Creating an engaging curriculum for diverse groups of young children requires thoughtful curriculum planning and intentional classroom design. There are a number of learning and development frameworks to guide our work with children and families. In this article, we explore one particular framework: Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which focuses on designing and implementing an inclusive curriculum that is accessible for children with different needs and abilities.
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
Universal Design for Learning describes an intentional approach to curriculum planning that builds in adjustments to suit each individual child. It recognizes that children have unique physical needs and learning styles and that these can be accommodated through flexible approaches to the curriculum. In universally designed learning environments, all children and their families can participate and learn.
Universal Design for Learning was inspired by an architecture concept called Universal Design, which embraced the goal of designing spaces for all people. Universal Design is based upon the principle that accessible spaces can benefit those with and without disabilities. For example, sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are also helpful for people using skateboards, bicycles, baby strollers, and delivery carts. Similarly, automatic doors help those using wheelchairs as well as individuals whose arms are holding packages or young children.
The Guiding Principles of UDL
Three key UDL principles developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) offer guidance to educators and caregivers who want to ensure that the children and families in their programs can all learn and participate fully.
The three UDL principles are representation, expression, and engagement.
Representation. Representation refers to the ways in which new concepts are presented. Does the environment give all children multiple ways to learn and explore? Has consideration been given to children who need support with language or with auditory learning?
Expression. There are many ways that young children express or demonstrate their learning. Does the environment provide all children with multiple and varied ways to show what they know and what they are learning? By observing children at play and engaging children in conversation, early childhood care and learning providers can assess each child’s ability to express curiosity and demonstrate learning.
Engagement. Does the environment provide all children with multiple and varied ways to become engaged, motivated, excited, and challenged in their learning? Providers can reinforce engagement by asking parents what types of activities children enjoy at home, or by offering children opportunities to choose some of their activities.
UDL in Early Childhood
In early childhood education, UDL looks at the environment through the eyes of the children to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy and learn in the space. Early childhood program director, Molly Breen, posted a description of this perspective in a blog post for education tool publisher, Free Spirit Publishing:
UDL for early childhood is weighted heavily toward environmental awareness (the what of learning) and really seeing our settings through the eyes of our young learners: Are our settings safe, responsive, accessible, and culturally relevant? What is played with the most and provides motivating opportunities for deep play (the how of learning)? What skills are our learners developing through using the school environment and available materials?
Ongoing observation is a critical component of UDL to understand how children are interacting with the space, what they are interested in, and how they are using the classroom to support their learning. UDL emphasizes relationship-based care and partnerships with families in order to understand the needs, strengths, and abilities of each individual child.
Incorporating UDL into Your Inclusive Program
UDL principles can help early childhood care providers enhance the inclusiveness of the learning environment. In programs that incorporate Universal Design for Learning, children with disabilities are not only cared for in the same space as the other children, they are also fully engaged in play and learning activities.
Here are a few tips that you might find helpful if you would like to incorporate UDL into your program:
Ensure that the physical environment provides easy, safe, and independent access to all of the materials and learning spaces. This might include creating clear paths for children to easily navigate through, keeping storage bins at a height that every child can access, offering materials that every child can enjoy (items of different sizes, textures, shapes, varying accessibility), and ensuring that every child is able to sit with their peers during mealtimes and activities. You’ll also want to consider sensory-related factors in the environment such as noise and lighting. It can be helpful to create quiet cozy spaces where children can go if they are in need of a break from the noise and busy atmosphere of the classroom.
Present your teaching and instruction in multiple ways so that every child can participate in the conversation. For example, when reading a book about turtles, you might read, show pictures from the story, and pass around a turtle stuffed animal. Consider also watching a video about turtles after reading the story to give children a variety of different opportunities to engage in the material.
Consider the cultural, linguistic, and ability diversity of both the children and their families. Invite children to participate in classroom routines using multiple means of communication (speaking English and/or children’s home language, using songs, photos, or symbols). Review the books and materials in your classroom to ensure that they represent the unique cultural identities of your community. To build relationships with families, you can offer multiple avenues for receiving ongoing information and engaging in the classroom, and make an effort to understand each family’s goals and preferences for their child as you plan curriculum and activities.
There is a lot to learn about UDL in early childhood classrooms! If you are interested in learning more, you might enjoy the resources below: