Monday, July 17, 2023

Change The Environment, Not The Child

I was recently leaving a downtown store. When I came to the exit door, I saw that it had a handle. I grabbed and pulled. The door didn't budge. I then, counter-intuitively, pushed and the door swung open. This is a prime example of a failure in design: a handle means "pull" and a push plate means "push." Indeed, every time you see a sign on a door reading "push" or "pull," you're looking at a design flaw that someone has clumsily attempted to correct.

Design flaws are all around us. My local Whole Foods has begun offering discounts to Amazon Prime members. To take advantage you open an app on your phone, then hold the bar code under a scanner which is located beneath the checkout screen. There is no beep, no green light, or any other indicator that your code has been read, which means that every single person who uses it winds up fuddling around, trying their phone at different angles before finally, in frustration, engaging the cashier in the following conversation:

"Did it work?"

"What work?"

"My app thingy."

"You mean your Whole Foods Amazon Prime code?"


"Let me see . . . Yes, it worked."

And you thought the "Paper or plastic?" question got old.

This too, is a design flaw that a simple beep or bell or light would fix. These sorts of design failures are all around us. Every time you see that pedestrians have worn a path through a lawn instead of sticking to the sidewalks, you're seeing evidence of design not working. My father was a transportation engineer who was fond of pointing out how design flaws were causing the traffic jams we were experiencing. He would say, "I'm sure it looked beautiful on the drafting board, but the engineer forgot to consider how actual people behave."

When I first started teaching, I set up our classroom as I would have a living room, thinking in terms of seating and "traffic flow," making sure the passageways were wide enough, that there were no places where one could get "trapped," and so forth. The reality I discovered once actual children were on the scene was that I'd created a race-track that said, quite clearly, "Run in circles," and that's what they did. After weeks of scolding the kids about running inside, I finally re-arranged the furniture and the behavior disappeared.

One of the aspects of the Reggio Emilia model for early years education that I think about often is the concept of the three teachers: 1) the adults, 2) the other children, and 3) the environment, which is where design comes in. Quite often, I've found that repeated troubling or trying behaviors have little to do with the children themselves and everything to do with an environment that forgot to consider how actual children behave. Things hanging from above tend to tell children, Jump or Swing or Hang. Long open areas say, Run. Echoey spaces say, Shout. Dark and confined says, Giggle and Whisper. Bright and busy creates a different vibe than muted and uncluttered. And design flaws are not limited to the physical space. Sometimes the aspect that needs tweaking has to do with the schedule or the expectations or even the school's philosophy, all of which I consider to be part of the children's environment as well.

As we begin to turn our attention toward the upcoming school year, many of us are considering our classrooms, playgrounds and other spaces. My brand new 6-week course, Creating a Natural Habitat for Learning, is a way to begin to comprehensively think about your entire environment as a "third teacher" that takes on its share of the classroom management load (see below). It's amazing how much as well-considered, adaptable, child-centric learning habitat can free you up to be the kind of educator you always wanted to be.

Of course, it's not always about design flaws, but whenever I find myself forever correcting the same behavior over and over, I begin to suspect that's what it is. Instead of looking to change the child, I start by wondering how I can change the environment. It's amazing how often even a small change, like moving the furniture or replacing a handle with a push plate, can make all the difference in the world.


Registration is now open for my brand new course: a 6-week deep dive into transforming your classroom, home, or playground into the kind of learning environment in which young children thrive. This course is for educators  parents, and directors. Start the new school year with a new and improved "third teacher" I hope you join me! To register and learn more, click here. (The course is filling fast and registration will close on Wednesday. I know that sounds like a sales pitch, but it also happens to be true and I don't want you to miss out.)

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