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The importance of the classroom learning environment [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we welcome Samaya Khattak, Vice President of Education and Quality at Busy Bees North America. We discuss the importance of the classroom learning environment and how to run a high-quality early childhood education program.

Samaya is passionate about early years education programs as it is the first stepping stone in setting a strong foundation for a successful and responsible adult. She wants to ensure she provides the best possible learning environments that are acutely sensitive to the individual differences of each child, are nature-infused and are open-ended to ensure the optimal development of each child.

High-quality early childhood education programs in the formative years are crucial for developing lifelong learning habits. Primarily, they start with the values and culture of the organization. These should involve children being safe, cared for, and focusing on their growth and development.

Core components of a high-quality early childhood education program

  • Having the right educators is absolutely essential. The right team can run an exceptional program.
  • Be authentic to your description, regardless of the pedagogy you follow.
  • Learning environments are essential and need to be carefully designed and well equipped. Children need to feel safe and comfortable.
  • Finally, communication with the families is essential to the home and childcare center relationship.

Early learning classroom environments

Learning environments should be catered to newly millennium learners that are new and balanced. They are indoor and outdoor environments, any space that facilitates the development of children. It is crucial that learning environments contain: age-appropriate materials, organization, warm and inviting furniture, the right materials for the curriculum (e.g. STEAM) and the children in each classroom. Accommodating learning differences is essential. The learning environment must also follow regional licensing guidelines.

In this day and age, we are fortunate to have the ability to implement biodegradable and nature-based materials into the classroom. Currently, the trend is using toned-down colors and materials in classrooms and leaving the environment open-ended for play. This allows children’s curiosity to thrive. All materials need to be accessible and inviting, allowing children to use their imagination to play.

Samaya’s recommend resources

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice

Podcast episode transcript

Samaya KHATTAK:

So whether it’s outside or inside the gym or whether it’s within the facility, that right environment is essential to engage that child and support that learning.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Samaya, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

KHATTAK:

Thank you, Ron, I appreciate your having me here!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It’s our pleasure. We’re delighted to have with us today Samaya Khattak. She is the vice president of education and quality at Busy Bees North America, which is the parent company of BrightPath in Canada and the U.S. So, Samaya, we’ve been working together for quite a number of years, so we know each other quite well. But some folks in our audience might not know you. Let’s learn a little bit about you and your path to your current role as vice president of education and quality.

KHATTAK:

Wonderful. Well, thank you very much, first of all, for having me. My family constitutes of two children. I live out in Calgary, in Alberta. And I am the vice president for education quality, as you mentioned, for BrightPath Kids. That is part of the Busy Bees family. I initially actually began my career in business and finance. And I sort of shifted gears when I had children, found a deep passion for early years education, and I continued my educational path with my master’s in education and currently doing my Ph.D.

And I worked initially with a company that got acquired by BrightPath. And then it was sold again to Busy Bees. And that’s sort of how I ended up in my role with BrightPath for North America. I have a deep understanding of sort of the operational functionality, as well, because of my business background. And then the educational aspect together, it really benefits me greatly in my job in executing a very vast area of sort of responsibilities for North America.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. What are you studying with your PhD?

KHATTAK:

I’m doing curriculum development, actually.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome!

KHATTAK:

So that’s been very current right now, as BrightPath precedes with doing a proprietary curriculum for North America.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. So, this is very on-topic then with my next question, which is about quality early-childhood education. So, as someone who’s studying curriculum development, what to you, what in your mind, constitutes quality early-childhood education?

KHATTAK:

Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, quality education programs, I would say, in the formative years, are crucial for learning. And whether it’s parents or businesses wanting to go into that business… so that knowledge, the skills, values and attitudes that are acquired need to be looked into deeply. That’s one of the most important parts of early stages and foundations for a child, especially for lifelong learning habits that need to be developed.

So, there’s a multitude of aspects I would consider for college childhood programs. Primarily, I would say the start with the core values and the culture of an organization. So, if the organization’s fundamental principles lie in ensuring that children are safe, they’re well cared for, and their development is the pivotal focus, it’s hard really to go wrong.

There’s, I would say, a few more elements that are key and quite essential. So, one of the core elements for a successful program would be having the right educators now. Whether it’s teachers or directresses [Montessori-based teachers], depending on the program, that’s absolutely essential. The right team and the right educators can run an exceptional program. If they’re passionate, they’re trained, they’re ECE’s [early-childhood educators] or RECE’s [registered early-childhood educators], bachelors of education, depending on whatever mix you have, that intentional teaching practice is essential to the program.

And then secondly, I would say, depending on whether it’s a Montessori program, because there’s so many aspects to childcare – you can be a Montessori program, you can be a Reggio, so a play-based program – they need to be authentic to its description. So, irrespective of whatever philosophy or pedagogy they take, if they’re true to what they want to deliver and authenticated in its delivery, it’s hard to go wrong with providing a quality program.

