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Your guide to cultivating an emotionally rich environment in early childhood

date January 11, 2024Anneka Russell

What is an emotionally rich environment, why is it important and how can you create this in your early years setting?   Early childhood expert Anneka Russell shares her expertise and top 5 tips in this thought provoking and practical guide.

The work of Friedrich Froebel on the impact the emotional environment has on children is well documented. If we look at just three of the Froebelian principles in particular, we can see where his work highlights this:

Relationships matter:

Positive relationships amongst staff, children, and parents are of central importance to the safety and security we all to need to learn and thrive. A setting with a deeply embedded ethos of community cohesion, will be able to attest to the value and richness within its community and the importance of respectfully tapping into this.

Knowledgeable and nurturing educators:

Everything we take the time to observe, learn and understand about the ‘unique child’ in our care, enables us to continuously grow on both a personal and professional level. The ongoing investment that educators make in their professional development allows them to provide a tailored and well informed balance of support, guidance, and challenge that both takes account of children’s interests and meets children at the point of their need.

Unity and connectedness:

The more we, as educators and humans in general, develop an awareness of (and connect with) the aura that both surrounds us and is within us, the more we can take responsibility for our role in ensuring we are properly aligned to make positive changes and help children to learn in a holistic way.

Cute little children playing toys in living room, Diverse children enjoying playing with toys

Similar to the Froebelian principles, with the Reggio approach recognising the environment as the ‘third teacher’, we are further reminded of the impact that the spaces we create have on helping to shape young children on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. Whether we are indoors or outdoors the quality of our emotional environment permeates our setting, so as educators we have an important responsibility to ensure we are vigilant, consistent, and intentional about how we identify, manage, and minimise any risks within the emotional environment.

Group of kids playing with soap bubbles in forest. Boy blowing soap bubbles with friends trying to catch the bubbles.

With the above in mind, listed below are, in my view, the characteristics of an emotionally rich environment:

  • Parents, staff, and children feel welcome and seen – it’s the small, consistent, and genuine gestures that matter!
  • Respect is promoted by taking an ‘each one teach one’ approach. This includes knowing when its necessary to Call Out vs Call In.
  • Leaders question themselves about what valuing diversity actually looks like and make efforts to ensure minority and marginalised groups feel valued.
  • The thoughts and feelings of all children and staff are validated, for example, everyone’s voice is heard, not just the loudest and most dominate ones.
  • The physical space is organised in a way that is calm, cosy, and safe (for adults and children) minimising any fear of potential injury, discomfort, or anxiety.
  • Opportunities for play and learning are stimulating and developmentally appropriate. They include Wonder, Awe, Repetition, Routine, Curiosity and Challenge in equal measure.
  • Children (and staff) are supported to develop their social skills. There is vigilance around this for those who are more introverted and may need more support.
  • Children and staff feel safe to take risks and make mistakes because they know they will be well supported when they do.
  • Leaders demonstrate active listening and are willing to act when it becomes clear that things could be done better.
  • An advocacy approach is taken when concerns are raised by parents, staff, or children. Particularly those related to the setting’s zero-tolerance policy.
Excited young african American father and small son sit on floor in living room construct with wooden blocks together, playful biracial dad and little boy child have fun play with building bricks toys


Finally, below are five top tips to implement into your early years practice on your journey to cultivating an emotionally rich environment:

  1. Everyone in your setting takes their responsibility to bring love, laughter and smiles to work every day extremely seriously.
  2. Right from the start educators effectively capture information about the unique child that enables them to better welcome children to the setting and foster belonging.
  3. Leaders and staff frequently STOP at different points of the day, to check and assess the evidence of an emotionally rich environment from what they can see or feel.
  4. Zero tolerance policies, such as those that highlight the setting’s stance against gossiping, ridicule racism and unconstructive criticism are known by all staff and play a key role in protecting the integrity of the nursery ethos.
  5. Staff listen to, capture, and analyse feedback from ‘show rounds’ to help leaders identify trends around why parents choose or decide not to choose the setting for their child.

About the author

Anneka Russell headshot

Anneka Russell has worked in early education for the last 20 years as a childcare professional, primary teacher, early years inspector and local authority early years adviser. Anneka currently works as an independent early years consultant. She is particularly passionate about working with schools and nurseries to improve learning environments (both physical and emotional) through room consultation and design.

Anneka is also the founder of JEKA Play which is a pack away furniture range which will provide solutions to childcare businesses and early years provisions that experience challenges using shared spaces, including pack-away childcare provision.