filter image

Creating Contemporary Inspired Learning Playspaces

Some of the key elements in creating child-centred environments are based on what excites children. Reflecting the age and stage of children’s development , experiences within the learning environment are intentionally placed with care for greatest impact

Written by: Joanne Harris - Educational Advisor  

Planning a dynamic learning environment can have its challenges within any early learning service. Considering all the learners who will be accessing the same space involves thinking of their unique learning needs, styles, and interests.

Creating contemporary curriculum styles such as those inspired by Reggio Emilia and Montessori can be made simpler by incorporating a range of different materials and resources that inspire curiosity through the senses.

Some of the key elements in creating child-centred environments in which progressive learning is based on what excites children. Reflecting the age and stage of children’s development and interests, experiences within the learning environment are intentionally placed with care and simplicity for maximum effect.

Creating Interest

Children’s inherent curiosity makes this a relatively easy category - however, it takes an educator to look at the ‘ordinary’ with new eyes. Objects that we take for granted, particularly the ones we most likely use daily, can be the ones that create interest and generate attention among children. These items would usually engage one or more of the senses and could be used for more than their original or intended purpose when children discover them!

Having resources available in and on child-sized storage and shelving that are intentionally placed near others that could be combined for play and exploration gives children a starting point to consider their thoughts and questions. Individual boxes, trays, and baskets that fit individual items can help children to know where to find things they want and need.


Combining Old and New

There can be a tendency to change children’s play spaces more frequently than may be required.  Adults can become fatigued by the same environment as they are not engaging with it in the same ways that children are. Giving careful thought and being open to children’s ideas, suggestions, and questions small and simple changes can make the biggest impact on learning.

Keeping play spaces ‘fresh’ might mean transferring smaller activities to different locations or making a small tweak such as the colours of paint available at the easel to attract the children’s attention. Updating more familiar and well-loved resources and combining them with different materials can also create interest and help children see things in new ways.

Displaying paint brushes in assorted metal jugs allows children to judge what they want by looking at the different sizes of brushes in relation to each other. Filling glass jars with natural items allows children to see what they want to add to their mud kitchen meal or piece of artwork.

Adding a mirror underneath or behind a play space can change the look and feel of it and encourage further exploration. Safely suspending a cascading glass rainbow wind chime over a table with coloured beads and a mirror to provide a wonderful provocation from a unique perspective.


Open-ended materials

When defining resources and their uses, they may fall into one or other categories of being ‘open’ or ‘close-ended’. The biggest difference between the two is that close-ended materials generally have one use and tend to have a fixed structure.

Puzzles are a great example as the function is for the child to be removed and put back together. Similarly, the purpose of books is to read them and to gather information and knowledge from the text and pictures that are read from start to finish with no change to the outcome.

Open-ended materials offer many ways to be incorporated into learning as they provide flexibility in their inclusion and use. They support children’s budding creativity as they are empowered to decide which way, they want to incorporate them into their play. 

A wooden block could be used as part of a larger building, or just as simply as a mobile phone for discussion with friends! A Rainbow Architect Shapes Set comes in nesting shape sets that are ideal for creative and constructive play. From building houses to free-form sculptures they allow children to experiment with several mathematical concepts and common properties of shapes.


Art and craft materials can also be considered open-ended in that they can be used in different ways that take the artists’ interests. Air dry or No Fire Clay, Thick and thin markers, paints, craft, and collage items are utilised in many ways according to the topic or project at hand, which is what makes them essential to a learning environment in which creativity is encouraged. 

Children can be supported to deeply engage in project work by sculpting and creating 3-dimensional models using books and images to investigate the form of animals or structures.

A fully stocked Billy Kidz Wooden Art & Craft trolley that can be moved freely around the environment allows children to access the materials when and where they need them. A painting could become the background for a puppet show, with stick puppet figures being made from cut-out drawings stuck to paper straws.



Recycling and Repurposing

Children can learn important messages about sustainability by reusing and recycling resources. Sensory materials like Cotton sand, Natural play-doh kit, and tactile stones provide opportunities for children to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. Utilising these materials encourages conversations between children and adults to promote respect for the environment and the need to protect the use of resources.



Fortunately, children are curious about most things, and it usually only takes one child to notice something new or different to generate a buzz about an item or play space and the momentum grows; the secret is often where and how items are placed which gets the interest going.

Including children in discussions about the learning environment will help guide what, if any, changes need to be made to support children. Knowing their ideas are considered is essential to developing their sense of agency and growing autonomy. Materials that are included support learning relationships between people and objects, made even more meaningful through deep conversation and guided questions and an openness to experiment through open-ended play.

For more ideas on creating contemporary-inspired play spaces please visit our Educator Resources Page


Related Articles

  • filter image

    Nurturing and Building Relationships with Natural Playspaces

    Learning about relationships can be simplified by focusing on the ever-changing cycles of the natural world. These can provide a metaphor for the importance of this within our human relationships.
    Read more
  • filter image

    Three R’s of Sustainability: Reduce, reuse, and recycle

    Teaching children about the environment and understanding how it works is an opportunity to also teach them about sustainability.
    Read more