I would say another aspect is learning environments. The learning environments are essential. They need to be carefully designed and well-equipped to provide that holistic learning for the children because they really are coming to a home away from home and we want them to feel safe and comfortable.

And then lastly, I would say part of a very high-quality program is the communication with the families. That’s essential, that relationship is essential to the connection with home and school. And as we’ve been in this relationship with you with HiMama for a very long time, it’s been a thriving success, that integration that we had with HiMama and BrightPath. And the documentation and the communication to families has been essential in providing a very high-quality program.

Awesome, thanks for the shout-out, Samaya, we really appreciate that. You mentioned in one of your aspects, learning environments. Let’s touch on that one a little bit more and specifically just a little bit more about what it is exactly you’re referring to when you say “learning environments”.

KHATTAK:

So, we’re catering now to, I would say, the new millennium learners. This is sort of a generation that’s growing up in an enlarged digital landscape of opportunity. So, we need to create a very balanced, appropriate, I would say, learning environment that engages that new millennium learner. So, when I speak of learning environments, they’re really indoor, outdoor environments, they’re both important. Any space really that facilitates that development of the child. So, whether it’s outside or inside a gym or whether it’s a ballet studio within the facility, that right environment is essential to engage that child and support that learning.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I was just going to dive into that a little bit more in terms of what elements do you think need to exist for that right learning environment or that quality learning environment.

KHATTAK:

Right, so I would say age-appropriate materials, warm, inviting spaces, organized materials that cater to the needs of sort of that variety of learners. We have learners, especially between the ages of three and six, they’re at such different levels of development that we need to make sure that we cater to those different levels of development. And learning environments, they need to keep all aspects into consideration with regards to that development, I would say intentionally.

One of my roles is ensuring that we equip our classrooms and programs really well. So, I really focus my time on ensuring that we have the right materials based on the curriculum that we provide, based on the needs that may be required, the needs that we have of the children in the program. If we have, I would say advanced learners, we may want to make sure that those materials support that learning, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And how much of the learning environment is dynamic? Or how important is it that it’s changing? Or is it preferred that it’s more consistent?

KHATTAK:

So, it really depends on the philosophy of the program. So, if you go with a Montessori program, that’s really based off of those five key areas, which are math, literacy, sensorial, cultural and practical life. And there’s a very organized way of preparing that environment for the children. We have recently integrated a STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics] program in the Montessori program. So, that was a new concept that we introduced because we do a hybrid Montessori program. And that integration allowed me to integrate sort of learning materials that support that STEAM or a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] that you want to call program in that Montessori environment.

For the early learning and childcare programs, that is ever-changing for various reasons. There’s new product out there, depending on philosophy and pedagogy, that we’re utilizing. Again, changing of curriculum that’s happening currently underway. And then the frameworks and state frameworks, because we are in the U.S. and Canada both, so provincial frameworks and state frameworks sort of dictate a little bit of that additional materials and classroom environments, too.

And then one other step that I’m very proud to say that we’ve become moving towards a much more environmentally sustainable company. We have a big ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] initiative. And that really does change the materials that I bring into the classroom. So, less plastic, more natural materials, try and use stone rock elements that are biodegradable.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and how do you go about sourcing those? Like, is it local? Do you have certain vendors? And, like, how do you find how do you find these?

KHATTAK:

Yes, so I do love to go local as much as possible. But as you know, sometimes the cost may not necessarily support that. So, we try and go local as much as possible, ensuring that it meets our cost requirements. But then we have… I work with vendors that source out really great materials from Europe, different Scandinavian countries as well, Germany, and then the United States, as well. So, we work with a multitude of vendors and then try to go as local as possible where we can.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, cool. And when you mentioned earlier about the Montessori hybrid, is that in certain locations or certain age groups or across all? Like, can you clarify what you meant by that?

KHATTAK:

Absolutely. So, there are certain programs within BrightPath that are associated with the Montessori associations. And they’re accredited programs. We don’t really touch those. But in other places where we do offer a Montessori program, what we’ve done is we’ve split the day. So, the morning is really Montessori-focused. It’s an authentic Montessori classroom with directresses providing the lessons.

And in the afternoon, because it’s a more relaxed time and children tend to not be as engaged in those Montessori lessons, I would say, we’ve integrated some STEAM components and brought in new materials to support those STEAM lessons that the teachers are provided. And they’re really project-based learning opportunities for the children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. You talked a little bit about materials. Can you dive into that a little bit more, in terms of what sorts of materials should be used to stage a classroom?

