Two-year-olds: Enabling Environments - My space

Understanding both physical and psychological environments is key when creating areas for two-year-olds. Julia Manning-Morton explains how settings' management of this impacts on children's well-being.

If settings are to meet the needs of two-year-olds in funded places, it is essential that they address both the psychological and physical aspects of the environment, as both are fundamental to the quality of provision.

The values and beliefs that we hold as individuals and as practitioners underpin our pedagogical approach and it is this approach - how things are done - that forms the psychological environment in settings (Manning-Morton 2006, 2013).

We experience the psychological environment mentally and emotionally, and while it is invisible, this has a major impact on the well-being of children, families and practitioners and what they learn about themselves and each other. Central to this environment are relationships and interactions (Manning-Morton 2013).

However, the physical environment also reflects practitioners' values and impacts on well-being. For example, a practitioner with a sofa in their room is making clear the importance they attach to parents being in the group and to sitting comfortably to cuddle children or read stories (Manning-Morton and Thorp 2006). The structural, aesthetic and practical aspects of the physical environment all impact on quality - which explains why in Reggio Emilia's early childhood programme the environment is sometimes called the third teacher (Edwards 1994).

One only has to imagine oneself in a forest, disco or library to understand how the psychological and physical aspects of the environment interact and impact on one's sense of well-being. Harms et al (1990) showed, through their early childhood and infant/toddler environment rating scales, that high-quality space is associated with sensitive and friendly practitioners and interested and involved children. Conversely, low-quality environments are associated with neutral or insensitive practitioners, with less involved children and with lots of rules and restrictions.


Settings involved in the funded places programme may open a new group specifically for two-year-olds or might find that the intake narrows the age range within their mixed-age grouping. This can seem advantageous to adults in terms of planning and resourcing the physical environment, but can hold disadvantages for children's experience of the psychological environment. This is because:

  • they can miss out on the benefit of learning from older, more experienced peers or being able to regress and be 'baby-like' when they need to
  • practitioners are more likely to expect them all to be the same and, therefore, develop practices that treat children as a group, with identical needs, rather than as individuals, whose development, interests and experiences will all be different to the others
  • children may change group and key person frequently (in one recently reported incident, a child changed groups after only two months), which is destructive to children's relationships and fails to provide the continuity or consistency of experience they need.

Other settings will integrate two-year-olds into existing groups for three- and four-year-olds, which can offer advantages such as greater continuity and bringing siblings together, but can often lead to two-year-olds being expected to fit in with an environment and curriculum that is not designed for their needs, interests or styles of learning. Their bewilderment and frustration in such an environment can lead to the kind of unco-operative and disruptive behaviours that give two-year-olds a bad press.

Equally, where providers expand the numbers of two-year-olds in their existing birth-to-threes provision, the curriculum may be skewed towards the needs of the babies and toddlers, resulting in environments and play opportunities that do not offer sufficient challenges for two-year-olds, who become then bored and are perceived as too boisterous and noisy.

However, there are some general principles to apply to organising provision that would support two-year-olds in whatever structure they experience:

  • Two-year-olds should not be expected to cope with large groups for long periods of time. Research by Howes, Phillips and Whitebrook (1992) showed that two-year-olds in groups of 12 or fewer were more likely to experience developmentally appropriate activities and positive interactions with peers and practitioners. In smaller groups, adults spend more time interacting with children. Consequently, children are more verbal, more engaged in activities, less aggressive and perform better on tests of language and learning.
  • Two-year-olds should have continuity and consistency of relationships with a key person and with their peer group over a prolonged period of time. Research shows that children are more likely to receive appropriate care-giving and activities when they have had the same key person over two to three years (Raikes 1993). Some settings address this issue by moving key persons with their key children when they change groups.
  • Daily changes of group, environment and practitioners should be kept to a minimum.


Moving and doing are key characteristics of the play and learning of two-year-olds. Boys and girls are developing and refining a wide range of physical skills. This means creating physical environments, inside and outside, that offer a manageable amount of risk and sufficient challenge. For children with physical disabilities, this means finding different ways in which they can be as agile and dextrous as they can (Manning-Morton and Thorp 2003).

