Creating an Environment to Provoke Learning.

Alistair Bryce-CleggEnvironment, Uncategorized27 Comments

As a class teacher, when it came to my environment less was definitely not more! In fact more was more with a bit more chucked in for good measure!


Every board a different colour with a different coloured border, washing lines a plenty, tinsel, glitter, swags, hand print borders, zig-zag borders, leopard print and zebra stripe boarders, umbrellas over my water tray with adjective emblazoned raindrops, large coloured ‘splats’ laminated and hung next to the painting area, beaded curtains, red and gold chiffon curtains…the list goes on.


Looking back, it was a cross between a grotto and a brothel! But I LOVED it. I wasn’t alone. Other adults would come and look at my learning space and proclaim that it was ‘amazing’ and that the children must ‘love it’!


But, as full of colour and pattern and dangly things as it was what I now realise is that when it comes to creating an effective learning space it was RUBBISH!

That is not a statement based on personal preference, it is a statement based on the facts of how developing eyes and brains work and how they process the environments around them.


In truth, the louder, busier, more colourful your space is the worse it is for children’s learning no matter how great you think it might look.

When it comes to display there is just one question you need to ask yourself, and that is ‘what is it for’. It’s sole purpose is not to make your space look pretty -although what you display should get you that result.

It is there to provoke self esteem and wellbeing, so a child can look at their work and be proud -‘I did that’, or it is there to provoke learning. Something that will teach or remind but most of all engage.


The Friars Primary – Nursery

So what the science tells us is that our backgrounds should be neutral, our borders should define a space or compliment it, without fighting with it.


The Friars Primary – Nursery

It is children’s work and creativity that should take centre stage, standing out loud and proud.


Ladybrook Primary – Reception


Ladybrook Primary – Nursery

Having said that, neutral does not have to mean dull by any means!


Devonshire Road Primary – Reception


Devonshire Road Primary – Reception

I have a great collection of effective Early Years display that I add to every time I see one. I share them on Facebook and Instagram so keep a look out!


Grove Street Primary  – Reception

What you don’t want from a neutral environment is ‘bland’ as bland never inspired anyone to do anything! What I am always aiming for is neutral with provocations for learning.

Those provocations will sometimes come from the type of resource that you dress your areas with, so here I was dressing this water play area with charity shop finds.


This is a ‘herb ring’ (not like the prawn ring that Kerry Katona buys at Iceland!) made out of a hoop and some hessian. It hangs at child height over a table.


with a bit of added enhancement…


and now some children! The herbs have been replaced with seasonal plants/flowers.


But, they can also come from children’s interests, so here some resources have been ‘dressed’ to catch the eye and link to specific interests.

tins collage


Heygarth Primary – Nursery


Heygarth Primary – Nursery

I am very fortunate to have a school that is fairly local to me in Salford that let me go and experiment with their environment. It is a two from entry Reception and a Nursery that has been converted from a working men’s club (seriously – it’s a long story and an amazing conversion). Obviously, it is not my setting, so the agreement is that I can go and try out various ideas, but if the team don’t like them or they don’t work then they don’t have to stay (no hard feelings!) Although, so far everything I have done is still there!

Reception is a large open plan space that is painted and floored in shades of grey  (yes, I know what you are all thinking now – but I couldn’t bring myself to make the joke!)

This makes it feel very big and open.


Here I was experimenting with defining a space without enclosing it. I have used beaded curtains fixed to the ceiling with magnetic hooks around the investigation area.

In the creative space I made a ‘curtain’ using paint charts that I cut up, stuck together onto thread and then hung from a bamboo cane. Unlike a dangling laminated colour ‘splat’ I wanted it to be a useful colour provocation.


Nursery is a smaller space and the two are joined by a very fancy folding, whiteboard wall/door!

This holiday I was experimenting with trying to add some texture and interest to the space without going ‘brothel chic’.

I had 3 main ideas I wanted to try out

  • textured wall paper
  • suspended provocation
  • tenting

You can buy really effective brick and wood effect wallpaper now for not a lot of money! This was from Wilko’s at £9.00 a role (here). There are lots of different textures that you can get, but I didn’t want anything too dark or too ‘busy’ in the end I decided to try with brick and white wood.


I am working on the back wall that you can see in the picture above that has the three grey doors in it.

The idea of adding textured wallpaper to an area is that it gives the impression of something natural like a stone or wooden wall. It is not an excuse to whack up a jazzy pattern, unless of course it was an area that you were linking to home, in which case you might be considering the link to familiar surroundings (another blog post altogether!).

