Home icon

Have you ever walked into an early childhood classroom and felt overwhelmed by the amount of classroom materials or toys or the decorations?

Children can feel overwhelmed in certain classroom environments, too. When children feel overwhelmed by visual or physical stimulation, they can show us challenging behavior or sometimes appear to “shut down”. Fortunately, we as educators can make small changes to the environment which can make a difference in children’s behaviors in the classroom. Educators can find some good resources on designing early childhood learning environments in this IEL resource list. This toolkit will give you some ideas on how to organize your classroom and find peace in your indoor environment.

Limit Choices and Materials

When there are a plethora of toys and materials in the classroom, children may act out. Children make many choices in an early childhood classroom every day, but when the number of toys and materials seems infinite, it can be hard for a child to make a choice. An educator can limit the choices to two or three items and see if that helps a child. For example, “Jose, would you like to play with blocks, cars, or the water table right now?” This can give a young child agency as well as a manageable number of choices.

Even better is to limit the number of overall choices of materials available within the classroom. But why? Fewer overall choices allow a child to more easily orient themselves in the environment and know what they want from their options. With too many options, a child might use most of their time and energy on making decisions, rather than engaging with materials or people. With too many things available, a child may take out an excessive number of items at once, mixing them all together, and have a hard time transitioning or cleaning up.

When there are less materials and toys in the classroom, clean up by the children, assisted by the teachers, can go much smoother. Consider having less of each item available. For example, if you had all one hundred pieces of a manipulative set in a bin on the shelf for the children to build with and were finding that clean-up was becoming a struggle, consider reducing the number of pieces to the set and putting some in storage.

Use Visual Schedules

A visual schedule is a key for children to know what to anticipate.  Like an adult’s hard-copy planner or digital calendar, the visual schedule helps the child keep track of their day and keep calm during their routine and tasks. Without a visual schedule or some way of knowing what is about to happen, children can feel disorientated.

Teachers can easily create a visual schedule with images of the typical routines of the day like group time, choice time, gym, playground, music class, rest time, and lunch.  Each activity has an image and the word directly below it – as a young child would typically use the image to understand the activity. These images and word cards can be laminated and cut into squares. The schedule of the day can then be laid out top to bottom, or left to right, and displayed on the wall for easy viewing throughout the day.

Upon arrival in the morning, the children can check the visual schedule and know what the plan is for the day. Any worries or anticipation can often be eased right here!  As the day progresses, each card can be pulled off the schedule as it occurs.  The children can be a part of this process. For example, call their attention to the visual schedule at the end of “read-aloud time” to let them know that “read-aloud” time is complete and to check the schedule for what comes next.  For more about visual schedules, see the IEL blog on Visual Schedules and Checklists.

Maintain a Clean and Tidy Classroom

Build a routine for tidying up at different parts of the day.  Before transitioning to a new activity, play a song to indicate that it is time to clean up and transition to group time.   This gives children time to get their areas put away. Have one teacher gathered at the circle reading a quiet story that children can join when they are ready and finished cleaning.  Get some more ideas for transitions in our tip sheet.

Tidying up is easier for children when shelves or bins are marked with the images of what belongs them.  For example, tape a photo of Legos on the Lego bin. Children can be very independent in cleaning up when they know where items belong and when these locations do not change very often.  Encourage children to work together and notice when items are still left out or in disarray.

Some children may want to be more involved in cleaning projects. Could they help with spraying and wiping tables before snack or sweeping the class with a child-sized broom? Some young children need and want this type of movement to feel regulated and calm in the classroom.  Build spaces for these activities into your classroom schedule. An added benefit is a clean classroom!

Adopt a “More than Enough” Mindset

Sometimes educators operate with a mindset to keep absolutely every item in a classroom, even if it is broken or missing pieces, because they are worried that they will never get the opportunity to get something similar in the future.  In this case, you might team up with another teacher and take inventory of your classrooms together.  Are there items that you can put away?  Are there items that you and the children no longer need? Could those items be donated or discarded?

Review this resource list for more ideas about minimalism and decluttering. Often times we keep items in our classroom well past their “expiration dates.” Reducing the amount of “stuff” in our classroom can require a mindset shift to understanding that we have more than enough materials to help children learn and grow. When we have an indoor environment that looks inviting, well designed, and calm, children and adults alike can find a sense of peace and purpose in their space.

IEL Resources

Web Resources

About this resource

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

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2023