Spatial Design, 0 - 18 months, 18 - 36 months, 36 months - 6 years, Communication, Sense of Belonging, Wellbeing

Clatter in the early years environment: how to use space wisely

Sandra Duncan 2 February 2022

Tranquil space at New Shoots Children’s Centre, Hillcrest. Image by Amanda Aitken Photography.

Early childhood spaces are busy, active, and energetic places filled with a cacophony of sounds including children’s laughter, conversations, and an occasional loud skirmish over a favourite toy. There are the sounds of blocks tumbling, music playing, cars and lorries racing up ramps, and dishes, pots, and pans rattling and clattering in the dramatic play area . While this type of auditory clatter positively impacts children’s engagement with the environment and interactions with others, some classrooms are also filled with negative classroom clatter, especially in the physical arrangement of the space.

Unlike the pleasant, clattery noise of children’s laughter and play, a clattered physical environment is disruptive to children. Clattered environments are mentally noisy causing children’s thought patterns to be interrupted, and resulting in children being unable to optimally function. Examples of environmental clatter (or negative noise to children’s brains) include over or underutilised areas, poor traffic patterns, excessive furniture, and ineffective placement and positioning of equipment.

Clattered activity spaces  have a negative impact on children’s growth and development – and especially their behaviours. An activity space is clattered when children are unable to easily navigate around and within the space. High-density situations (i.e., too many children or too little space), for example, can result in aggressive and possibly destructive behaviours in young children. Many early childhood spaces, however, are not large areas. While it may be impossible to increase the floor area of the room  or decrease the number of children, it is possible to create an open or un-clattered space where children can move unencumbered.

To get started, employ the following tips – and let the de-clattering begin!

1.  Use space wisely

One strategy to de-clatter your space is to use what area you have wisely. In order to effectively use every piece of your floor area, it is important to understand how children use the space. To determine children’s utilisation, conduct a usage assessment (Carlson, 2013). Calculate how many children occupy or use each area of play and for what amount of time. Areas should include the custodial (i.e., cubbies and entryway) and mealtime spaces.

You may find areas in your space are either over or underutilised. An assessment of children’s usage might reveal tables located on the tile floor or the carpeted gathering area is only used for a small percentage of the day. Yet, these areas are consuming valuable real estate. Understanding children’s usage levels helps determine if the current space allocation needs to be increased. Or, if a usage assessment indicates an underutilised space (i.e., writing centre), you may decide to add elements of intrigue or provocation to increase children’s use of the space. A de-clattered classroom maximises the floor area by using every aspect of the area available to you for the most amount of time. Make every inch count.

Elements of intrigue are included to draw children into the different areas of play, utilising the whole activity space at New Shoots, The Lakes.

2.  Maintain space equilibrium

Once you have determined usage levels of your areas of play, the next step to de-clatter your physical environment is to balance children’s usage of space. You can do this by imagining your space as a rowboat. Stand (or sit) in the middle of your space and observe children interacting with the environment. Imagine that your room is a rowboat, and you are in the middle of the boat with the oars in your hands. Where are the children located in the boat? Are more children at the stern (back) of the boat? Or, are there just a few children in the boat’s bow (front)? Perhaps the majority of children are on the port side (left) of your boat. Maybe there are very few children in the back of the boat but lots of children are on the boat’s starboard or right side.

As you notice children’s locations in your rowboat, how do you feel about the stability or balance of the boat?

Do you feel the boat’s bow wants to tip up? Does it feel like the boat might overturn to the right because the majority of the children are on the right side of the room? If your rowboat appears ready to capsize, consider creating a more balanced space where children are utilising the majority of the space equally. By understanding children’s usage levels, and physically spreading them apart, the equilibrium of the space is maintained. This can be done by separating popular zones such as the dramatic play and block areas; combining less utilised zones  (i.e., mealtime areas with a writing area); or finding previously unused small zones to use for children’s nooks. If, for example, the door was removed, could the recessed space function better as a cosy mini-reading area on the bottom and display shelves on the top? Rather than having children’s cubbies in an area that is all their own, could cubbies double as mailboxes and be placed in the writing centre, transforming this zone into a communication area?