I took down a couple of display boards because I wanted to create a more 3D display space that would also link into the areas of play next to it. I again wanted something natural and tactile so I opted for these crates that I bought for £28 from Ebay (here)



The bottom two are at child height, the top one is out of reach. I added some provocations roughly linked to ‘Spring’.


One is signs of Spring the other is colour provocation linked to the signs of spring.


As the display is next to the water area the lower box is housing a Samovar (for now).


I was thinking that the whole wall would look good papered, but wanted the setting to a) agree and b) have a choice, so around the back area I tried the white wood paper from Wilko’s (here).


I have been wanting to create a ‘secret’ display for ages and have had this old case knocking around, so thought this was a perfect opportunity. I (yes, me – and if I can do it anyone can) added 2 shelves to the inside of the case and then hung it on the wall.


You could have this at child height (would be great in a Small World or Construction area) but my thinking here is that it is to encourage talk and due to the layout of the space it had to go at adult height.

Again as a talk provocation I put up a wall mounted fish bowl. These have a flat back and hang off a screw. They are very easy to fill and empty. If you are not inspired by fish, you can also use them as planters or vases!


The idea of suspended provocation and tenting is that you give a learning space more of a ‘centre’ without closing it down into a ‘defined’ space.

For the tenting I used some pieces of tree branch  that were securely suspended from the ceiling and then draped with ‘neutral’ muslin.


tenting in Reception over deconstructed role play space


tenting in Nursery over deconstructed role play space

(If you are going to start hanging anything from your ceiling CHECK FIRST that the ceiling will take the weight and ensure that your hanging mechanisms (like string, wire or chain) will also take the weight of what you are hanging. You don’t want to come in and find it all over the floor or worse – on top of a child!)

For the other suspended provocation I used garden trellis. You can buy garden trellis from the garden centre, but the problem I had with it was the sizes that you could get were nothing like the sizes I wanted. So I found a man via Ebay, who will make trellis to order at a very reasonable price (here). I knew where I wanted to use my trellis so I had pieces made that were exactly the same size as the table  it was going to hang over and the sand and water tray.


I suspended one piece of trellis directly above the the Creative table and then ‘dressed’ it with things of interest.



You could string plastic or glass (risk assessed) jars and fill them with creative resources. This could be for the children to access, or just to provoke/store.



On top of the trellis I used baskets for texture and interest and also some of the resources that the school had in their stock cupboard like sponges, ribbon and wool.


I also added a couple of trailing plants to the corners, again for interest,


From the main body of the trellis I hung some paint brushes with coloured handles and also some empty picture frames.




I also hung a central pot (that can be removed) that contained a ‘seasonal’ provocation. In this case daffodils.

It is a fine balance between creating an ‘interesting’ space and creating a ‘busy’ space. I am not entirely sure I have got the balance right yet – but it is the sort of thing that you have to live with and play around with once the children are in situ.


I suspended the trellis lower over the sand and water areas as ideally I want it to be used as a frame to support and enhance children’s sand and water play.


As you can see the school are still using lots of the ‘charity shop’ resources and they have been suspended from the trellis using ‘S’ hooks. (Again – check that your frame can take the weight). This trellis will be ‘sorted’ and refined once we see how the children react with it.

I also added a piece of trellis above the Small World and Construction area to help make the area feel a little more enclosed, but also so that we can add to it to reflect the play preferences of children.


After the half term holiday, I had an ‘official’ consultancy day with the school. When we looked at the Gap and Strength Analysis again. Understanding the World was still coming up as a significant gap so, we did a bit of moving around to create an area of their space that would have lots of opportunities for children to explore aspects of Understanding the World without being an exclusive ‘Understaning the World’ area. The plan is also to add lots of UtW type enhancements to other areas of provision.

In keeping with the suspended provocation idea I found myself up and embankment  with Sarah the Reception teacher , dragging a fallen branch back into the classroom and hanging it from the ceiling!


When you look at this picture, even though this is a big space (with a massive tree hanging from the ceiling) your eye is pulled to the display board on the wall. Partly that is because the board in edged in black, which really helps to define it, and mainly because the children’s work is standing out proud from it’s neutral background.

In a smaller space you wouldn’t get away with so much hanging stuff and indeed in Nursery we have used a lot less.

