Defining individual space boundaries for preschoolers
Space is an abstract concept and preschoolers don’t exactly know what “space” means. You’re talking to yourself when you say, “Spread out so you’ve got some room!” They’re not sure what “spread out” means. There are times when it’s okay to have these little ones huddled together, sitting up against one another, or even on top of one another. During free playtime they wander in and out of one another’s spaces and it’s part of the flow. But, many times, it lends itself to order and fewer discipline problems when each child is just a little out of reach of the next child. We can help them by giving them tangible ways to define their individual spaces.
Why should we consider identifying a preschooler’s space? I’m glad you asked! Preschoolers are developing their social skills and are easily distracted by one another. When they’re in close proximity, the leader spends as much, if not more, time reconfiguring kids and vying for their attention as they do leading the actual activity. These little ones are also learning about boundaries. Before they understand the abstract perspective, they need to experience the concrete aspect of having physical boundaries. (For many kids, especially those with focus issues, it takes years to go from having a physical boundary to understanding the invisible.)
Preschoolers are beginning to identify shapes, the first one being the circle. You can put a circle in front of them and they can call it by name. They will start seeing things in their environment that resemble a circle and pointing those out. They may even be able to draw a circle with a crayon. But transferring that to sitting in a circle goes from concrete to abstract and things begin to fall apart. You could take each child by the shoulders and move them into position, or you could provide a way to identify their particular spot. The second way is quicker, smoother, and puts the responsibility in the child’s hands rather than the leader’s.
“Circle time” is a common preschool designation. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is with a rug that has the positions already printed on it, although many times the spaces are awfully close together. A quick Internet search will provide you with plenty of options that are theme-related and educational, while providing the indicated spaces for kids. Some things that accomplish the same thing as a rug, and give the leader more flexibility in adjusting the space for each child are:
- Carpet squares. These remnants come with the edges professionally bound and can be purchased for as little as one dollar from carpet stores. You can choose colors that go with the theme of your room. They’re cushy and can be placed on the floor in any configuration.
- The fun thing about using placemats to define personal spaces is that you can make them seasonal or related to a holiday. You can also get them in cut-out figures rather than the traditional rectangle, like giant leaf placemats for fall or flower placemats in the spring.
- Hula Hoops. Purchase the small hula hoops and lay them on the floor. They don’t have to be spread out, but can bump up against one another. Each kid sits inside his own hula hoop, which provides ample room and obvious boundaries.
- Our church was fortunate enough to have several ladies who had fabulous sewing skills and a real heart for using those talents for children’s ministry. One of our rooms had a ladybug / lovebug theme and they made individual pillows that looked like red and black ladybugs. Another room was called the “Bee-lievers” and was designed with a beehive table and bee coverlets for the chairs, complete with a little stinger. These same ladies made yellow and black striped pillows for the kids of that classroom. The leader called a name, the child ran to pick up their pillow, and sat where the leader was standing. The leader moved to the next space and continued calling names and doing the same thing. Developmentally, this helped the kids envision the circle being created.
Many preschool rooms do not utilize chairs and the kids sit on the floor for most activities. For the child who just has a lot of energy and can’t sit still for two seconds, even with the help of one of the space indicators we just mentioned, the answer may be as simple as a chair. A chair has a different quality to it that is more defined and confined. We had a boy (who we’ll call George right now) who constantly moved through the room at a half-run, and seemed to intentionally like to cause chaos … and he loved to be chased. One day I asked him, “George, would you like your own chair?” We brought a chair into the classroom, and he was told that he could sit in it whenever he wanted to. It was only for him. We gave him guidelines for how it was to be moved for different activities. There was an immediate difference—night and day. He began participating appropriately and enjoying the time together much more. All because of a chair! We figured out how to connect him with his space boundaries.
This is going to sound harsh and maybe questionable to some of you, but another way we’ve actually delightfully created space boundaries for preschoolers is by providing a large open plastic tub. It’s along the back wall and is designated for specific children. When we introduced the tub, it was specifically for one child (we’ll call Henry). Interestingly enough, we’ve never had any of the other children ask to use the tub and they understand that this is Henry’s special place. What a wonderful lesson in helping kids accept each other’s differences! When Henry is getting disruptive, a leader will remind him gently about his opportunity to utilize the tub, but after a few weeks of having it available, he started self-regulating and now goes on his own to the tub when he feels the anxiety build. That’s a huge step developmentally!
The tub is a very well-received tool by our special needs kids. They are often overwhelmed when there are additional kids in attendance and the “feel” of the room is a little different. Climbing into the tub provides not only a definition on the floor, but also on the sides. Many experts in autism indicate that having the feeling of being wrapped (walls of the tub) actually has a calming effect on the child. To keep the tub connected to the class, we usually tape to an inside wall a picture that goes along with the lesson for that day.
The last space definer I’d like to mention are Hugglepods. These are hanging canvas chairs (hearthsong.com) that create an individually wrapped space. The Hugglepod was brought into the classroom and attached to a large eyehook in the ceiling for one specific autistic boy (we’ll call Wilbur). The Hugglepod provides the swinging and circling movement, along with the walls that give the feeling of being wrapped, that immediately connected with Wilbur. It is now “his” chair and when he walks in the door, he goes directly to his Hugglepod. He absolutely loves it! Wilbur is mostly non-verbal, but observes everything that goes on in the room through the entry slit in the Hugglepod. We encourage him to join in activities with one of the helpers, but it’s obvious when he wants to return to the security of his Hugglepod.
As you can see, defining spaces for preschoolers becomes an individual task—finding just the right space boundaries that fit each child. There are blanket methods that most kids will respond to, like the placemats and carpet squares, but for the ones that these don’t satisfy, you need to explore other options. Before we can teach kids anything about our wonderful God and His Word, we have to create a space that fits their needs and will provide the best possible learning environment for each one.
Along with enjoying her 6-year-old grandtwins, Tina is the executive editor of KidzMatter Magazine and the early childhood ministry faculty for KidMin Academy. She loves all things kidmin and has written 17 books packed full of ideas that actively engage kids with God’s Word. Kidzmatter.com, tinahouser.net