Early childhood education in France through a specific spatial organization in the classroom

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Abstract

The concern in our chapter is about Early Childhood Education in France through some specific spatial organization in the classroom (the corners, the grouping space, the individual tables for work). The configuration of different coins or corners in English, organized as places to live and to act (water corner, shopping corner, nature corner…), are often reserved to symbolic games and / or manipulation. However, the idea that corners can be a place of learning is not shared by all the teachers. We believe that these spaces are underutilized, even they can be a real place of socialization and language expression. Making them more efficient remain a question. After a first part to contextualize historically this question of spatial planning and identify the particularities of the French nursery school, the second part will make it possible to question this institutional collective space with regard to the needs of each child. Based on the particularly rich current literature and the analysis of concrete cases, the third part will try to show how the nursery school, by rethinking its spaces to service of learning and articulating them, assists the child towards becoming a pupil while guaranteeing their well-being.

Keywords

Learning, Early Childhood, Nature, Spatial Space, Game

Introduction

Since 2019, the French nursery school accepts children from the age 3 years to 6 years. Framed by institutional programs, it appears in favor of the first formalized learning such as the development of oral language, the discovery of numbers but also, and this is not the least, “living together” and socialization. Concerning childhood, the nursery school often appearing as the first place of socialization outside the family. Taking an interest in learning in kindergarten invites us to question one of these specificities, particularly in France, through the layout of spaces. From the “dinette” corner to the “garage” corner, from the literacy space to the mathematics space (Diller, 2010, 2012), the resources have evolved considerably. Sometimes space for load shedding, other times space for learning, we seek to show here the pedagogical interest in thinking about the layout of the space considering it as an essential tool of the kindergarten teacher. After a first part to contextualize historically this question of spatial planning and identify the particularities of the French nursery school, the second part will make it possible to question this institutional collective space with regard to the needs of each child (Debarbieux, A., 2019; Martin-Blachais, 2017). Based on some institutional reports (IGEN, 2019; Martin-Blachais, 2017), and on the particularly rich current literature (Ancely et al., 2020; Bossis et al., 2015; Leroux et al., 2021; Prince & Howard, 2021) and the analysis of concrete cases, the third part will try to show how the nursery school, by rethinking its spaces to service of learning and articulating them, assists the child towards becoming a pupil while guaranteeing his well-being.

Historical Landmarks and French Specificities

Young Children in the History of Education

The history of French pre-schooling is recent in the light of the history of the school. We have a revolution from the “salle d’asile” in 1836, sometimes receiving up to 250 children between 2 and 7 years old and what will be called from 1881 kindergarten. Where the former essentially responds to a social need for childcare in the era of the industrial revolution, the latter supports the social need for a strong educational aim. Since then, the enrolment of the youngest has continued to evolve, as evidenced by comparative studies (e.g., Alexander et al., 1999 and Alexander et al., 2000). The invariant between the various countries analyzed (France, USA, GB, Russia…) are the school curricula that are similar with the predominance of mathematics and the learning of the national language. The rest of the learning time is shared with variable geometry between sciences, geography, history, arts, music, even if the names given to the subjects vary from one country to another. Nevertheless, French education is absolutely distinctive and unique. The national curriculum was established very early making the French education system a fairly centralized system that tends towards decentralization in the mid-eighties (Jospin orientation law of 1989). This contrasts with England, where education reform laws at the same time increased the powers exerted by the ministry. It appears that the French school is a place quite focused on teaching-learning, in contrast, for example, with England where the school works rather as a community place with learning undeniably guided by social values.

In this chapter we emphasize that classroom spaces have long served as places of free socialization but without any real thought that connects these spaces to pedagogical considerations. However, the various corners in the classroom are above all, in Winnicott’s sense (1975), a transitional space to facilitate the passage from home to school. Familiar and new, these spaces allow openness to the world and learning by adaptation, by the primacy given to the concrete and the child’s own action.

Lurçat states that some studies most often think nursery school in what makes it different from the rest of the education system and not in what makes it ordinary, or even specific concerning the question of socialization (1976). The structure of the nursery school is certainly inherited from the late nineteenth century. It operates as the first segment of schooling, responsible for the construction of first skills clearly explained and specified in the programs via a list of contents, activities and skills. Nevertheless, according to the author, the child who enters kindergarten without knowing how to speak leaves, socialized. Before attending school, pupil has already forged a school awareness, one representation of the educational requirement that can be for some stimulatory, for others inhibitory and without immediate purpose.

Thus, similarly to any educational system bearing the brunt of the social, economic and cultural transformations that our societies are experiencing in this period, nursery schools are faced with serious difficulties today. Thus referred to “the foundation of the base”, nursery school must now deal with social expectations, institutional prescriptions, and the needs of children (Gioux, 2009).

