Magic Wand Thinking: What Would You Change/Add to Early Learning Environments Everywhere?

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. When the physical environment acts as the third teacher it holds the potential to influence what and how children learn. Carter (2007) suggests that “if we are to embrace the idea of the environment as a significant educator in our early childhood programs, we must expand our thinking … We must ask ourselves what values we want to communicate through our environments and how we want children to experience their time in our programs” (p. 22). As we prepare for another school year to begin, expanding our thinking about environments is an important suggestion. As an early childhood educator, who supports the adult learner in workshops and consulting, I have been thinking about ways to engage others to think beyond the status quo. Recently, I facilitated a workshop at a Forest Retreat in Wisconsin and provided teachers with knives and peelers to whittle so that they could experience for themselves the wonders of whittling. Imagine the skills that a child can develop from whittling. Not only is whittling wood a pleasant past time, it is something that has spanned generations and is often a family tradition. Children can learn safety skills and they can explore their creativity. The experience will also contribute to their problem solving and critical thinking.

We found the perfect wood for whittling and the teachers spent hours together outside, creating all sorts of sticks – some suggested they could create counting or talking sticks while a few landed on the idea of magic sticks or wands. This got me to thinking about what I would do if I had a magic wand and could wave it to add three things to every early learning environment and then wave it again to remove three things from every early learning environment. What would these things be? I am curious to know what you the reader would do if you had a magic wand? I find it fascinating to learn from and with others. In previous posts with a little incentive such as a give away, I have been able to generate multiple comments on blog posts. Next week , Cindy Green and I are going to be announcing the winner of the “Loose Parts Give Away” from over 100 possible entries. Here is another chance for you to win something and all you have to do is comment and make your three suggestions for additions and three suggestions for deletions. I don’t yet know what I will give away as that will be a surprise! Will this ambiguity be enough to entice you to comment? Will you join me in magic wand thinking?

Blocks at Seneca College Newnham Labschool

Outdoor Blocks – Seneca College Newnham Labschool

If I had a magic wand, every early learning environment would have two awesome sets of blocks, one for indoors and one for outdoors. In the tradition of the great Caroline Pratt, blocks are loose parts! In addition to children learning so much from blocks they are beautifully crafted from wood. For my grandson’s first birthday, he will get his own set! Every child should play with blocks!

A Clay Creature

If I had a magic wand, every learning early learning environment would have clay. I adore clay. It comes from the earth and can be used inside and outside. I get my clay from a local supplier and feel very fortunate to be able to share clay with educators in workshops so that they too can feel and experience this magical substance. Understanding the stages of development as they relate to clay helps us to realize that children need exposure to clay beginning at a very young age and continuing throughout childhood and beyond.

If I had a magic wand, instead of pre-determined costumes, every early learning environment would have fabric such as scarves, sheets, swatches and more. I love these rainbow scarves from Louise Kool and Galt. Just imagine the possibilities for play. One day they can be tied together and wrapped around the playground. Another day, they are used for dress up and another to dance to music. What would be your three additions? What about your deletions? For me it is plain and simple … I will be bold … worksheets, cut-outs or pre-cuts and cookie cutters shaped like cut-outs to be used with playdough should all be eliminated. Worksheets don’t work, pre-cuts or cut-outs reduce creativity, originality and are so much less beautiful than children’s own representations. Cookie cutters in shapes of jack-o-lanterns for Halloween or hearts for Valentine’s Day discourage the child from using the most important tools they have (their thinking and their hands) to create their own unique representations. What would be your three deletions when thinking of the environment as the third teacher? Please do some magic wand thinking and add your ideas to the comments below.


26 thoughts on “Magic Wand Thinking: What Would You Change/Add to Early Learning Environments Everywhere?

  1. I would love to have the gift of time. Time to spend with children and colleagues as I observe, document and reflect WITH colleagues and children.
    While visiting Reggio schools in Italy, I would love to have a space for children to experiment with light as it can teach so much about who we are in relation to ourselves and others. A space with lights the children can control – the light and the darkness and all its hues and shades. With this in mind I would love to have not only one exterior wall of windows but also an interior wall of windows inviting others to join our learning and questions or be inspired by what we do, say and think.
    I would love the opportunity for children to be engaged with others. Using spaces for multiple functions including interactions and exchanges. This means being open to the possibilities of time, space and others.