KHATTAK:

So, as I mentioned, we’ve kind of moved towards much more toned-down colors and environments in our classroom, focusing more on sort of the materials. They need to be open-ended for play. They help focus the child on curiosity and allowed that imagination to thrive. So, lots of those closed-ended toys and materials that you see in the market are probably not very conducive for our early learning programs. We want to make sure that the materials that are accessible for the children, they’re age-appropriate, they’re inviting, they’re beautiful, they’re magical. And obviously they provide a vast array of developmental capabilities to build on the skills of the children.

Actually, I was reading the other day, and this was Martin Mayer, he put things really well. He gave five core qualities of educational materials. One, he wanted things to be clear and simple in use. He wanted to involve the control of errors so the child can independently make the judgment of whether they used it incorrectly or not and inherently be interesting. And also he wanted materials to involve movement, either fine motor or gross motor, so that they could sort of engage their tactile senses in both capacities. And then he wanted the materials to be comprehensive to the teacher so that the teacher could display the use or give lessons, need-be, to the children. So, I would say I would probably go with those five.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that is quite a helpful way to think about it. And it’s unfortunate what you’re saying, just there does seem to be a really big disconnect between, let’s say, the toys and materials you see available for parents, readily available in stores and whatnot, versus what would be used in a quality early learning environment. So, hopefully we’re able to close that gap a little bit more over time, as well.

KHATTAK:

Yes, I agree. I think materials that I would… simply put, we try and use materials that are more reality-based as well, in the programs.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And by that, what do you mean?

KHATTAK:

So, instead of fantasy-based… or I would say, for example, the kind of constructed, limited options where a child would just take a car and it would go down the same path every time, we would have more open blocks and different forms of our shapes and made out of wood and rock so that the children can create their own environments and use their own imagination to play, versus a strictly one-process approach.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and that certainly, I find as a parent, is one of the biggest downsides of the materials that are oftentimes available for parents, is there’s one way to do something. And I have seen my children get frustrated with that, if you don’t know how to figure it out. And often times it’s not necessarily age-appropriate. And so I can certainly see the benefits of some of these criteria that you laid out, I really like that.

Coming full circle, we’ve talked about quality learning environments, we’ve talked about materials. But let’s bring that back to your studies in a PhD program on curriculum. How do you correlate materials to the curriculum? How does that all fit together?

KHATTAK:

We previously used to utilize a boxed curriculum that came with the materials that were needed in the program. Obviously, the core program was already set up and there were smaller elements that supported the curriculum. But now we’ve moved to a new framework, which is sort of underway. We haven’t launched it at all of our locations but it’s sort of in pilot mode in quite a few of them. And we devised specialized lists to support that program. I was actually reading the other day that [Friedrich] Fröbel labeled his learning materials as “gifts”. So, I would like to think that I bring all the gifts to the classrooms for the children.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I love that.

KHATTAK:

So, our programs have core materials that, when I’m designing a brand new center or even existing centers that are essential to each age group, and then we have modules that are correlated to the curriculum. So, we focused on reality-based, as I mentioned earlier, and modules that support the curriculum itself.

So, we recently integrated elements to our new curriculum framework that, for example, is called Global Citizenship and Environmental Stewardship. And we created a list to support the delivery of that program. So, careful thought with a group, a very important team in my department, that focused on those materials and the books and those lists that were going to support that curriculum and that delivery.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool, love it. We’ve talked a lot about various elements of quality, early-childhood education. Anything that you can share with our audience specific to that or otherwise for their ongoing professional development and learning?

KHATTAK:

I was actually reading a book, it’s probably not directly related to early-childhood education. But it’s called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice [edited by Hanna Dumont, David Istance and Francisco Benavides]. And it really addresses the reforms on education to meet the 21st century competencies.

And it also talked about reaching kind of whether education reform needs to happen again and again, or do we go back to what the old was? And I think one element that readers may find in there is the disconnect between research and realities of educational practice because I tend to see that on a day-to-day basis. So, it’s a great book and I’m sure it’s available. I think it’s an OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] book that should be available online.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. I know that’s something we’ve touched on quite a bit as a theme on the Preschool Podcast, is just this concept of the connection of research and what’s happening in practice. And it’s so difficult but also so important to early-childhood education. So, that’s a great recommendation. Samaya, where can our audience go to learn more about BrightPath Kids?

KHATTAK:

So, they can go on to our website, which is www.BrightPathKids.com. And we have a lot of information about our programs, about our offerings, about the locations that we have all across Canada and in the United States, as well. And they can reach our customer service line, the information is on there. And I’m sure somebody will get back to them very quickly.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Samaya, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast to talk about classroom environments. And great to get you in front of our audience and learn a little bit more about you and what’s happening with BrightPath kids and Busy Bees North America!

KHATTAK:

Thank you very much, I really appreciated this conversation!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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