Meaning-making in interaction between children and space

By Anne Kristine Solberg Runestad (12.09.2023)  

The broad terminology we find in both national curricula and recent research provides the possibility of investigating various visual expressions, such as art, space, architecture, etc., as text, i.e. as coherent utterances that can be interpreted (Selander & Skjelbred, 2004, p. 28). In this small text, the interaction between children and the kindergarten environment is placed into a social-semiotic and reception theory framework of understanding.

Whether it is a church room, a library, a classroom, a private living room or a room in a kindergarten, the room tells us something about who it is intended for and how those who are in it should act. They are arranged using fixtures and equipment, so-called cultural tools or artefacts, adapted to the intended activities and actors. The room, fixtures and equipment are coded to a greater or lesser extent. We often refer to such codes or sign systems as semiotic or resources for meaning-making. When several such sign systems occur together, we refer to it in social semiotics as multimodality (Maagerø & Tønnesen, 2014). The sign systems are conventional in the sense that they largely have a given common meaning in the culture of which they are a part. Hege Hansson has written about how she understands the kindergarten environment as text and almost as a manuscript for the users of the environment (Hansson, 2012, p. 150). The people who have furnished the rooms have done so with the intention that the intended children will interpret the signs in a certain way (cf. Runestad, 2015, p. 56). In this way, ‘the third teacher’, in the sense of the kindergarten environment, is in danger of being adapted for the average child, what we in reception theory like to call the model reader (Eco, 1979) or the implicit reader (Iser, 1974). The challenge is that this average child does not exist (Knudsen & Aamotsbakken, 2010, p. 93) and that such texts are not unambiguous. Hanson writes that multimodal texts ‘speak with many tongues’ due to their complexity (Hansson, 2012, p. 159). The many modalities challenge the interaction between children and spaces and influence the meaning that is created. It is therefore important that both the entirety and the complexity of the environment are kept at a level appropriate to the actual readers, who in this case are the kindergarten children (cf. Laike, 2002; Thorbergsen, 2007).

Ragnhild Eielsen Wiig says in the video ‘Planning the physical indoor environment’ that those in Tjodmarka kindergarten are concerned with ‘rooms that inhibit and rooms that promote’ (cf. Granholt, 2021, p. 64), and she points out that a room can do both. It depends on what the goal is and which children you have with you. Furthermore, she explains that they have been concerned with safeguarding the different dimensions of the physical environment and have therefore chosen to use a selection of theoretical tools as their point of departure. She explicitly highlights ‘the five areas of characteristics’. These contribute to planning, evaluation and dialogue, and are developed on the basis of two different models and defined through the project ‘Children and space’ (Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 28).

The area of communicative characteristics aligns fairly well with how we understand space as intentional text, i.e. what space conveys about use and atmosphere through its signals and symbolism (cf. Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 29 and Dybvig in the video about outdoor environments). Atmosphere is also associated with the area of sensory characteristics, but in this context it is about how use of colour, lighting, choice of materials, smells and sounds affect our emotions (Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 32). Such sensory experiences can actually take us back to places and spaces where we previously had the same, or similar, experiences and evoke the feelings we had back then.

The area of practical/functional characteristics is about how the space is adapted for those who are going to use it and the activities that will take place there (Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 29). As a result, this area plays a key role regarding universal design and inclusion. Despite universal design requirements (cf. Ministry of Education and Research, 2021), there will nevertheless be quite large differences between a toddler department and a department for older children, for example with regard to what kind of adaptations are needed for children of different ages to experience security, independence and participation. Special rooms, such as workshops, libraries, construction rooms, etc., invite the older children to interact with a variety of resources for meaning-making according to given intentions. These resources will normally be beyond the reach of the youngest children. The most common and appropriate approach is therefore to facilitate a varied service adapted to these children’s radius of action in a safe environment inside the department (cf. Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 36).

The area of social characteristics touches on the themes of belonging, inclusion and children’s autonomy. On the one hand, we all have a need to belong and be together with others. On the other hand, we also need to be able to withdraw a little, either alone or with a small group, and children are no exception (cf. Høyland & Hansen, 2012, pp. 30-31). Through different ways of organising the kindergarten’s environment, children can be invited to partake in varied play, both alone and with others. They can also create these places in the environment using simple resources, such as two chairs and a blanket (cf. Hansson, 2012, p. 156; Krogstad, 2012, p. 83). Children are creative in their approach to understanding the world, and this also influences their use of resources for meaning-making.

Belonging can also be seen as a key concept in connection with the area of relational characteristics, but here it is not so much about ‘the others’ as it is about the space itself. Children talk about ‘my’ kindergarten and ‘my’ department, and they create bonds with buildings, places, rooms and objects (cf. Høyland & Hansen, 2012, p. 32). In this way, the physical environment is important for the development of both identity and belonging.