Not all of the settings I work with would be able to do this because their ceilings are too high (or too damp!). There is also a cost implication to making this sort of change to your setting, so it is probably not a ‘do on Monday’ idea. But, the most important thing is that your environment – whatever you do with it – inspires and promotes learning rather than closes it down – however much you love your leopard print border!

Who knew trellis could be so much fun? Oh, and please use ‘windfall’ bits of wood rather than chopping down half of your local forest!


27 Comments on “Creating an Environment to Provoke Learning.”

    1. It is a board covered in some hessian fabric, although you can buy boards ready covered.

  1. Some really inspiring ideas here. As a new team, in a new setting, we are just putting our classroom together and I’d love to try out some of these.

  2. Pingback: Creating a purposeful learning environment – KeyToEarlyYears

  3. Pingback: Changing Spaces: Focus and simplify learning in continuous provision areas. | Enabling Environments

  4. Loved this post as it fits in with projects such as Communication Friendly Spaces. We have used neutral paper for about 4 years, and it does make the children’s work stand out. It would be even better if we weren’t constantly bombarded from subject coordinators about “stuff that NEEDS to be on display” to fulfill another audit. It’s just wallpaper for the children.

  5. The problem with you Alistair is that you make me want to do too much at once!!

    This is such a lovely setting! Now to work out how I make it work in mine with a very limited budget (ie my own money!)

  6. I started reading this and thought ‘oh here we go again,’. I’ve looking into hessian/plain backgrounds and tried a lot of different ways of doing this. The children went for interacting with the colourful displays to completely ignoring them. But I think what I was doing was making ‘bland’ displays which no-one wanted to engage with. This article is littered with lovely ideas that I am certainly going to try. Thanks, I may be back on that side of the fence:)

  7. Once again some inspirational ideas..sadly only a few l can adapt. Any ideas for a pack away nursery in a church hall with extremely high ceiling. Nobody ever seems to think of us 🙁

  8. Some great ideas for marking out areas in a small space without making the area feel cluttered. Can I ask, how did you join the paint colour chips to make the curtain? I’m guessing something like nylon thread but I’m wondering how to attach them securely. Thanks, Kate

    1. Hi Kate. Just cotton thread and glue. I stuck them back to back with the width of a paint chip in between. Hope that helps.

      1. Thank you for replying. Am going to put some paint chips out tomorrow and see if the children feel inspired to turn them into a curtain with me. Will let you know if it’s a success!

  9. Our problem with hanging stuff is burgler alarms. The beams are everywhere. I keep trying to miss them but the call out charge for false alarms is quite high!

  10. What fantastic ideas. I am in a smaller space nursery class and want to create a space that gives the children a feeling of security, some definition without always using floor dividers, so fantastic hanging ideas that create provocations. Loving the trellis and using such interesting and natural ideas. Thank you

  11. Thanks for sharing another FAB blog! LOVE the Hulk and Wocket displays (of course)… I believe there’s something about trees, living or not/indoors or out, that provoke imagination, questioning and creativity. Now I’m off to search for an old suitcase…

  12. Alister, Alister , please help us Alister! I’ve done the conference, I’ve read the blogs, I’ve tried loads of ideas. I just wish you could come and work with us! Yes? ………I think we need ideas that match our setting. We’re big, both in space and number of children. Ideally we’d need approximately 20 adults to manage the destruction and model the play. Most of our children are on an intervention program for lack of speech or language. I’m so excited by your ideas yet feel so despondent.

    1. Small steps Liz. You can only work with what you have got. Go at the pace of the needs of your children. If they are not ready then you are destined to fail. Don’t be despondent. Remember to celebrate the preparation and process even if the outcome is not how you would have ideally intended!

  13. Hello–great beauty in your spaces!
    I am from an American preschool that is not Reggio; I am learning so much via posts like this. I am trying to use my bulletin boards (I have one in the hall and one in the room) more for documentation than for decoration; this is counter-cultural in my school but supported by my director.
    Question–We can’t suspend from the ceiling at all. Ways to drape fabric or hang branches to provide more beauty and natural materials?

    1. Hi Chris – could you attach batons to the wall near to the ceiling? Then you could perhaps attach and suspend things across from these.

  14. Alistair you speak to me!
    I also find a bottle of the caretakers favourite tipple now and again works wonders! I believe my head tried to book you recently for whole school inset
    and you are a very busy man to pin down! Therefore hoping to get on the next London course even if I have to pay for it myself! Take care x

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