An Enabling Environment:
How To Make Your Setting More Homely
Make every child comfortable and secure.

One of the best ways to make a more enabling environment in your nursery is to make it more homely.

But why?

And how?

Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss. But before we get into it, maybe we need to look into exactly what we mean by an ‘enabling environment’. Shall we?

What is an enabling environment?

The enabling environment is one of four overarching principles outlined in the EYFS statutory guidance, along with The Unique Child, Positive Relationships and the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL).

On enabling environments, in particular, the guidance states that:

“Children learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers.”

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

While this might not go into too much explicit detail, it does outline the need for a child-first approach to everything you do in your environment. Elsewhere, the approach has been broken down into three areas:

  • Indoor environment
  • Outdoor environment
  • Emotional environment

While we’ll mostly be focusing on the indoor when we talk about creating a homely setting, the same concept is important for the other two enabling environments too.

This article is all about being welcoming and comfortable for all children so that they have the freedom and confidence to explore and learn. That is a concept that should be seen in every part of your practice.

Why is a homely environment an enabling one?

For some children, your setting will be a place where they spend more time in than their own home.

Even for those who don’t, they’re still spending a significant amount of time at your setting. That transition from their home to nursery should be as smooth as possible to allow children to feel safe, secure, and ready to engage.

This is especially true for children who have just started at your setting, and even more so among the youngest children. Areas commonly used by the littlest ones should have an even homelier touch. Without this, children can easily become overstimulated, distressed and in no position to play and learn.

That is not to say it should all be cushions and fluffy rugs. It is this homely, secure feeling that allows you to include things that are challenging, new, and novel. It’s just about getting that balance right.

How can I make my environment more homely?

Now that we’ve explained why we think a homely enabling environment is so important to your setting, let’s dive into some of the best ways you can become a home-from-home for your children.

1. A child’s-eye view

Whenever you make any changes to your environment, auditing what you have already should be the first step.

As we discussed at great length in our interview with the team from The Curiosity Approach, getting down on a child’s level when you do this is absolutely essential. Things that might look cosy from our height can look far away and threatening when down on little legs. That’s why before any audit you should get into your hands and knees and consider what you can really see.

2. Real resources

Another thing that is central to The Curiosity Approach is real resources.

Indestructible or single-use plastic only encourages a throwaway culture where children never learn to respect the materials that they use. Real teapots, wood, pine cones, PVC pipes or other open-ended resources cultivate a more permanent, varied approach to materials and play.

More importantly, real resources all provide different textures that children can explore. With a richer sensory environment more reminiscent of a real home, you can provide many more learning experiences than you ever could with plastic toys alone.

3. Soft and squishy

When you think of a homely, enabling environment, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Soft and squishy stuff of course! Softer furnishings are comfortable and calming for children and adults alike. Think things like:

  • Plump cushions
  • Big cuddly toys
  • Pillows and blankets
  • Soft rugs
  • Mini sofas

What’s more, soft furnishings will help to reduce noise levels too, making for a more peaceful, less chaotic environment.

4. Clean the clutter

One of the easiest ways to produce a more comfortable enabling environment at your setting is to de-clutter. Too much stuff will lead to overstimulation that can leave children feeling overwhelmed, especially when they’re trying to settle in.

So when you’re preparing your environment, ask yourself one question for every resource you have:

What is your purpose, thing?

This kind of focused, constant questioning means you’ll end up with a richer environment, with far fewer pieces that exist just because that’s always been the way, or because you read somewhere that it was a good idea (we realise the irony in this statement…).

5. Familiar stuff

Another great way for children to feel more at home in your setting is to include aspects of their home life.

Most simply, this can be done with pictures of their family and loved ones. Asking them for the features of their home is also great when you’re looking for inspiration to prepare a setting that better bridges the gap between their home and their ‘second home’.

6. A quiet corner

Retreats are important for everyone, especially for children who might feel overwhelmed in a new and scary place. Without them, there is no sanctuary for children to escape to and they can quickly become stressed and uncomfortable.

Try to keep any quiet corners or reading corners away from the general hubbub of the settings so that they naturally become places of calm. Keeping them out of the way of any regular ‘traffic’ is important too, and clear house rules can help to keep these places relaxing.

7. Natural colours

Overstimulation can also be caused by too many bright, bold colours used everywhere.

Consider for example using hessian or more natural backgrounds for your displays or walls. Bright colours can be particularly stressful when they dominate larger areas, as they can feel ‘on top’ of children who are on littler legs.

Hessian and natural colours can help to prevent an overwhelming experience, and allow the colour that is present in your setting to stand out and be more meaningful to the children too.

8. Den time

Who doesn’t like making a den? They’re cosy, comfortable, and a great place for a whole range of activities like reading, talking, and playing light games in.

Make sure that you have materials out where children can build their own, encouraging them to be architects of their own comfort and learn valuable physical and emotional development skills along the way.

9. Getting the light right

Bad light can make us all feel queasy. Just think of a massive department store, hospital or dentist surgery, and you’ll get the idea.

Bright. Clinical. Blue. Yuck.

These lighting environments can overstimulate children and have been found to produce the hormone cortisol, which tends to be released during periods of stress. Some ideas for more homely lighting include:

  • Light shades that produce yellow or orange tones.
  • Dimmable light switches
  • Soft, gentle lighting.
  • Well-placed twinkly lights to add a little magic and wonder to your play spaces.
  • Let as much natural light in during the day-time as possible.
  • Table or stand-up lamps can create a cosy feel.
10. Ask the children!

Running out of ideas to make your setting cosier? Why not ask the experts?

Asking the children in your setting what they’d like to see means you’re not just making an enabling environment that you’d consider homely, but one that will be cosy for them. A big old leather sofa might seem like the height of comfort, but could be odd and imposing to a younger child, or a child from a different culture.

This cultural context is particularly important if you have a diverse cohort at your setting. Encouraging comforting areas that reflect everyone’s home life not only improves everyone’s comfort but also helps you to teach the other children in your setting about other cultures and people.

Not only will asking children ensure you maintain truly child-led in your enabling environment, but it can also help you to teach children the important British Values of democracy, mutual respect, and tolerance.

11. Visit other settings

This is something that we recommend for all sorts of things, from improving your staff meetings to introducing new ideas for your continuous provision.

No matter what your objective, visiting other settings, taking pictures and getting inspired by them is going to revolutionise your practice. Finding great little cosy spots, and seeing how other managers have made their children feel welcome and secure is only going to improve your setting.

Further Reading

Here are a few extra bits on enabling environments and homely settings to help you out if you want to learn more:

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