The relationship between the physical environment and learning: A blind spot in N ew Zealand early childhood education discourse?

Ann Pairman


Although the design, layout and space in ECE environments influences children’s learning, New Zealand’s minimum standards for physical space compare poorly with other OECD countries and there is a paucity of NZ research in this area. This paper argues that the relationship between physical environments and learning is a ‘blind spot’ in NZ ECE discourse.

In identifying why this blind spot may have occurred, aspects of the ECE sector’s history are described. In particular it is argued that the sector's status as the ‘cinderella’ of the education system has led to political struggle for government recognition, improved qualifications, adult:child ratios, and funding, and that these issues have necessarily dominated ECE sector discourse. In addition it is argued that historical disparities within the sector have meant that concerns about physical space are not necessarily shared across the sector.

In describing why the relationship between physical environments and learning should be of growing concern, this paper argues that bulk funding and minimum standards for physical space, rather than pedagogy, appear to be influencing the design of ECE physical environments, particularly in corporate ECE which is the fastest growing part of the sector. The paper ends by challenging the government and the ECE sector to redress the lack of attention paid to the impact of the physical environment on children’s learning.

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