  2. I would remove:
    – cut-out crafts
    – worksheets
    – bulletin board decorations
    – predetermined dress-up costumes
    – foam blocks
    – ‘multicultural’ posters
    – bingo dabbers
    – barbie dolls
    – half of the board games in school-age rooms
    I would be sure to look for:
    – sand
    – water
    – blocks
    – paint
    – loose parts
    – plants
    – fabrics
    – Re purposed furniture
    – markers and scissors that work
    – warm teacher engagement

    Oops you said 3!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diane, I LOVED learning with you in Wisconsin at the Forest retreat. My 3 additions… 1. I would want every early childhood to have large hollow wooded blocks, so the children could build as high as they wanted,step on the blocks and build forts and structures. 2. An outdoor kitchen with real pots and pans, utensils and as o learned from my new friend Kat Horion, could we learn to be safe, and cook by fire in that kitchen? 3. ROCKS! I think children can learn so much from rocks of all sizes,colors,shapes and textures. Can I add a 4th… Cameras and video equipment, so the children can take photos and we can learn from technology!
    My deletions: 1. PLASTIC EVERYTHING, fake foods in the kitchen, plastic plates and pots and pans!
    2. Store bought posters, our children and our world are beautiful, take photographs and display! 3. Store bought toys… there are so many loose parts to explore, block play, magnets, sensory, art… we don’t need “toys” !


    • Cameras are a blast to use with children! One of my favorite activities is to go on a shape hunt, allowing the children to photograph the shapes. Using a film camera is fun, then you can use the negatives on a light table or overhead projector!


  4. What a challenge. If I may, let’s remove things first: remove the eye clutter that passes for learning resources that grows like mold all over the room, then remove all the pandering ‘decor’ lastly, remove the apathetic teacher that has has wonderful trainings and yet keeps to the same stagnant routine, keeping every child trapped in an adults idea of meaningful engagement, remove the lazy teacher who can’t be bothered to take the babies outside, or engage in play with her charges…

    Add >>> Light table and/or overhead projector, next add free access to a variety of art materials, finally add curious, active, resoectful, teachers/mentors.


  5. I love this! My “Magic Wand Thinking” 😍


    The children’s work and their WORDS. As an EC substitute, I see a LOT of classrooms. I love when I see the children’s work displayed beautifully and intentionally, at child-level. And when this includes supporting documentation featuring the child’s own words, this is all the more powerful.

    LIFE to care for: a garden (or even just a gathering of potted plants), and/or a class pet. Nurturing and supporting the growth and life of another brings warmth and empathy into the classroom.

    MUSIC. I love when authentic, beautiful music is playing or being made in the classroom.


    Calendar time. Proven ineffective for early learners and just dreadful to have to enforce as a teacher when you know your students aren’t getting anything from it.

    Fluorescent overhead lights. Miserable for everyone!



  6. Oh I love these ideas! I agree😊. I would remove all the cheap plastic toys, the multi-coloured cardboard blocks and the noisy over-stimulating infant toys! I could go on, but you did ask for three. I would add natural found materials such as sticks, branches, rocks, tree stumps and tree cookies, along with plants and quality art supplies. This blog is so timely as I am heading to a playgroup Monday to help the educators transform their space. They have removed an incredible amount of plastic to make room for what I have collected. Wait until they see the array of textures we will add with rugs, cushions, seating, lamps…so excited!


  7. I would add
    – rocks of all sizes, colors, and textures
    – garden center – indoor and outdoor where children can freely touch and use soil and gardening tools and of course an opportunity to tend to growing plants, herbs, vegetables
    – blocks, blocks, and more blocks with loose parts accessories such as fabric swatches, empty aluminum cans, bottle caps…

    – specials classes that cut into play time and chop up the schedule of children’s days. All experiences should be integrated into daily classroom life and can be led by competent and capable classroom teachers
    – worksheets and worksbooks
    – manufactured posters, Ellison dye cuts, calendars and calendar time
    – plastic kitchenware and food. There should be real kitchen tools and open-ended materials (play dough, sand…)


  8. Fun fun fun, but also important questions. Here goes:
    1. Freedom to “mess around” in a risky way without worrying our licensing people will cite us (this is my soap box issue lately)
    2. Wide ranging respect for the profession that would include better wages and benefits so that we can attract more people
    3. Men. We LOVE having male teachers work with our children.
    1. Allergies (this is a dream – we just have to think so hard all the time!)
    2. Fear – including parents FOMA, teacher insecurity, litigious society
    3. Ignorance – this one, I believe, we have power to work on more than the others

    I love my work, my career. I am passionate and believe in everyone who works with children. Thanks to the Diane and Cindys of the world, we can get there.


