It has long been recognized that children who are curious experiment with ideas and materials in their environment, resulting in innovation and learning in various ways.  A child’s brain development is influenced by the types of play and experiences that they are exposed to during their early years. How children learn to create ideas and act upon them, will influence how they respond to challenges and utilize critical thinking and problem-solving skills in future learning situations.

Early learning professionals are increasingly focusing on and creating environments that contribute to children gaining 21st century skills. These 21st century skills include critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and digital literacy, that are best developed through an array of experiences. Developing these skills in the early years contribute to children becoming ethical citizens, engaged thinkers with an entrepreneurial spirit, and environmental thinkers.

In this blog, I propose that it is time for early learning programs to redefine how children’s spaces and places for discovery are presented to children.


When I think about the 21stcentury skills that early learning professionals are encouraged to incorporate into children’s environments, I now question two of our traditional practices. First, I question why the term “learning centres” is used to define spaces in early learning programs, especially if we believe that learning takes place with experiences, relationships and play in children’s environments.  Think about how our children learn. Children learn from tinkering, exploring, observing people and things in the environment, engagement with materials and ideas, and connections to peers, adults, nature, and environments. The language that adults use in children’s environments influences action.

Recognizing that language matters, I now question why many early learning programs label and create spaces such as the block centre, the art centre or the reading centre. Learning occurs because of the types of engagement that occurs in spaces. I now advocate that rather than using the term “block centre”, that spaces be referred to as places for discovery.  The term Places for Discovery aligns with the 21st century skills. Just as the word discovery implies, discovery places are intended to encourage children to engage in the process of finding information, making discoveries, hypothesizing, and discovering something that was not known before. Places for Discovery combine various materials and experiences for children to draw upon, rather than have materials focus on a defined curriculum area. These are places where children explore and investigate their areas of interest and seek answers to their questions. Places of Discovery offer children opportunities to observe, experiment, pose questions, gather information, combine materials, use them in new ways, and predict and construct scenarios that contribute to them finding answers to their questions, while becoming engaged thinkers.


The second practice that I believe needs to be examined with a 21st century lens, is the design of the curriculum learning centres.  Traditionally, upon entry into early learning programs, one will see defined spaces such as a block centre, an art centre, the library or book area, a dramatic play area, a language area, and perhaps a science/math centre. Each centre has related materials to reflect the intention of the curriculum area. In some provincial jurisdictions, government regulations require these defined learning centres to meet the licensing/approval process. However, I suggest designing spaces in these defined centres, inhibit children’s opportunities to fully engage in formulating unique ideas, being innovative and in developing big idea thinking patterns and play experiences.  Designated spaces, such as the block centre, influence the depth and breadth of the play that occurs. Children’s creativity of thought and action can be further stifled in environments where adults discourage children from taking items from one learning centre to use in another centre, thus reducing children’s desire to enact on their big ideas. 


Early learning environments are intended to contribute to children enhancing their critical thinking skills, creativity, problem solving and analyzing options. We need to recognize that designated learning centres compartmentalize children’s thinking, creativity, and experimentation. 

Imagine how children’s experiences might differ in places for discovery, where they might find some items that have similar characteristics and others that have no relationship to other materials.

For example: 

  • How might children’s sense of wonderment be intrigued if they find an easel, blocks, and books in the same space? 
  • Where might their discoveries lead them if they found a provocation set up in a wagon? How might this trigger their play process? 
  • How might children’s critical thinking and play be influenced if they found a space that had fabric, puzzles, blocks, and string? How do these material combinations encourage children to look at new possibilities? 
  • What might happen if children found dolls in baskets, blocks, fabric, and large boards in a discovery space? What other materials might go into a discovery centre? 
  • What are the benefits of placing books and magazines in various spaces in the environment, rather than a defined reading centre? 
  • How might children’s creativity be expanded in discovery places that include scales, dolls, trucks, and long boards?
  • How might long boards, balls, bricks, flowerpots, paper, magazines, and rope encourage new discoveries?
  • How might easels, boards, bricks, vehicles, and hula hoops embrace children’s thinking? How might such discovery places support educators in observing new interests and ideas of children?

As I think about new combinations that could occur in discovery spaces, I see great potential in creating environments that truly respond to what children are interested in, while encouraging new ways of thinking and experimenting with ideas and opportunities. When we adopt an approach of creating discovery spaces, children will be inspired to make connections from previous learning to new ideas, innovations, and experiences. They will be innovators of the future.

Just Imagine the Possibilities!