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What is a Responsive Environment?

What is a Responsive Environment? Oxford dictionary defines it as “Reacting quickly and positively”. We can then know that a responsive environment must be always changing and working towards positive results. Flight says, “Creating responsive environments requires awareness that the image of the child – a mighty learner and citizen- must be continually reflected on as educators respond to children’s interests and exploration through the design elements of time, space, materials, and participation.” (2.4 p 64) What this all means to me as an educator is that how I set up my space, the materials I offer the children and the time I give them to explore these elements help me make up a responsive environment. One where educators observe and follow the paths that the children are setting. An ever-changing playroom where educators and children chart their course together.

Responsive environments help nurture children’s dispositions to learn as described in FLIGHT. The dispositions of Playing and Playfulness, Seeking, Participating, Persisting, and Caring. (FLIGHT 3.2.3) A responsive environment can nurture these dispositions in many ways. For example, the disposition of participating is greatly impacted by the environment. Participating is defined as engaging with others, listening, and sharing ideas, thoughts and feelings and negotiating, turn taking and observing. When looking at responsive environments I think of the recent example I had of the children in my room being presented with random large and small cardboard boxes and a variety of drawing and cutting and gluing items. The intent by the educator was to build a box city. Buildings, streets, windows, and doors. There were even pre-printed windows on paper they could cut out and apply. The children, however, asked “Do we have to build a city?” as they were stacking and balancing boxes up to the roof. In a non-responsive environment, the educator would likely have said, “Yes we are building a city. Come let’s map out what you want to build”. But in the spirit of nurturing the children’s disposition of participation an educator in a responsive environment would likely say, “Hmmm.. no. We don’t have to build a city. What would you all like to build with the boxes? Let’s share some ideas”. Instead of being disappointed her plan was changing; a responsive educator enjoys the input and ideas from the children to truly make it their project.

In a Responsive Environment the playroom and space reflect the children and families that use it. It also reflects the educators (which is sometimes a forgotten element). We witness this in many ways from family photo walls and books to birthday displays and “my favorite…” posters and books. To be responsive, however, the environment needs to change as the families and children change. Favorite foods change. The poster from six months ago may not be right anymore, for example. Inviting the change and inviting new ideas from home are key to being responsive. Incorporating family traditions and holidays like Christmas are ways to bring the family focus into the room. This matters because when children see themselves reflected in their space, they truly claim it and make it a home base. They relax and they feel welcomed allowing them to play, learn and grow.

When we look at the image of the child, we can go back to the box city project. In the instance where the educator said, “we are building a city” they are not seeing the children as mighty learners and citizens. They are seeing them as a vessel to be filled with an idea over people who have thoughts and ideas of their own. The educator that said, “What would you all like to build?” is showing that they see the child as an independent learner and a person who can contribute to the creation of the project. She is respecting their ideas and presence. This is how the environment says the children in this space are strong, resourceful, capable children – mighty learners and citizens. (FLIGHT p.38) This is important in an early childhood setting as children are learning how to be learners and they are learning how to be social. When presented with a supportive environment these children can go to their best potential.

Another way to look at Responsive Environments is to consider the Reggio concept Environment as A Third Teacher. This concept echoes responsive environment as it places importance on where the child is learning and what the environment says to the child. “The children also see the adults as a support through the way the adults organize and use the space to discover and learn with the children.” (C.Edwards, et. Al, The Hundred Languages of Children, p319) This importance placed on what the environment communicates to the children is fundamental in developing a program where children feel welcomed and safe. The environment is a third teacher alongside the parents and the educator; And as with FLIGHT’S Responsive Environments the concept is to make each playroom a space where children have a voice and where all who enter learns together.

Thinking of the box city project as inspiration I can reflect on how I would design a space. I would have many nooks for individual or small group exploration and more open spaces with open tables for constant moving and shifting as the day inspires. I would set out provocations and invitations to create using loose parts and inspiration objects like photos and sculptures. I would set all of these out with the intent that the children will discover their own way to play with them. I would set out those boxes and supplies but remove the instruction to build a box city. I would ask “What can we build with these?” FLIGHT recognizes that not just the physical environment – how you set up the shelves and tables and decorations- plays a part in creating a responsive environment but also how you use that space to reflect the children and families that play there. Does the dramatic playset get changed out to reflect cultural items and costumes of the children’s families? Does the art center have items that they can create in desired ways? For example, weaving in one family was a traditional activity so I included weaving in the art center for all to try. A Responsive Environment also is in how the time is managed. Are the children able to direct their time and not be set to timers? “Time for play, for inquiry, for thinking, and for pursuing an interest alone or with friends and educators is important if learning is to be become meaningful for the learner.” (FLIGHT 2.4p64) As Oxford defined responsive as reacting quickly and positively; Flight echoes in defining Responsive Environments as a way to make learning meaningful to the learner.


Edwards, C. P., Forman, G., & Gandini, L. (2012). The hundred languages of children: The reggio emilia experience in transformation. Praeger.

Makovichuk, L., Hewes, J., Lirette, P., & Thomas, N (2014). Flight: Alberta’s early learning and care framework. Retrieved from flight

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