We all like to feel capable and challenged, especially young children. Little ones typically want to try what bigger ones are doing. Their brains are similar to little sponges, soaking up all this new knowledge, and trying new things aligns with this idea. I definitely see this play out when my children want to participate in the same activity or game. As parents, caregivers and educators, we always try as best we can to make adaptations and variations in order to include everyone. For instance, for children of early-level ability or those with learning challenges, directions may need simplification, with fewer options given in order to decrease confusion, overstimulation and anxiety. Additionally, different tools and manipulatives may need to be available for different groups of learners.
Differentiated learning spaces are simply areas where children of any ability level can visit and practice skills. The intention of these spaces is to encourage acquisition of concepts, foster independence, encourage growth and development and promote self-confidence. The beauty of the space is that it is customizable to learners’ needs because you, the educator/parent/caregiver, design it with the best interests of your students in mind. In my experience, this differentiated environment is all-inclusive and allows children to learn from one another and teach one another, demonstrating boundless real-world experience. Whether you are working with one child or thirty, I have found that creating this type of differentiated learning environment not only offers learners of varied ability endless learning opportunities, but also encourages independence, organization and self-reliance. For example, you may have learners who prefer to work on the floor, or sitting at a table. Perhaps some of your learners can concentrate better on a task in a quiet environment, while others can easily adapt to noise and other distractions. When in a learning environment of varying ability (and, let’s face it, as educators, caregivers and parents we usually are) it is our responsibility to encourage independence, self-reliance and achievement with each learner. This is what a differentiated learning environment looks like.
Set-up does not have to be daunting, and you can take comfort in the mantra that nothing is impossible; everything is obtainable with organization and patience. Furthermore, these spaces do not have to be uniform, and you can take liberties designing the space(s) that best suits you and your learner(s). The main concept is to create an area (or areas) that engage and invite all learners to explore, together or individually, and will change and grow along with their dynamic development.
Here are some tips:
- Whenever possible, put materials at child’s height – this invites learning and independence.
- Invite children to find a space that will help them learn. Allow them the opportunity to have control over their own learning. This will give them the confidence and self-reliance they will rely on later in life.
- Label everything: even if the child is not a “reader” yet, exposing him/her to letters and words will only help develop those literacy skills in conjunction with math skills, which enriches their learning experience. Additionally, this will help you stay organized!
- Create “learning” boxes (or ‘fun learning boxes’). Fill a shoebox, cardboard box, Dollar Store container, or basket (whatever you have on hand and works for you) with everyday materials you have in your home (tape measure, ruler, crayons, markers and pencils, dice, blocks, LEGOs, measuring cups, etc.); anything they can use to count and become more familiar with math concepts. Nothing too complicated or elaborate (for the learner or teacher), just anything students can play with and explore, either with you or on their own.
- Allow children to explore these learning boxes at their own readiness. You may initially invite them to play with you, whereas you introducing the box and you both explore the materials. You can also explain the traditional use for each tool, and together you can make a list of fun activities to try.
- I find that the adventure of discovering new things gets young children very excited about learning. A few other ideas to try when setting up these math boxes are to invite children add materials they find to the box. Being adventurers and explorers together, you and your children can explore your home and neighborhood to find other math tools to add to the box.
- Include a variety of materials for learners of all ages and ability level. Some helpful and inexpensive tools are:
- Mini tape measure and/or measuring tape
- Egg cartons or ice cube trays for 1:1 counting
- Large foam dice
- Rocks, LEGOs, small animals or gems for counting
- Number flashcards for number recognition (you can easily get these from the Dollar Store or make them yourself with notecards)
- Paper and pencil; white board, small dry erase marker and erasure
- Inexpensive math counters and math games.
*(Tip: use your local second-hand store or Facebook groups!)
- Allow children to learn and explore on their own, encouraging independence and creativity, while also offering “lessons” and “guided play” as well.
- Keep materials and supplies at their level – this allows them to explore, and invites them to play with the materials whenever and however they wish.
- Allow time for children to discover new materials. They may not know what a tape measure is, but they will enjoy the process of investigating what it can do. Not to mention, watching them interact with new tools and materials will allow you to assess their understanding and give you an idea of what you can present to them.
- Have a number line located somewhere children can see and access when they need assistance with number recognition and counting.
- Frequently ask children to refer to the learning box in order to become familiar with and utilize the tools inside. For example, if they ask you how tall something is suggest they explore their math box to find a tool that can help with this. If they need help remembering, “Which number comes next?” direct them to use the available number line you have displayed. This encourages necessary life skills, such as, independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness. If you teach them now they will have the knowledge for a lifetime.
Learning boxes are a fun way for students to develop early math skills and practice early math concepts. Additionally, for children with learning difficulties, this type of differentiated setting promotes self-regulation and confidence because its design endorses aptitude and capability, rather than helplessness. This type of learning environment cultivates the development of important self-confidence and critical-thinking skills, which allow children to grow into self-regulating, inventive, capable and creative individuals.