Supporting the Temporal, Social, and Physical Environments 
of Young Children

Jun 23rd, 2020 | Category: Columns, Early Childhood Education
By Annette VanAken

Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the article, The Temporal, Social, and Physical Environment as Applications of the Whole Child Tenets in Early Childhood, as originally published in the Illinois ASCD Journal, the Winter 2019 issue. It is reprinted with permission.

      Long before children enter formal schooling they develop literacy skills that will support their ability to read conventionally. In fact, researchers suggest there is a significant relationship between these early literacy skills and later reading (Missal et al., 2007).  Skills such as alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, word recognition, fluency, comprehension, writing, language, and vocabulary development often take center stage in some form within early childhood through secondary settings.

      Although all of these skills play a role in reading acquisition, two skills: language and vocabulary development, are prevalent in the young child’s life beginning at birth. These skills develop rapidly during the early years when brain plasticity is greatest and are influenced by changes within the body, by experiences, and by the external environment (Kolb & Gibb, 2011). Unfortunately, due to the varied experiences and environments children are exposed to, there are many discrepancies among children’s language and vocabulary development, which influence later reading success (Neuman & Wright, 2013).

Relevance of Early Language and Vocabulary Development

      Within early learning settings, educators typically discuss language development in terms of receptive and expressive language. Receptive language refers to the individual’s ability to understand what is being said, which begins before the production of words, which is known as expressive language. However, receptive and expressive language do not function alone, they rely on the individual’s ability to learn how to use and understand the meanings of new words (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) making vocabulary a critical component of language development.

      From birth, children are learning the underlying concepts of language. Young infants’ sense of sound is well developed, helping them to differentiate between the noises they hear. As they listen to the world around them, they are able to distinguish between environmental and speech sounds. Thus, using sensory experiences in their environment, they develop their receptive and expressive language skills. And while the infant may not be able to mimic speech because they lack muscle coordination, they begin to experiment with sounds (Deiner, 2009). In addition, young infants are able to use a simple form of expressive language in nonverbal and verbal ways to communicate their wants and needs. As they listen to and engage with the people in their environment, they continue to develop their language skills and build vocabulary. For the mobile infant, a major component of language and vocabulary development includes learning the meaning of words (Deiner, 2009), as they begin to use one-word utterances, while toddlers begin to use two-word phrases. It is important to note that although the young child’s expressive language may seem minimal, their receptive language is much more advanced. They can actually understand the meaning of many more words than they can use (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

      The importance of language development during the early years is not only of interest to parents, caregivers, and educators, but has captured the attention of neuroscience research. Critical periods, or windows when brain plasticity is high, allow experiences and the environment to have an exceptionally high influence on brain development (Sale, Berardi, & Maffei, 2016). Most relevant for this discussion is the time from birth to age 4 when plasticity is high and language development is in its critical period (Sale, Berardi, & Maffei, 2016). This early window of opportunity creates an increased urgency for providing parents, caregivers, and educators with information on how to support healthy environments and experiences which encourage language development. Research suggests that successful readers need to have a store of about 6,000 root words by grade two (Deiner, 2009) meaning that the typically 7 year old needs to have learned about 857 new root words per year. Therefore, there is no time to waste if we do not want children to be in jeopardy of entering school with substantial disparities in language and vocabulary knowledge, which shows up as lasting deficits in later reading success (Catts, Hogan, & Fey, 2003).

Environment and Experience: Why Should We Care?

      Young children’s brains are equipped and ready for language at birth (Bredekamp, 2017) and while there are inherited factors that influence the architecture of the brain, there are non-inherited environmental factors and experiences that have the power to change gene expression, thus altering the infant’s neuro structures (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010). In other words, environmental factors and experiences have the power to change the brain’s architecture. While some of these changes are temporary, some leave “chemical signatures” that result in lasting change in gene expression. Therefore, given the understanding that the critical period for language development is from birth to 4 years of age, and there is an understanding that the brain is highly responsive to early environments and experiences, we must continue to seek opportunities to provide all children with developmentally appropriate opportunities to increase their chances of future reading success.

Environments and The Whole Child

      As highlighted above, key to the young child’s language and vocabulary growth is their environment and the experiences within it. This aligns well with our mission to approach education with a whole-child perspective. It also requires a conceptual understanding of what it means to provide environments and experiences that are safe, promote healthy beginnings, and engage, support, and challenge language and vocabulary development in young children.

      However, first it is important to develop a deeper understanding of the three types of environments relevant to the young child’s development. These are the temporal, social, and physical environments. In general, the temporal environment is concerned with the daily schedule, routines, and activities for the child, while the social environment encompasses the social interactions the child has with other individuals, and the physical environment focuses on the objects and space within the child’s environment.

      When considering the temporal environment, the responsible adult should think about the timing, sequence, length of the schedule and routines. More specifically within the schedule the parents, caregivers, and educators should think about when the child gets up, arrives at daycare or preschool, play time, mealtime, naptime, both small-scale and large-scale activities, the transitions that connect them, as well as bedtime. When planning routines, the responsible adult should consider how to make routines consistent. Some routines include, diapering or bathroom time, getting up in the morning and going to bed, naptime, mealtime, dismissal/leaving home, and arrival/coming home. Additionally, the activities and experiences should be developmentally appropriate in content and length of time. Studies indicate that predictable schedules, routines, and smooth transitions create a sense of security, support the child’s understanding of the world around them, and help them adjust to new situations This sense of security can prevent challenging behaviors (Bredekamp, 2017; IRIS Center, 2019).

