Lately I’ve been fascinated by a new flavor of pie: psychologically informed environments (PIE).
This “enabling environment” concept originally appeared as a kind of operational framework for therapeutic communities such as homeless resettlement and social services. I’ll spare you the footnotes and scholarly citations and just sum it up in lay terms: We are affected by our surroundings.
So, this particular PIE applies as well to something I wrote about last time: making your children’s everyday world both fun and educational to help them develop not just literacy and motor skills, but psychological well-being.
Let’s say the weather’s abysmal or you don’t have a yard where your kids can run around. It’s all too easy to let electronics babysit, but much of that is passive. With a little imagination on your part, indoor play spaces serve the same purpose; they get children’s energy out and bring blood flow and oxygen to the brain—especially valuable before kids begin their school day or start their homework.
Remember when your children learned the word “no” and started using it for everything? When that’s all they hear, that’s what they learn. But let go of your parochial fears and give the gift of “yes”—to an indoor garden, a basement tricycle race track, a STE(a)M room, a garage art studio, a wall of their collections, a crafting space, a set of pots and pans, or an attic music room/stage/dance studio. A barely used corner of the basement or a storage space can be a climbing wall and gym. A doorway frame can hold a swing/hang-up/pull-up bar/trapeze.
If you reframe your vision of your home to be a multipurpose, ever-changing space—playpen, playground, lab, classroom, performance stage—you have an incubator for explosive growth and enhanced learning. Even the smallest homes can have different zones inside and outside to stretch your children’s interests. Unused rooms, spaces within a room, corners, and even extra space above their heads can hold a loft, rings, a hammock, or monkey bars. A kitchen table or desk can be a ping-pong table; painter’s tape on a floor can mark off a hopscotch grid or highway; a hamper can be a bean-bag toss; and a hall passage can be a soccer/hockey/golf arena. A bunk bed can have a slide and a basketball net can fit above the door. Our imaginations are endless.
What works for babies and toddlers can evolve to engage tweens and teens as a passageway or closet brightly painted and lined with chalkboards and the ABCs, shapes, and numbers can become a study hall with SAT words, math facts, and anatomy and geography posters. You don’t have to separate adult and children’s spaces, either: Why not adhere foreign language flashcards to different household objects, and change them weekly?
Bathrooms can be worlds of sensorial and educational play and/or peaceful tranquility zones. Alter the mood and surroundings with music, incense, talismans of nature, and meditative, meaningful books and reflections. Provide stones to cairn, sand to rake, shells and minerals to arrange, and plants to tend to.
Of course, the kitchen is headquarters; the central artery of the house provides endless opportunities to engage and entertain learning.
An empty drawer stashes drawing/coloring supplies, a shelf holds a library and music options, a window is a greenhouse, and the walls are art exhibition spaces. A door of the kitchen, closet, or refrigerator is a launching pad for reminders, schedules, and routines—the calendar of chores, activities, and inspiration for the family. All items and all tools in this prepared environment should be child height or easily accessible with stable stools so children can contribute to cooking, cleaning, caring for their home and themselves.
This is pure Montessori common sense: Why buy a play kitchen when you have a real one? No need to tell your kids that cooking and recipes are really science, art, math, language arts, and history: They just love the textures, the smells, the process, the togetherness, and, of course, the tastes.
Tip: The best way to keep a busy, fidgety child in their seat while they eat is to read to them!
You don’t need to max out your credit cards. Buy second-hand and repurpose what you have. Think of these “lab” furnishings as disposable or temporary. And don’t go overboard and overfill your spaces, as there is a need for “white space”—for blank walls and clean slates. The importance of order, organization, and modeling this behavior illuminates Benjamin Franklin’s mantra, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” For example, clear bins labeled Lego should be for Lego only. This isn’t nitpicking, but science: Creating and maintaining order in the home encourages order in the brain.
Fun doesn’t have to mean chaos. We want our children to grow to be amazing, self-reliant, capable adults. And since we are all affected by our environments, the place to start is at home.