Nursery School in France, Specificities and Limits

The 2011 report of the IGEN (General Inspectorate of National Education) strongly warned about the impoverishment of spatial organization and the primarisation of practices. While in 1986, the kindergarten classroom was described as a “grouping area, areas of differentiated and evolving activities seem to constitute the most appropriate device for nursery classes”, the report insists indeed on the absence of a real reflection on the relationship between space and pedagogy. Teachers use the existing, without questioning it; corners are “decorative elements” rather than spaces for discovery and learning. Most often, it is noted that pupils have free access and occupation without stakes; these spaces are “more recreational than vectors of learning” (IGEN, 2011, p.91). There has been no large-scale critical study of space improvement in kindergarten in France since this IGEN report. We have an institutional survey conducted in the constituency of Lille 2 (2019) which points to the paradox of a primarization of nursery school in the schools observed confirming the 2011 report. Paradoxically, Debarbieux (2019) shows that if French kindergarten programs insist on the need to adapt to young children, promoting “learning by playing, learning by practicing, learning together and learning to live together”, “play corners (the most frequent being the kitchen, the garage, dolls, more rarely disguises, sometimes spaces devoted to educational games) are no longer as frequent as before”. In this sense, he wonders about a possible disappearance of the specificity of the nursery school, suggesting a certain “primarization of its classes” (Debarbieux, 2019, p.5).

In 2002a, Brougère attests that one of the specificities of the French nursery school is exactly that “our preschool system for 2/6 year olds is a school and the term must be taken literally” (p.10) Does early childhood schooling necessarily have to be improved by formalizing schools, primifying the school form? This is neither the purpose of Brougère nor that of IGEN. It is a school in the sense that it is a formal place of rich and structured learning. If some are tempted to believe, and it is as such that Brougère points to the French specificity (2002b), that it is by a formalization of learning that children will enter the learning, it is to ignore the specificity of this age. Even the analysis note and the proposals of Conseil supérieur des programmes CSP in 2020 following the decree published in 2019 making schooling compulsory from the age of 3, criticized for its ambition to formalize the nursery school, invites for example to give its place to free game for example. Bossis et al (2015) also point out that today it is very often by mimicry that the classroom is arranged: “The various school arrangements put in place proceed from an intention rooted in habit […] which are no longer subject to questioning (p.10).

It is therefore essential, and this is our intention in this chapter, to specify learning in early childhood structures and to highlight how a thinking on the layout of spaces, and in particular “coins” as described in France or “centers” in the sense of Diller (2012, 2015) appears as a pedagogical possibility of the most relevant if they are reflected and articulated to the pupils’ needs. As such, Ancely (2020) invites us to rethink the classroom space as learning spaces, that is to say spaces “organized beforehand by the adult, [where] he proposes a learning situation allowing the student to acquire a skill chosen, identified and delimited by the teacher. […] In the learning space the child must find all the elements necessary for the acquisition of the skill, whether or not the adult is present in the space” (Faucon Méjean et al., 2020 p.28).

Some Theoretical Considerations

Set up the Space, for What Purpose?

The imperative to adopt a pedagogy that starts from the needs of children is realized in the curricular forms of Child Centered Education (Ross, 2006), or of the Child centered Nursery French School (Common Base of Knowledge and Skills, Official Bulletin No. 29 of July 20, 2006). This focus on the child is made visible according to Gioux (2009) in the organization of space (centers) and time that does not work only at the class level but affects the school as a whole (premises dedicated to physiological needs such as sleep, thirst, hunger, body hygiene …). It grants to avoid any risk of sophistication and development of situations cut off from reality.

Theoretical insights from great pedagogues such as Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori avoid the early specializations of intelligence that harm the development of the child. As Leroux et al. (2021) points out, Montessori or Freinet, among others, invite us to consider “the importance of organizing the class with care and making judicious use of school materials and furniture.” (Leroux et al., 2021). Freinet (1964) states in this sense to his reader, in a discussion of the layout of space illustrated by examples of plans, that “it is only to the extent that you modernize your classroom that you will modernize your teaching.” (Freinet, 1964, p.6). Psychology won’t be left out. Flavell et al. (1983) state that it’s better for child to realize earlier that others can see things differently. This is how representation is developed. From the age of 4, the child is able to conceive multiple representations of the same object. To give just one example, the mastery of the body schema can be done through simple and necessary gestures of everyday life, but also in situations turned towards more elaborated learning.