      The social environment, while focused on interaction with others, is additionally influenced by the temporal and physical environments that support these interactions. The adults within the child’s environment play key roles in the degree of positive social interactions, not only because they plan the temporal and physical environments, but they also provide significant guidance and modeling of appropriate social behaviors within daily experiences.

      When considering the physical environment, it is important to include not only the space, layout of the furnishings, and materials available for the young child, but the organization and accessibility of the environment. The type of space design, materials, and organization literally communicate to the child what is acceptable (Bredekamp, 2017). For example, crowded, unkempt spaces signal chaos and will influence the child’s behavior. Wide open spaces invite children to run and play loudly.

      Connecting these early-learning environments, language and vocabulary experiences, and the goal of educating the whole child is not difficult. Although experiences can be provided that align with the healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged tenets within each type of environment, a few will be highlighted, along with examples to get you thinking.

Supporting the Whole Child

      The power of the temporal environment should not be overlooked. Children feel safe when schedules, routines, and transitions provide them with predictability and consistency, and with a bit of flexibility. Establishing patterns that children can anticipate lessens stress and increases their comfort, while building essential relationships between them and their caregivers. In addition, these are great opportunities to talk to children, interpret their body language, provide simple information and directions, as well as ask questions.

      Within the social environment, engagements abound. Parents, caregivers, and educators are gifted with the opportunity to actively engage, support, and scaffold the language and vocabulary of children as they play with peers. In addition, children are engaged in their learning environment as they share, express their feelings, role play, and explore. Adults play a critical role in supporting each child’s language while challenging them to use language to express themselves and listen to others. Through daily conversations and social interactions, children learn how to use language, as well as how to receive it.

      The physical environment provides the opportunity to not only support healthy bodies, but a language- and literature-rich space also supports healthy brain development. However, be careful, as young children can be easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. So, early childhood educators and caregivers should be mindful to not fill the wall, ceiling, and floor spaces with things that are not child created, not useful for children, or items that do not support the adults’ ability to track important information.

      It is evident that language and vocabulary are significant components of the individual’s development and future reading success. It is also clear that waiting until the child enters formal schooling to think about how we might foster vocabulary, as well as expressive and receptive language development can leave some children with deficits when compared to their typical peers. Children need to feel supported and safe. Through environments and experiences that are nurturing, caregivers can build trusting relationships and increase the likelihood that children will communicate and listen.

Next Steps

      Establishing authentic, meaningful, language-rich environments and experiences will get us one step closer to preparing children to be future readers. As James Britton recognized decades ago, talk is the foundation for building literacy learning (Britton, 1992). As instructional teams and leaders, caregivers and teachers, let’s ask ourselves, in what ways are we addressing the whole child in early childhood. As a support, Table 1 provides examples to guide and give ideas to colleagues and parents. Remember one key take-away: talk to, play with, listen to, and enjoy young children. These activities are crucial to promote child development throughout the temporal, social, and physical environments. 


ASCD (2013). Whole child initiative. Retrieved from

Bredekamp, S. (2017). Effective practices in early childhood education: Building a foundation.
Pearson Education, Inc.

Britton, J. (1992). Language and learning: The importance of speech in children’s development (2nd ed.). Heinimann.

Catts, H. W., Hogan, T., Fey, M. E. (2003). Subgrouping poor readers on the basis of individual differences in reading-related abilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 151–164.

Copple C., & Bredekamp, S., (Eds.). (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. (3rd ed.). National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Deiner, P. L. (2009). Infants and toddlers: Development and curriculum planning (2nd ed.). Delmar Cengage Learning.

IRIS Center, (2019). Early childhood environments: Designing effective classrooms. Retrieved from

Kolb, B., & Gibb, R. (2011). Brain plasticity and behavior in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(4), 265-276.

Missal, K., Reschly, A., Betts, J., McConnell, S., Heistad, D., Pickart, M., . . . Marston, D. (2007). Examination of the predictive validity of preschool early literacy skills. School Psychology Review, 36, 433–452.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Early experiences can alter gene expression and affect long-term development: Working paper no. 10. Retrieved from

Neuman, S. B., & Wright, T. S. (2013). All about words: Increasing vocabulary in the common core classroom, PreK-2. Teacher College Press.

Sale, A., Berardi, N., & Maffei, L. (2016). Environment enrichment and brain development. (pp. 1-26). In S. A. Editor, Environmental experience and plasticity of the developing brain. Retrieved from Wiley Connections.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. National Academies Press.

Annette VanAken, Ed.D is assistant professor of literacy and early childhood education in the College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University Chicago. Prior to joining Concordia,
Dr. VanAken spent 19+ years in the classroom as an elementary educator, teaching grades Pre-K through 8th grade before earning her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. Her interests include assistive technology to enhance early learning experiences, early mathematics, and project-based learning. Contact info: Email:; Work Phone: 708-209-3097