions of warmth or intensity of hue. Researchers also consider the quantity and contrast of colors in a classroom as they relate to cognitive load or attention. Rather than indicating that certain colors are uniformly better or worse for children’s learning and development, the research as a whole suggests that color should be carefully considered in tandem with light sources, child age, inclusion of children with a variety of special needs, and the use of different areas in the learning environment.

Several researchers recommend the use of warm, neutral colors to prevent overstimulation in young children with disabilities like ADHD and autism.(181) However, active children also seem to respond well to cool, neutral colors(182) and there is some evidence that blue and purple hues may support attention and regulation.(183) Designers should be thoughtful about contrasting colors and keep the needs of visually impaired learners in mind when choosing accent colors in a learning environment. While monotonous colors have been associated with reduced performance in children, too many colors may lead to overstimulation.(184) In addition to color, Shabha (2006) and Gaines (2008) have examined questions about light sources as they relate to children with disabilities and found that visual triggers including both light and color can interfere with children’s learning and concentration.(185) Although some researchers have investigated the varying effects of color on children of different ages, genders, and learning abilities(186), little research has focused on how diverse home cultures may inform the color and overall design of welcoming, inclusive learning environments.

Environmental toxins & access to nature

Significant research exists on the risks children face due to environmental toxins(187), which disproportionately impact children experiencing poverty, including in their learning environments.(188) A growing body of research also demonstrates the importance of time in nature for children’s development.(189) Children today have far less time in nature than prior generations(190), and access to nature is further limited by systemic racism and other socioeconomic factors.(191) For example, Wen et al, 2013 reported that areas with more Black and Hispanic/Latine families were less likely to have accessible green space. Climate change and environmental crises are only worsening disparities, especially for children and families of color.(192) 

While research suggests that all children benefit from regular access to green space, many children and families do not currently have the ability to play safely in nature. UNICEF’s discussion paper on the necessity of urban green space includes creative recommendations for communities, schools, and local and national lawmakers to ensure that all children grow up with access to nature and the many benefits it provides. children playing outside

Finally, while more research is needed, educators around the country have used COVID-19 as a way to expand nature-based learning environments for young children. These programs will also benefit from research and evaluation as children’s immersion in nature may support both physiological and cognitive development as well as the ability to respond to climate change. It is important to note that many tribal communities in the United States and elsewhere see learning and development as intrinsically linked to both land and culture.(193) Efforts to re-connect all children with nature will benefit from recognition and restoration of historic and current indigenous practice.(194)

Equity & inclusion considerations

Universal Design for Learning centers children with a range of needs and abilities through a framework to ensure that all children are maximally supported by the learning environment.(195) The framework begins with equitable use and emphasizes flexibility, perceptibility of visual cues and information, and other accessibility considerations that make learning materials and experiences available to all. One important equity consideration in the learning environment is the extent to which photographs, books and other materials authentically reflect both children’s home cultures and languages and diverse communities in the larger world.(196)

Future research directions

While researchers have identified important considerations related to classroom setup, access to nature, color, lighting and acoustics, children experience learning environments holistically and dynamically. Children may also respond in distinctive ways to identical learning environments based on neurodiversity, language, home culture, mood, and age. Future research should explore the holistic effects of carefully designed environments, including on oral language development, socioemotional development and children’s agency.

In their 2020 review of existing research on the physical learning environment’s role in child learning outcomes, Matthews and Lippman also recommend future research on key components of the built physical environment (including classroom size, density, organization, noise levels, and lighting as well as air quality and ventilation) and ways that it is used (design, flexibility and “legibility”). They emphasize that a physical learning environment is rarely ideal for every learning scenario, and that educators and children should have ownership and flexibility to reconfigure space to optimize learning. Other researchers recommend incorporating both psychosocial and physical environmental factors in future research frameworks.(197)

Because children actively learn everywhere, not just in formal learning environments, future research should also investigate the diverse settings where children spend their time. Importantly, most existing studies on the effects of learning environments have focused on children’s experiences. Given extensive research linking educator and family wellbeing to child outcomes, learning environments should be optimally designed to support adult engagement and development as well. 