You should look to:

  • Provide adequate uncluttered space so children can manoeuvre themselves and objects around the environment. Have fewer tables and chairs to aid mobility, reduce clutter and support floor play.
  • Organise spaces for solitary as well as group play, as this reduces the need to compete.
  • Direct access to outside for sensory exploration of the natural world and fast-developing physical skills is best. Include areas for digging and planting, for sand, water, mud, tunnels, tyres, trees, logs and grass, as well as soft surfacing and concrete (Manning-Morton and Thorp 2006).

The ambition and determination that two-year-olds display in their physical adventures are to be admired but can also sometimes pose challenges. To create a psychological environment that encourages physical exploration and supports two-year-olds in managing risk, practitioners need to find ways of helping them to succeed at their task safely, thereby keeping their sense of competence intact, rather than imposing unnecessary restrictions.

As a two-year-olds' explorations broaden, their understanding of themselves and of other people and the world expands at a rapid rate. Absorbing such a constant flow of sensory information and constant challenge can be physically wearing and emotionally overwhelming, resulting in emotional collapses and a retreat into helplessness.

This means that the physical environment must also include cosy areas inside, perhaps with low lighting and soothing music and shaded quiet corners outside, in which children can be alone to recuperate. The psychological environment calls for the secure base of a trusting warm relationship with a key person, able to be both supportive of a two-year-old's moves to be independent and accepting of their need for dependence. Important too is sensitively balancing new and exciting resources and activities with familiar and predictable routines and environment.

In this way, two-year-olds will learn how to move out into the world with confidence in their own abilities and an expectation that they can look to others for assistance when necessary. Such a disposition is crucial in the development of a positive sense of self, which is the main learning task that two-year-olds are engaged in and fundamental to their early successes in their social relationships with peers.

Balancing two-year-olds' learning about their unique selves and others' needs and how to be part of a group can be incorporated into thinking about the physical environment:

  • Provide well-spaced activity areas with accessible equipment that allows children to use their initiative and to affect and respond to their environment.
  • Create an environment that reflects diversity, with equipment that reflects the children's homes and notices in home languages.
  • To allow children independence in the bathroom, low toilets, sinks and towels and taps that can be turned on and off are needed.
  • Label storage with photographs to support the children's growing independence, so children can find things and help the practitioners reorder the room more easily.
  • Ensure there is personal, accessible storage for coats, shoes and comforters, labelled with photographs and names for easy identification by children and adults.
  • Create displays of photographs of the children, their friends and family, their pets and toys.
  • Choose equipment such as double easels that can be used by more than one child as well as individually. Build up a large amount of some equipment, such as construction sets. Remember the children's limited social skills and difficulty with turn taking and sharing (Manning-Morton and Thorp 2006).

Supporting two-year-olds' positive sense of self and growing social skills is also key for practitioners in how they develop the psychological environment. Practitioners who develop a good understanding and appreciation of the development of two-year-olds will not make the mistake of seeing them as either less able over-threes who disrupt 'proper activities' or too boisterous babies who don't need their support any more.

Most of all, practitioners will feel positively challenged by the characteristics of two-year-olds and be interested in working alongside them rather than having power over them. They will enable children's well-being by focusing their attention on current experiences - not just later outcomes - and will adapt physical and psychological environments accordingly.

Julia Manning-Morton is a senior lecturer in early childhood at London Metropolitan University


  • Exploring Well-being in the Early Years by J Manning-Morton (Ed), OUP
  • Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale by T Harms, D Cryer and RM Clifford, Teachers College Press
  • Key Times: a framework for developing high-quality provision for children from birth to three years by J Manning-Morton and M Thorp, OUP
  • Key Times for Play, the first three years by J Manning-Morton and M Thorp, OUP.
  • 'Relationship Duration in Infant Care: time with a high-ability teacher and infant-teacher attachment' by H Raikes in Early Childhood Research Quarterly
  • The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education by C Edwards, L Gandini and G Forman, Ablex Publishing
  • 'The Personal is Professional: professionalism and the birth to threes practitioner' by J Manning-Morton in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Volume 7
  • Thresholds of Quality: Implications for the social development of children in centre-based childcare by C Howes, DA Phillips and M Whitebook, in Child Development, 63.

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