Communication rich environments

    Published: 17 January 2022

    Planning your environment is a key part of the Early Year’s practitioner role. We know how crucial the environment and the resources within it are in supporting children’s development and especially in language and communication. But how much thought do we give to the environment on a daily basis, do we reflect on how the children interact with it and in particular how it supports children to communicate and use language?

    Reggio Emilia identifies the value of the environment as ‘the third teacher’, whereby physical places have the potential to influence what and how children learn.

    Let’s unpick what we mean by creating an enriching Early Years environment that supports language and communication. We often think of it as just the physical resourcing within environment, but the emotional environment plays an important role too. The Early Years physical environment refers to the equipment (including the resources) and the space you provide. Practitioners play a crucial role in creating the emotional environment for children. It is both the physical resourcing along with the skilled practitioners within the space that make up that rich Early Year’s environment. These together can positively influence how young children develop communication and language.


    Books about fossils and dinosaurs


    Chairs under hessian hide-out


    The characteristics of effective learning within the EYFS has really helped us to embed our understanding of the skills children need to become learners. They tell us that “To learn well, children must approach opportunities with curiosity, energy and enthusiasm. Effective learning must be meaningful to a child, so that they are able to use what they have learned and apply it in new situations.” Birth to 5 Matters 2021.

    The words curiosity, awe and wonder have become common place in the Early Years practitioner’s vocabulary. Why is that?  Because these three words can do so much for young children and their brain development. What part does the environment play in creating that curiosity, awe and wonder for our children? And how does that support communication and language in children?

    When we expose children to new and fascinating objects and areas to explore within our environment, practitioners get the opportunity to introduce new words and language to children. It will also provide many different and new opportunities for children to have a go at using language for themselves. Even those children that are not yet using sentences to communicate will benefit, the more words children are exposed to impacts on the number of words they have to reach for when they are ready to speak and use sentences. Often the excitement of the new experience encourages young children to have a go at saying these new words.

    Reflecting on your emotional and physical environment

    Think about your Early Years environment, how might it make the children in your setting or school feel when they enter the space?

    Ask yourself:

    • what does it feel like to be a child arriving at this school or setting?
    • what might I look around and think?
    • can I see representations of myself?
    • where do I want to play?
    • is there someone familiar to me?
    • what is there in the environment that interests me?
    • is there something I have played with before and I know I enjoy?

    Once we have thought about what it might feel like to be a child entering your setting, the next question we should consider is:

    What kinds of feelings and thoughts would we like our environment to influence; and initiate in our children?  

    Excitement, curiosity, awe and wonder should be on that list.

    A century ago, John Dewey (1910, p.34) recognised curiosity as innate in children and he suggested that the educator's task was to ‘keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows’. Early Years practitioners are uniquely placed in education in their work with the youngest children and so have the perfect opportunity to protect and foster their innate curiosity.


    Girl in garden


    Children in playground


    What might that curiosity and wonder look like? How will you know your environment is offering enough of it to maximise learning and encourage communication and language?

    Observe, watch, and listen to the children as they move around and engage with the environment, consider their levels of involvement and how much language they do or don’t use. Remember that communication can take many forms for different children. Take note of their body language, who and what they interact with, the choices they make as well as any verbal language they may use. Consider who they choose to communicate with and how the resourcing of the environment may influence that or can provide additional opportunities to develop those skills.

    Don’t forget that you can access practical tips and inspiration from our Places to play Every Day digital tool. 

    I challenge you to reflect on your Early Years environment from a child’s perspective and ask yourself questions about how and what children are accessing and its impact on their development in communication and language.  Take time to consider if the physical and emotional environment is rich with opportunities for children to feel curiosity, awe and wonder. Does it provide the physical and emotional environment required to nurture and encourage children to communicate and use new language?

    You can hear more about the impact of learning environments from Ben Kingston Hughes, Managing Director of Inspired Children who will be leading a workshops around “Enriched environments and the brain” and ‘Works of joy and nurture’ at our National Early Years conference. Child Development: a fresh look at curriculum on 2nd March 2022.

    National Early Years conference


    Gov.UK: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage

    John Dewey. "Natural Resources in the Training of Thought" Chapter 3 in How we think. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, (1910): 29-44.

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