Principle 8: The time of childhood is valued

Ideal learning environments nurture children in the present rather than existing solely to prepare them for the near (i.e., Kindergarten) or distant (i.e., college) future. Research suggests that educators’ capacity to be present and attuned to young children in real time on a moment-to-moment basis fundamentally shapes development.(198)

Photo courtesy of Educare

These supportive interactions, whether playful, communicative, or regulatory, have a time-sensitive quality. Children benefit from socially-contingent interactions with back-and-forth rhythms, from serve-and-return conversations to clapping, singing, and playing peek-a-boo.(199)

Research has also shed light on the particular rhythms of childhood, which may run counter to recent efforts to maximize “time on task” in learning environments. Numerous studies suggests that inner reflective time and rest are critical for children’s development across domains. Sleep, in particular, is of fundamental importance to children’s growth and learning. For example, Seehagen et al. (2015) explored the relationship between napping and memory in infants, finding that infants who napped after learning a new imitation task were better able to recall the task after napping then infants who stayed awake.(200)

Waldorf meal

Photo courtesy of Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America

At a program level, educators should pace activities according to the needs of children, planning plenty of time to learn, explore, reflect, and rest. Learning environments should feel welcoming, cozy, and calm.(201) An adult’s ability to respond to children in real time requires presence and sensitivity, so ensuring time for educators to rest and reflect is critical as well. 

Protecting and valuing the time of childhood is especially important when considering the disparities that children experience today. For example, Epstein and colleagues (2017) found that adults perceive Black girls as less innocent and older than their white peers, disrupting their experience of childhood.(202) Similarly, Cooke & Halberstadt found that adults mistakenly perceive Black boys to be angry at higher rates than they do white boys.(203) Finally, recent studies have shown that more than a million preschoolers are suspended or expelled each year, and children of color face disproportionate suspension and expulsion which results in exclusion from their learning environments.(204) In 2020, the Children’s Equity Project and Bipartisan Policy Center released a report detailing these harsh and inequitable disciplinary practices and recommending policy solutions to end disparities and ensure that all children have access to supportive learning environments.(205) Childhood is a time of limitless potential not only for individual children, but for our communities. Early childhood policies and programs should embrace and protect this unique, sensitive period.

Principle 9: Continuous learning environments support adult development

While early childhood is a unique period, humans continue to grow and develop throughout life.(206) In particular, there is evidence that having or caring for children may enhance adult capacity for neuroplasticity and learning.(207) Ideal learning environments encourage ongoing, whole-person learning and development in all adults who support children — parents, caregivers, and teachers. 

Adults develop through equitable, experiential and personalized educator pathways

Educator development models tend to follow a linear path: intensive pre-service coursework leads to student teaching and a career of independent teaching with occasional supervisor feedback. However, research suggests that experiential learning through work with children, coupled with competency-based credentials and continual reflective coaching, may be both supportive of child development and more approachable for educators from diverse backgrounds.(208) Indeed, research on how adults learn and develop, including the framework of adult learning known as andragogy, echoes core principles of ideal learning environments.(209)

Equity considerations are of central importance to the formation and development of educators, and include consideration of educator recruitment and retention(210), cost and barriers to high-quality training models(211), compensation and credentialing(212), inclusive curricula(213) and supportive learning environments.(214) 

In addition, studies of adult learning emphasize the importance of the trainer-educator as a facilitator and guide rather than “sage on the stage.” These trainer-educator and peer-peer relationships are also important for educator development.(215)

Researchers have also highlighted the importance of personalized learning in which adults can construct new meaning through reflection on past experiences to build skills. To facilitate this integration of past and current experiences, trainers and coaches of educators should observe and build authentic, reflective relationships with their adult students.(216)

Photo courtesy of Bank Street

The development of educators requires whole-person learning — new knowledge, skills, habits of mind and the continual development of social and emotional capacities that allow adults to be present and responsive to the needs of young children.(217) Coherence between adult educator development and child development may be an important, overlooked ingredient in effective programs. In ideal learning approaches, adult professional learning is closely aligned to the child curriculum, materials, parent expectations, school culture and the physical environment.(218) 

New educator pathways are needed to meet educators where they are and support their development

Early educators enter the workforce in many ways and at various stages in their own development. Yet early childhood training models haven’t sufficiently evolved to meet these educators where they are and support their learning and licensure. The COVID-19 pandemic created opportunities to develop blended (online/offline) teacher development programs. At the same time, continued pressure on institutes of higher education is driving creativity in format, especially to serve a growing group of “non-traditional” learners.(219) While innovation can help make high-quality programs more accessible, core elements of educator development must continue to happen in immersive settings with children and families. 