These considerations of cognitive psychology make it possible to state, with regard to the development of pupils at the age of kindergarten, first conceptualizations, predictions, categorizations, and reasoning. Nevertheless, these skills actually developed when pupils are put effectively into activity. Moreover, while it is impossible to separate knowledge and appropriation approaches, the recommendations for the “construction of an elementary school of our time” stipulate to take into account the degrees of conceptualization, the pluralistic approach to knowledge, and to harmonize social and school practice. This is what we have emphasized above as the formalization of learning. Formalism results from a focus based on the theoretical contributions of educational research, especially psychology to better think about learning at preschool. In this context, curriculums for French kindergarten (M.E.N, 2015) invite teachers to distinguish four learning modalities (Learning by playing, learning by reflecting and solving problems, learning by exercising, learning by remembering and memorizing). Piaget (1966), among others, had specify the place of symbolic games in the development of the child. Even the institution has seized it to build support tools for teachers proposing in 2015 a file explaining why and how to mobilize symbolic games in kindergarten. Vallerie and Le Bossé (2006) thus show, in connection with Piaget’s work, that at the time of kindergarten, the children experiments through their play experiences, power and ability on the world around them.

In addition, it appears that a certain number of the facilities proposed for the French nursery school are based on the use of games, considered as a natural need of the child. It is necessary in this respect to understand how space and game are articulated to engage children in their learning.

Kitchen and Nature Corners: Rich Spaces for Learning

Through an empirical analysis of two of these spaces, we will study their potentialities to promote the construction of diverse learning. Socializing, promoting the construction of autonomy, the dedicated spaces offer free activities, little or no constraint. These playful spaces undoubtedly invite, as we did previously, to question the place of play and free play in preschool structures not as a load shedding activity but as a situation that promotes learning. In this part, the analysis of its dedicated spaces will make it possible to see how these learnings are built. We can thus question the differentiating principles that teachers carry out or imagine.

The Kitchen Area

In the kitchen area, like the adults they meet, the children take care of the baby, set the table and prepare food. If these spaces appear very rich to promote language, it would be reductive to consider them only in the light of language. Psychosocial skills, construction of numbers and quantities, identification in time and space, discovery of the living world, the “dinette” corner -as many learning spaces through play- promote the construction of varied knowledge. It is through an empirical analysis of it that we will show how it can be thought to promote the construction of diverse learning.

Figure 2.1. Kitchen area as a learning space (Nathalie Pollet‘s classroom, France)

The dinette corner or kitchen area is a symbolic play area where children act by imitation. For pupils to take over the space, it must be clearly identified. Visual supports can allow the pupils to act independently. The equipment and furniture are adapted to the size of the child. They allow him to reproduce everyday life in a kitchen: small furniture and fake appliances (table, chair, oven, hob, shelves to store utensils etc.), plastic or wooden kitchen utensils adapted to the size of children to promote their handling (plates, cutlery, whip, spatula, etc.) of dummy foods (fruits, vegetables, cheeses, cakes, meats, cereal box, bottle of milk, water …). Dolls can complete the space.

Figure 2.2. Kitchen area as a learning space (Nathalie Pollet ‘s classroom, France)

As Ancely et al. (2020) explains, the use of space will be done in an evolutionary way, thus presenting four stages necessary for the construction of the meaning of a play space. Thus, at first, there is a phase of discovery of space through free play allowing children to appropriate space. They will discover the material, communicate with their classmates and reproduce lived situations. They will pretend. Then will come a phase of verbalization. The authors show here that the adult will be able to accompany the pupils to acquire and develop the vocabulary associated with space. In a third step, “the teacher tries to develop the space by provoking new situations” (Ibid., p.34) Finally, the pupils, the older ones in general, will be able to improve the space by enriching it with their experience.

We will see here how from a given instruction in the context of the development of space, it is possible to mobilize scenarios of various games promoting disciplinary learning just as varied.

Table 2.1. The kitchen area

The kitchen area

Situation:

A space is organized to allow pupils to play the dinette. Furniture, appliances, utensils and fake food are available to pupils to do as in a kitchen: prepare the meal, feed the children, do the cleaning, tidy up etc. Children find the “kitchen” messy, utensils and ingredients on the table or on the floor.

Examples of Objects of Study according to the scenarios:

1.          Mobilizing language in all its dimensions

2.          Acquire the first mathematical tools

3.          Explore the world of life, objects and matter

Instructions

The kitchen is a mess today, we need to tidy up

The constraints of this space will be determined by the level of the pupils. After letting the pupils freely discover the space, then naming things with them, this instruction aims to develop the kitchen area to promote varied disciplinary learning.

Table 2.2. Some obstacles

Obstacles according to the objects of study:

1.         Mobilize language in all its dimensions: cultural ignorance, utensils or unknown foods that the child cannot name

2.         Acquire the first mathematical tools – Discover numbers, construct the number to express quantities: enunciation of the numerical nursery rhyme that is not related to the construction of quantity.

