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Curriculum Modifications: Environmental Adaptations

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place setting

Environmental adaptations are a change to the context in which a child is working. Types of environmental adaptations include changing the physical environment (e.g., moving furniture or items); changing the social environment (e.g., altering where children sit or who is in their group); and changing the temporal environment (e.g, adding visual schedules to the classroom).

Let’s consider a three of examples of environmental adaptations that could be relevant in a classroom setting.

Setting a table

In many preschool classrooms, children are expected to place cups, plates, napkins, and eating utensils on the table prior to a meal or snack. Some children have trouble completing this task. To adapt, create a laminated template of the desired place setting using black construction-paper silhouettes on a white background.

Place the template directly on the table, where it also serves as a placemat, or provide it as model to set aside when the task is complete. The template allows independence because the child can work at her own pace. The template can also be adjusted for each child. A new learner might start with just a plate. When the child is ready, add a fork, spoon, napkin, and cup to the template. This would be an example of a physical environmental adaptation.

Maintaining personal space during play

Preschool children are expected to play together in shared spaces such as on area rugs or at large tables. While children do benefit from open-ended play opportunities, such as building with interlocking blocks and creating collages, disagreements arise when a child does not understand personal space boundaries.

Try dividing a table or rug into quadrants using painter’s tape. For smaller spaces or materials, use sheet pans or placemats to define work spaces. This allows children to share materials and ideas while maintaining autonomy. This would be an example of a social environmental adaptation.

Visual directions

Preschool children are often expected to independently complete common activities such as playing board games or serving themselves a simple snack. Some children have trouble remembering a sequence of events. Teachers can create simple directions using line drawings or photographs. Here are a few ideas:

If children are playing Chutes and Ladders, provide three-step visual directions to represent:

  1. Spinning the spinner
  2. Moving the character
  3. Passing the spinner to the next player

Set the directions on the table so children can refer to them throughout the game.

At a snack time, offer a visual menu, such as:

  • 2 scoops of goldfish
  • 1 cup of juice

Post the menu next to the snack items so children can check their work. This would be an example of a temporal environmental change.

Here is a challenge for you! Take a look your current preschool environment and consider whether there is an environmental adaptation you could try. Start with something small. As you get the hang of things, you’ll be flooded with ideas of how to do more with this powerful strategy!

Emily Dorsey

Emily Dorsey

Dr. Emily Dorsey (edorsey@illinois.edu) is project director of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She earned a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015. She has worked as an early childhood special education teacher, an educational consultant, and most recently as a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Sandall, S. R., Schwartz, I. S., Joseph, G. E., & Gauvreau, A. N. (2019). Building blocks for teaching preschoolers with special needs (3rd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020