Extending dramatic play at Childspace Northland where children have the power to change and alter their environment. Following urges and aspirations, using a range of interchangeable, moveable loose parts they have created a boat. They play and work, problem-solve and communicate ideas as they engage with peers in imaginative play scenarios. Set sail for adventures on the sea, discovering and exploring roles.

3.  Create invitational spaces

The way in which equipment is arranged and positioned can create a clattered atmosphere. Positioning furniture at angles conveys an invitation for children to come and engage within a comfortable, welcoming space. On the other hand, furniture positioned flat against the outer wall, does not send a positive message to encourage children’s engagement with the equipment. 

The shape of the furniture also affects the way children – and even adults – perceive and act within the environment. The shape of a table, for example, conveys both visual and emotional messages. Small round tables, create a more acute sense of cosiness, which supports socialisation. Because the circular shape encourages conversations and interaction, placing a round table in the dramatic play area could increase the level and intensity of children’s conversations and language, resulting in a positive classroom clatter. Whereas rectangular and square tables project a more institutional feel because of their rigid corners and edges. They do not allow everyone seated to face each other in an equal way.

Round tables also fit easily into small spaces and have more versatility. A circular wooden table purchased from a local garage sale or second-hand shop makes a perfect platform for block construction when the legs are shortened. Baskets filled with intriguing objects and building materials can be placed under the table and thereby possibly eliminating a piece of furniture to free up space, which again results in a positive clatter.

Utilising the structural elements of a building to create a space for children to sit and feel confined by the vastness of the building enveloping them.

4.  Keep spaces transparent

One of the easiest ways to de-clatter a play space is to keep spaces transparent, especially in how we define the parameters of the space. Early childhood educators typically use shelving units to define an area of play within the space. This practice leads to spaces that are not only visually unavailable but are generally physically confining and impinging. Make spaces transparent by reducing the number of shelving units hemming in the area. Instead of furniture, use a large rug to unify or anchor a space. Pull the area rug out from the edges of the room and place furniture diagonally in the area. Use a couch and coffee table (milk crate turned upside down and covered with fabric tablecloth) to establish one diagonal axis and arrange a shelving unit directly across from this furniture on the same diagonal axis. If the rug is not large enough to hold all the area’s furniture, make sure the pieces located further from the wall are anchored on the rug. Consider eliminating or repositioning furniture if it is surplus to requirements. . If your space is limited, use furniture that serves many purposes. For example, an ottoman with a storage compartment can be utilised as a seat, storage unit, or table.

Large rugs are used to anchor the areas of play and define the spaces with multiple routes, giving transparency and accessibility.

An invitation

You are cordially invited to begin to de-clatter your early years' environment. Start thinking differently about how your physical space is structured and organised. Search for new ways of creating transparency in your space. Find unused spaces and create special places where children want to be. Experiment with angles. Find balance. Be willing to learn and to be surprised. Enjoy positive and wonderful clatter of children’s laughter and conversations.

Extra tips for de-clattering your space
  • Create more than one pathway to and from each area of play.
  • Select multi-purpose furniture that can be easily adaptable to children’s projects and play (i.e., ottoman with storage area).
  • Create more foot space than shelf space. Decide what furniture you need and what works for you. Then, remove all useless and unused pieces.
  • Keep the floor as clear as possible to make spaces easily accessible.
  • Use every piece of space. Find small places of unused space and create soft havens for children to be. A soft pillow, beanbag, or small comfortable chair tucked in a corner can create a private space for someone needing to be alone. Add casters to equipment that is best to be kept mobile so spaces are easily changed to meet the needs of children’s play.


Carlson, F. (March/April, 2013). Retail 101: What programs can learn from retail stores. Child Care Information Exchange, 28–30.


Blog reposted from Community Playthings - Clatter in the classroom