3.         Acquire the first mathematical tools – Explore shapes, quantities – classify objects according to the characteristics related to their shape: little varied vocabulary that does not allow to describe and identify the common characteristics of objects

4.         Explore the world of life, objects and matter – health education: cultural ignorance that does not allow the pupils to identify the nature of food.

Table 2.3. Productive and constructive task

Examples of productive pupils tasks

1.            Sort food utensils:

2.            Store fruit in baskets, cheese in the fridge

3.            Sort utensils according to their nature (plates, knives, spoon …)

4.             Associate objects with an image and/or label to store in the right place

5.            Associate the objects according to given constraints, stated (bins that can only accommodate 4 plates, 4 knives …): associate a number with a quantity

Constructive task of the pupils:

1.            Construction of knowledge on the world of the living, first landmark, distinguish the world of the living from the world of objects.

2.            Designate and name, sort by category

3.            Distinguish the characteristics of form, name them to recognize them.

4.            Develop written language, recognition

5.            Construction of knowledge around the number

It is through the regular observation of the children in the play area that the teacher will be able to evaluate the learning carried out in this space by each. The reappropriation of instructions by children, the regular use of space without the teacher will also be relevant indicators to measure the learning built by playing pretend. If symbolic spaces such as the kitchen area are essential spaces for the emotional development of the child, it appears that they are also the place of rich and varied disciplinary learning. Built informally in the game phase, they are then institutionalized within the class group to allow for a common culture. The essentials presented here in a very synthetic and non-exhaustive way attest the full role of these corners, as a space for teaching / learning and no longer for load shedding.

The Nature Corner, Science Corner

In this space, it’s a question of apprehending the notion of the living and diversity of the living world. We can rely on animals or plantations. One or more permanent farms (over a given time), plantations, a terrarium, a vegetable garden outside or in large pots familiarize children with the living, with nature. Take animal husbandry, for example: pupils can thus observe the manifestations of life through the functions of reproduction, breathing, nutrition. The maintenance of farms and plantations allows children to learn good rules of respect for life.

Figure 2.3. Nature area (from ecolepetitesection.com)

Table 2.4. Nature and science area

The nature, science area

Situation:

To see what is happening underground, the teacher will put 3 potato seedlings in a large vase filled with potting soil. The vase will be surrounded by black paper. It will be removed regularly to observe changes (root development, appearance of small potatoes)

Become aware of the nutritional needs of plants

–          Observe a type of plant reproduction: that of potatoes

–          observe the growth of different types of plants

–          Accept to handle dirty matter: the earth

–          Become aware of the fragility of a plant

Instructions

In the planters: each child will transplant a small floral plant. These planters will be placed in front of the classroom windows. Children are advised to water them regularly.

Table 2.5. Some obstacles

Obstacles according to the objects of study:

–          Planting in small groups takes a lot of time.

–          Difficulty in finding time to allow children to water the plantations (under the supervision of an adult).

–          Pupils are too young to ask them to weed: they do not know the difference between a weed and a plant that you want to keep.

  •   The work of preparing the garden (removing weeds and turning the soil over) requires cooperative work between the pupils but requires an investment on the part of the teacher.

Table 2.6. Constructive tasks

Constructive task of the pupils

–          Building experiential capital

–          Building links between situations

–          Develop the relationship with reality

–          Moving from action to thought

–          Initiate the first steps of the inquiry

–          Make familiar objects, phenomena

From the analysis of these two spaces very present in the classes of French schools, we can shed light the question of the differentiating principles that teachers carry out or imagine when we move from one space to another, from one content to another. It must be about time in terms of regularities, breaks, structuring; about spaces in terms of opening, closing, mentalization. Here are some proposals that will be fostered to achieve successful learning (Rioux, 2000):

– Succeed in the changes of spaces: transitions, progressions, markings, landmarks

– Succeed in temporal breaks: comments forecasts, memory, events

– Succeed in the expansion of relationships: reference group, roles and functions, responsibilities.

Conclusion

The configuration of different corners or area, organized as places to live and to act (water corner, shopping corner, nature corner…), are historically underused. The analysis of two cases (shopping corner, nature corner) shows all the benefit of a pedagogy based on these spaces. In addition to the interest in the body and the sensitive experience, the game and its interest in learning at its own pace, and at its own way into a relationship with the world and reality, permits to spaces to give essential knowledge that connects time and objects observed, and manipulated. Last but not least, spaces make it possible to learn with others, to start from individuation in knowledge to achieve a sociality of knowledge… and towards a “knowing how to be together”, and also to put knowledge in networks.

All this allows us to say with Bautier (2006) that school is itself an environment to learn. It must carry the child towards the curiosity of the world, the invention of oneself and of a common future. This learning examines classroom (and the spaces that compose it) in terms of pedagogical diversification and didactic differentiation.

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