  9. My magic wand thinking…I would love to see every room inviting the children to explore, experiment and test their theories with open ended materials. I would love to see mud kitchens in every playground complete with real pots and pans as well as sticks, stones and tree cookies. I also agree with blocks, inside and out. I would be quick to put an end to coloring books and precut shapes for so called creative. I would also remove all the commercial toys that promote TV and movie characters. Store bought alphabet charts, bulletin board sets, etc. (Another wish would be replacing these things with documentations, pictures of the current engaged in activities, family photos etc.). My list could go on 🙂


  10. Hi Diane Loved the whittling! Can’t wait to bring it to our first staff meeting
    -Gardens that children would help plant and care for and eat from
    -a fire pit that we use on a regular basis
    -a mud kitchen with real pots, pans, water and a place for potions

    -The concept that a class goes out for the last 10 minutes of the day if they are good
    Nature is not a reward It should be a right for each child to experience every day
    -I would take away flimsy shoes and inappropriate mittens and give each child warm, waterproof outwear and boots so they can enjoy the outdoors even on cold rainy day
    -our constant overprotection of children -I would let them experience risks


  11. I would love to add the idea that there are ‘nooks and crannies’ the children can create, climb into, curl up in and find a cozy and quiet space to just be. That each child has their own basket of things from home to soften their transition to daycare/preschool. Also a supply of large cardboard boxes, always available to transform in to anything or anywhere their imaginations take them.

    As to what to delete – inappropriate and limiting regulations, fear that children could possibly hurt themselves (there is enormous value to ‘risky play’), and inside classroom doors that create boundaries the children are not allowed to cross. Let them explore other rooms freely, making new and rich connections to the environment and each other.


  12. Dearest Diane, Thank you for instigating this revolutionary way of thinking, so that readers can consider and put into words what we ourselves wish to see. Once expressed (in words, for example) these wishes leave the magic cocoon and are on their way to becoming…


  13. Diane I was sorry I had to miss Tapestry of Learning in Ontario butt you always have great workshops. If I had to take away three things it would be any plastic you, small classrooms and concrete outdoor jungles as I call them. I would replace E with natural found objects large classroom spa es that have floor to ceiling windows that look out onto gorgeous playgrounds with trees and plants along with an outdoor kitchens and exploration areas. Here’s to waving my wand and hoping I can make a part of this come true. 😊


  14. I will add an international corner that allows student to frequently engage in discussions about diversity and tolerance for others
    Continuous provision of real life role play centers-cafe, flower shop, etc
    I will delete /disallow the use of cartoon characters for school bags /lunch boxes
    I will delete (assessment for assembly’s sake)


  15. Diane, I absolutely love reading your blog – and the ‘aha’ moments I have thinking about the ideas you present! I feel like a greenhouse or indoor garden of some sort would be at the top of my wish list. Gardening, growing vegetables and interacting with ‘food’ before it gets to the table would be an amazing experience to share not just with early learners, but could also be a whole school effort.


  16. Add: self-serve paints, indoor dirt, wire, natural spaces on campus (don’t keep all places totally manicured!) take-apart of both mechanical and natural things
    Remove: calendar kits (can you truly personalize this for your class?), fully booked lesson plans (do you have time to do what the kids request?), teacher store wall postings


  17. Thanks for this thought-provoking post! I would include strips of wood trim to use with big blocks for marble runs or cars; interesting loose parts like floor tiles and various sizes of cloth pieces, including small ones; small baskets and cloth bags for carrying; pipe for sensory tables or building; lots of tape for cardboard constructions; lots of writing/drawing paper and tools; and definitely plants or creatures to care for.

    I don’t think I would take away all toys, because it’s hard to build your own small cars and trucks, or animals or baby dolls, and I think a lot of creativity comes from the interplay between familiar materials and less familiar ones. But I would definitely take away plastic foods, pretend kitchen appliances and maybe even the play stove and fridge in favour of more generic furniture. I would also take away activities where everyone follows a model or template or worksheet to create the same thing. I would take away small outdoor yards that must be scheduled for use because they are shared with other classes. And I would take away classes that are larger than 20, even with two educators, to ensure every child’s voice is heard every day.


  18. I really enjoyed your post – it was thought provoking, thank you.

    Remove and introduce:
    remove dress up and introduce materials/texture
    remove expectations (of adults) and introduce processes
    introduce an indoor or outdoor (depending on space) garden, where children can grow plants, veggies, fruit, flowers, herbs and experience real food and nutrition

    Living in Hong Kong space is at a premium, so often children don’t have outdoor spaces to play in, or it is very limited (play areas and classrooms). Having a large space (and preferably indoors and out) for children to play in and explore is so important. That is something would love to see implemented in every playgroup/nursery/upper nursery in Hong Kong.


  19. Sorry, I have more:

    introduce musical instruments as a daily and accessible tool for children to learn through
    materials from nature – too many to name, for the children to explore and create with


  20. Introduce books that complement the full spectrum of children in the class, to include books of different languages, countries, homes, etc.
    Introduce story creation/telling – by the children, as an alternative to reading stories


  21. I will introduce books, books and more books. All sorts of papers(color,size, texture). Nature loose parts and recycled blocks (boxes, cones, VHS cassettes, etc). A hammock inside the classroom and an amazing sensory table.
    And will take away plastic pre determined toys.


  22. Pingback: Lines in the Sand in ECE: Where do you Draw the Line? | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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