Although a bird may seem like an unlikely role model for teachers, the
bowerbird, a small native of Australia and New Zealand, has a lot to teach
us about early childhood classroom design. This amazing avian artist and
architect goes to extraordinary lengths to build and decorate his nest or
bower. Spending countless hours searching and collecting, the male
bowerbird beautifies his habitat with broken bits of colourful glass,
fragments of holiday garland and tinsel, shiny gum wrappers and milk caps,
pieces of plastic and metal, tiny morsels of beautiful berries, and
multi-coloured bits of yarn and string. His collections are painstakingly
arranged according to type of material and colour—especially the colour
blue, which is a favourite of the female bowerbird.
Unlike the clutter present in many early childhood classrooms, the objects
in these bowers are intentionally chosen for their value and purposefully
placed. Far from institutional, each nest is a unique and artistic
creation. Take a new look at your classroom through the eyes of a bowerbird
and see how you can make your space more appealing, beautiful, and
Lesson #1: Be a curator.
Dedicated to creating a welcoming and inviting space, the male bowerbird’s
reedy nest is more than a resting place; it is a beautiful habitat designed
to attract the female bowerbird. The bird’s natural impulse is to value his
found objects by displaying them with great care. Each object brought to
the nest area is highly cherished and positioned with intentionality as
would an art museum curator who hangs a beautiful oil painting in a
gallery. The bowerbird is a curator.
Just as the bowerbird arranges and displays his found treasures, museum
curators are also responsible for the design and arrangement of art
exhibits. Curators determine how and where the priceless objects and
artefacts will be displayed. They are the guardians of the artists’ work.
This is an invitation for you to become a guardian and curator of
children’s work. Celebrate and cherish their accomplishments as you would a
fine piece of art. Display children’s work in attractive and beautiful
ways. Be a bowerbird.
One way to honour children is to think critically about how you display
their work. Children’s work should be displayed in ways that respect their
artistic accomplishments. Prior to hanging a child’s work, a good rule of
thumb is to ask this question: Would I hang this picture as it is in my
home? If the answer is “no”, then it is important to ask yourself another
question: What could I do to better honour this child’s work?
One technique for showing the importance of children’s work is to make it
gallery-presentable prior to hanging or displaying. For example, try
framing children’s artwork with similar-type frames. Perhaps you could use
unique textures such as burlap, grass cloth, or fabric for matting
material. Or, use different type backdrops such as woven placemats or cork
squares. Exhibit children’s work in uncommon ways such as using a chair
with its legs cut down for a shelf, mounting a child’s drawing on a large
tree cookie, or inserting children’s work and their photographs into an old
window pane that is backlit.
Displaying children’s work that is beautifully framed or exhibited
recognizes and affirms their value to the artist, classroom community, and
others who enter the space. Display with honour. Adopt this strategy as a
fundamental approach to children’s learning environments. Be a curator. Be
Lesson #2: Seek beauty and purpose.
The male bowerbird makes intentional and informed choices when selecting
objects to adorn his nest. Because he knows the female bird adores the
colour blue, he purposefully seeks out objects of that colour. Shiny and
glittery objects are also carefully selected to be an important and
aesthetic part of his nest. Like the bowerbird, children need beauty in
their spaces. Seek beauty, collect beauty, and create islands of beauty in
your environment. Be a bowerbird.
Bowerbirds’ nests are all unique. Just like early childhood classrooms, the
birds’ nests comprise different objects, are individually arranged, and
come in all shapes and sizes. Despite these differences, nonetheless, there
is the common denominator of beauty and purpose in each bird’s nest: The
male bowerbird intentionally selects beautiful objects for the nest with
the purpose of attracting the female.
Make beauty and purpose your common denominator when creating spaces for
young children. In order to be a bowerbird and create islands of beauty in
your classroom, intentional choices must be made. Some of these choices may
be uncomfortable because creating spaces of uniqueness and beauty requires
you to go beyond the assumption that all classrooms need to look alike. It
requires you to understand that your classroom does not need to be a
replica of the room next door or look exactly like the pictures in the
early childhood catalogue. Being a bowerbird requires you to think beyond
One way to get beyond the early childhood catalogue is to critically think
about your classroom walls. Does the number of commercially purchased
charts displayed on the wall outweigh the amount of displayed children’s
work? Is there an alphabet train or colour chart that stays up pretty much
the entire year? Are cartoon or storybook characters hanging on your
classroom walls? Are there brightly coloured borders with scalloped edges
around the bulletin board? Are the majority laminated? If you answered
“yes” to any of these questions, it is time for you to become a bowerbird
and think about alternative ways to adorn your habitat.
Lesson #3: Be finicky.
Just like the bowerbird, be finicky about what is in your classroom
habitat—especially what is posted on your walls. One way to accomplish this
is to de-commercialize the walls. Begin by taking everything off the
classroom walls and bulletin boards. Now, like the bowerbird, intentionally
and carefully select what items will or will not return to the wall using
the following guidelines:
• The majority of displays on the walls should be children’s work and very
few (if any) commercially purchased materials (i.e., posters, charts) or
cutesy cartoon figures should be on the walls.
• Create art galleries with clusters of pictures grouped together. To
create interest and variety, arrange the grouping so each picture
illustrates a different type of art medium (i.e., watercolours, chalk, or
• Give children opportunities to create displays. Rather than purchasing an
alphabet train, for example, have children make it. Children can create
their own by using sticks, pebbles, clay, and small pinecones to construct
Lesson #4: Create habitats of importance.
The male bowerbird has a distinct purpose gathering objects to beautify his
nest. With each carefully placed piece, the male bowerbird is sending a
message to the female bird: You are important.
Look at what is hanging on your classroom walls. Have you carefully
selected and placed each piece? Why are they important to be hanging in
your classroom? What kinds of messages are they sending to the children?
Walls filled with commercially purchased charts and posters may send
messages of indifference because they hang on the wall day after day and
month after month. They may send messages of boredom if children are
required to review their contents on a daily basis. They may even send a
message of “keep away” because children rarely are interactive with the
laminated cardboard. In fact, laminated materials can create a harsh glare
to children’s eyes. Children with sensory integration disorders are
challenged with this type of glare and often look away. Walls filled with
commercially purchased charts and posters become nothing more than visual
noise. And, that noise is filled with unimportance.
Create walls of importance by taking down the laminated posters, number
charts, the alphabet train, and even the commercially purchased calendar.
Take down the neon-green paper backing and scalloped edge borders from the
bulletin board. Replace these with authentic and child-created objects that
are purposefully and intentionally placed on the walls. Tell your children:
You are important. Be a bowerbird.
Many thanks to Sue Penix, Infant Toddler Specialist at BCCCRC in Baltimore
who kindled my interest in the bowerbird’s nest building.
Watch a bower bird building his nest.
With over 45 years of experience in the early care and education field Dr
Sandra Duncan has extensive experience in working with young children and
parents, teaching at the university level (doctorate students and early
childhood students), designing and writing professional development
programmes for practitioners, and authoring several teacher resource books. Here's her newest book, Through a Child's Eyes: How Classroom Design Inspires Learning and Wonder.