What's the Point of Environmental Print?


Most children, when they start school or nursery or pre-school, can find their favourite cereal packet in the supermarket and they can instantly recognise the logo for their favourite pizza or burger restaurant. Children pick up a lot of information about writing from the contextualised print that they see around them at home and when they are out and about: on bus stops, cereal packets, logos on toys, road signs. Once they have discovered that fixed symbols carry consistent meaning, they can begin to identify different symbols and match them to the sounds that they represent, as a first step towards decoding and encoding print.

Environmental print is there for a purpose and when adults point out the print and help children to interpret and interact with it in their everyday lives, children develop an understanding of some of the different reasons why we use writing as a way of communicating a message. When children start to recognise and respond to print in everyday situations, they can be encouraged to experiment with their own independent and purposeful writing in the context of their play and in everyday routines.

Reuben: “We’re getting a train to Devon.”

Adult: “Okay! So which platform does your train go from?”

The children made platform signs Pltfm 1 Pltfm 2.

Recently, many Early Years classrooms have come under pressure to create a more formal learning environment, where much of the learning and teaching is adult directed and happens at tables. In many of the writing project classrooms, there were copious displays of laminated words: questions, learning challenges, signs and labels on walls and furniture, and hanging from the ceiling. When project practitioners were asked why there was so much print, they said it was for senior managers, who wanted to see learning objectives displayed, questions and prompts for adults to use to take children’s learning on, and labels, labels, labels. When they were asked what the point of the print was for children, they acknowledged that children couldn’t read the sentences and all of the print was decontextualized so it didn’t have meaning for the children.

Environmental print fit for purpose

Have you ever walked into a café and seen a chair with a label saying ‘chair’, as you see in many classrooms? Have you ever walked into a supermarket and seen learning objectives displayed, such as ‘LO: to keep your spending under £30’ or ‘LO: to find the semi-skimmed milk’? Many of the signs and labels that are proliferating in classrooms might be useful prompts for adults, in which case they should be part of planning meetings and recorded by staff in their own planning notes. But any print in the learning environment should be there for children to interact with, to help them to gain an understanding that print carries a message and that it is very useful! If this isn’t the case then children are being given the message that print is part of an adult world that has no relevance for them.

Developing an appropriately print-rich environment

As part of their reflective practice, some writing project schools chose to focus on developing environmental print that mirrored the print in the real world: all print displayed would have a purpose for the children and would be interactive. One school took a close look at the print in the learning environment and asked the following questions of themselves:

•       What writing is visible to the children and is it at their heights? 

•       Who is the writing for?

•       Is the writing in the environment meaningful?

•       Are there places within our settings for the children to display their own learning?

As a result of their staff team discussions, they made significant changes.

“We reduced all print to what was relevant for the children.” Croydon project 2016-17

So what type of print is relevant? In our everyday lives, we use labels to identify and give information, for example on food packets, filing cabinet drawers, shelves in supermarkets and in book shops. We use signs and notices in supermarkets to tell us where we can find different food and drink items; on bus stops to tell us which bus we can take and where the bus will take us; in our streets to help us to find our way around and to know the difference between the hospital and the bank. We see posters telling us what is on at the cinema. All of this print belongs in a particular context. We can mirror much of this environmental print in Early Years learning environments. When we do, we find that it stimulates children’s conversations and interest in writing and reading in their play.

“The rich print in the environment is encouraging children’s imagination during role play activities and is initiating opportunities for children to talk to other children and adults.”  Barnsley project 2016

Writing in all areas of provision

“Mark making and writing resources are available everywhere, all the time.”

Once consideration had been given to the appropriateness of environmental print, practitioners saturated their learning environments with useful and easily useable writing resources and print so that reading and writing became a normal, everyday, playful experience.

Literacy resources for all areas of the continuous provision can include:

Role play areas

·      Role play themes were developed by practitioners based on observations of children’s interests and preoccupations as well as in discussion with children. The indoor and outdoor areas offered a multitude of reasons for displaying and creating environmental print: open / closed signs and shop or café signs; food packets and price labels; posters; road signs, train platform signs and a display sign of train times; car wash signs; parking bays

·      The home corner: calendar, labels on shelves

·      The construction area: architects’ plans, large sheets of paper on the wall where children can draw designs, safety signs, a clocking in sheet, photographs and labels of buildings under construction; opening times

·      By the computer: a list for children to write their name while they wait for a turn

Signs and labels

Environmental print can be a useful way to engage children who have little stamina for longer pieces of writing, by encouraging them to make simple signs and labels as part of their indoor and outdoor play: STOP signs, road signs, labelling shelves in a role play shop or equipment in a role play builders’ yard or car repair workshop. This can help counter the belief of many reluctant writers: that they can’t write.

“Signs have been popular with boys, especially those with SEN and the less experienced children as they are short and focused.”

“He made signs about the things he observed: ‘A robn in the grdn’ or warning signs: ‘Spidas arowd!’”  Croydon project 2016-17


Routines provide a good opportunity for using print consistently, day after day.

·      In schools where children helped themselves to snacks and drinks, they were encouraged to write a sign explaining the ‘rules’: sit dan, put you cup in the sik

·      Visual timetables, planning boards or choice boards can help children who have difficulty in settling to an activity, children learning English as an additional language or children with have difficulties with expressive language or processing language

·      Put fruit in baskets with a lid on, and label the baskets with words and pictures

·      Self-registration helps children identify their name

·      Display class and dinner registers

Working with parents

We developed a bank of ideas for everyday literacy to share with parents, for example, ways to help their children tune into environmental print Wokingham project 2015-16

Project practitioners worked with parents to raise their awareness of the key role that they have in drawing their child’s attention to print in the environment, at home and when they are out and about. They suggested playing games such as I-Spy, looking around in the environment for letters in their name and common words such as STOP, which had a positive impact.

Parents are commenting on how children are writing at home and noticing writing in the environment.” Croydon project 2016-17