The next decade offers opportunities for early educator development programs to rapidly innovate and scale low-cost, blended (online/offline) programs aligned with the principles of ideal learning environments. For example, Bank Street released a calculator in 2021 to help programs estimate costs for residency-based programs, and efforts like Trust for Learning’s partners’ SEED grant projects can inform the development of more inclusive educator pathways.(220) Recent early childhood educator efforts led by the American Indian College Fund(221) and HBCUs offer models to learn from. Finally, the last few years have seen a surge in educator programs aimed to reduce teacher bias and promote inclusion. Further study of these efforts is needed.(222) 

Educators of all kinds face enormous stressors that require policy changes at every level

Skilled educator practice relies on a holistic, moment-to-moment integration and deployment of various faculties — language, emotion, decision-making, creativity and reflection.(223) This sophisticated set of adult competencies is critically important for children’s development, yet educators experience ongoing stressors related to low compensation, working conditions, barriers to high-quality training programs, and persistent turnover in the field. These stressors directly and indirectly impede an adult’s ability to be present and responsive with young children. (224) Compensating educators fully and removing socioeconomic barriers for families may go a long way toward increasing the wellbeing of parents and the early childhood workforce in ways that will have cascading effects on young children. Focused on parents, Baby’s First Years is a recent study with families experiencing poverty to examine the effects of a monthly unconditional cash transfer on their children’s development. Researchers will examine how parent stress and mental health contribute to the effects of this program.(225) While structural changes are needed to reduce parent and educator stress, researchers have found that supporting educator wellbeing through mindfulness-based interventions for teachers and parents also supports child outcomes.(226) Notably, Oberle and Schonert-Reichl (2016) found that reducing teacher stress through mindfulness may reduce student stress biomarkers.(227) 

Policy innovation is needed at all levels to support ongoing, embedded and meaningful educator development. For example, employers should support modified schedules to ensure that educators can benefit from off-site learning opportunities and counties and cities can develop robust substitute pools to ensure continuity of care and learning. Importantly, articulation agreements are needed to recognize educators’ existing experience and make sure that every educator has a personalized and meaningful path toward high-quality credentials. Investments in equitable educator pathways aligned with the principles of ideal learning environments can accelerate the expansion of high-quality experiences for children.

Conclusion & Acknowledgements

As advocates, we focus on the prenatal period to the age of eight because of the sensitivity and importance of these years to all future development. But young children do not develop and learn alone: these early years also create a sensitive period for the adults in a young child’s life — us! 

Investment in early childhood educators is paramount. 

We have included brief recommendations related to policy and practice in each section, but the resounding takeaway is this: ideal learning environments come to life in the hands of educators, formal and informal, in any setting. Historically, we have systematically underfunded and devalued early childhood educators of every kind, which has further perpetuated racism, sexism, and economic inequity. Early educators are predominantly women and disproportionately women of color and immigrants, and they are being driven out of the field year after year because the profession is financially untenable and perpetuates socioeconomic inequity.(228) Evidence from every direction highlights the urgent need for full, sustainable investment in our early childhood systems and most importantly, our educators. 

How do we create ideal learning environments for young children?

Research on child development continues to shed light on optimal learning environments for young children. Over time, specific recommendations may change as our understanding of ideal learning environments grows from this scientific base. Today, it is abundantly clear that children thrive in discovery-based learning environments that are equitable, playful, joyful and supportive of the continual development of parents and other educators. We now need greater public will, equitable state and federal policy, and sustained funding which centers the wellbeing and compensation of our invaluable early childhood educators. Please join our community of advocates to tackle the barriers that remain and bring our shared ideals to life for every child in the United States.

Acknowledgments

This compilation of research was facilitated by Trust for Learning, a philanthropic partnership dedicated to supporting ideal learning environments for every child. Individual studies and literature reviews were identified by searching peer-reviewed developmental science, psychology, education, and implementation science journals. While we focused on research related directly to each individual principle of ideal learning environments, a number of recent literature reviews of child development research closely align with the overall ideal learning framework.(229)

Contributors

Tobi Adejumo, Jeffrey Beal, Elizabeth Beaven, Elena Bodrova, Cathrine Floyd, Brenda Fyfe, Chrisanne Gayl, Teresa Granillo, Iheoma Iruka, Cynthia Jackson, Marianna McCall, Denise Monnier, Soyoung Park, Christina Riley, Ellen Roche, Marina Rodriguez, Lisa Roy, Allyx Schiavone, Wendy Shenk-Evans, Wendy Simmons and Sara Suchman served as contributors, and Ximena Franco-Jenkins and Liz Pungello Bruno served as reviewers. The final document was edited by Trust for Learning and designed and developed by Kate Purcell and Dylan Tuohy. 

Special thanks to all members of the Ideal Learning Roundtable, Trust for Learning’s board of advisors, and our partner funders. Feedback on this compilation of evidence is welcome. Please contact corresponding author Ellen Roche at ellen [@] trustforlearning [.] org 

Suggested citation: Trust for Learning. (2022). Evidence Brief: Ideal learning environments for young children. Retrieved from https://www.trustforlearning.org/evidence-brief

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