Kindergarten children do not have theoretical insight into these areas of characteristics, nor should they, but they can still experience them. They meet the kindergarten with their individual expectations influenced by their age and experiences. In hermeneutics, this is called the horizon of expectation and understanding (cf. Selander & Kress, 2010, p. 48). They have, to a greater or lesser extent, absorbed and understood society’s and kindergarten’s cultural codes and create meaning with the sign systems they encounter based on their own assumptions.

Within the field of pedagogical texts, overinterpretation, relevant reading, meaningless reading and misreading have all been written about (Runestad, 2015, pp. 242, 253). These concepts are strongly linked to the sender’s intentions and not to the text itself, the reader’s intentions or the context in which the interaction between text and reader takes place. For natural reasons, a kindergarten child has not had as many experiences with the kindergarten’s various cultural codes as, for example, a kindergarten employee. It therefore implies that their horizon of understanding will not necessarily correspond to the expectations of decoding embodied in the relevant culturally coded resources. However, people, and perhaps especially children, will always try to create meaning, even when something seems meaningless to them. As a result, children can often be surprisingly creative in meaning-making and interaction with their surroundings. “Children will often find uses for objects and spaces that adults do not anticipate or intend,” write Teresa Strong-Wilson & Julia Ellis (2007, p. 43). In some contexts, such creativity is positively valued, while in other contexts it is not. For example, such a creative use of resources for meaning-making risks being described as meaningless or inadequate within educational organisations (Runestad, 2015, pp. 23, 57, 62). This is closely linked to these organisations’ mandate and social mission. They must safeguard the development and learning of children and young people according to a given progression. However, kindergartens as educational organisations are in a special position, because not only the established culture but also national steering documents indicate that one can expect kindergarten children to be met as individuals, not just as a group of children, and that kindergartens should protect and recognise the intrinsic value of childhood (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 8). The employees must take the children’s involvement and contribution as a starting point (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 47). As a result, the children will also experience that their contributions are appreciated.

As previously mentioned, everyone carries their individual experiences along with them, and we interpret and understand what we encounter in different ways, including the kindergarten’s environment and the resources for meaning-making we find there. The fact that children should be met as individuals and with respect for their perception of the world (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 8) therefore means that it is not only theoretical and practical knowledge about children, childhood, pedagogy and didactics in general that kindergarten employees require. They must also acquire good knowledge about the individual kindergarten child and its horizon of understanding when planning, actualising and evaluating the kindergarten environment’s resources for meaning-making.


Eco, U. (1979). The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts. Indiana University Press.  

Granholt, M. R. (2021). Barnehagelæreren som inspirator (1. utgave. utg.). Fagbokforlaget.  

Hansson, H. (2012). Kunstneriske forstyrrelser med romlige og materielle for- og etterspill. I A. Krogstad, G. K. Hansen, K. Høyland & T. Moser (Red.), Rom for barnehage – Flerfaglige perspektiver på barnehagens fysiske miljø (s. 149-170). Fagbokforl.  

Høyland, K. & Hansen, G. K. (2012). De fysiske omgivelsenes betydning for barnehagens kvalitet. I A. Krogstad, G. K. Hansen, K. Høyland & T. Moser (Red.), Rom for barnehage – Flerfaglige perspektiver på barnehagens fysiske miljø. Fagbokforl.  

Iser, W. (1974). The implied reader : patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. John Hopkins University Press.  

Knudsen, S. V. & Aamotsbakken, B. (2010). Resepsjonsteorier. I D. Skjelbred & B. Aamotsbakken (Red.), Lesing av fagtekster som grunnleggende ferdighet (s. 513 s.). Novus.  

Krogstad, A. (2012). Barns topologi. I A. Krogstad, G. K. Hansen, K. Høyland & T. Moser (Red.), Rom for barnehage – Flerfaglige perspektiver på barnehagens fysiske miljø. Fagbokforl.  

Laike, T. (2002). Det fysiske bakgrunnsmiljøet påvirker barna. Barnehagefolk, Årg. 18, nr 2 (2002), 42-47.  

Maagerø, E. & Tønnesen, E. S. (2014). Multimodal tekstkompetanse. Portal.  

Runestad, A. K. S. (2015). Intensjoner, adaptasjoner og leserposisjoner – En studie av pedagogiske skjermtekster for den begynnende lese- og skriveopplæringa, og av hvordan barn i førsteklasse engasjerer seg i og med dem [NTNU]. Trondheim. 

Selander, S. & Kress, G. (2010). Design för lärande: ett multimodalt perspektiv. Norstedts.  

Selander, S. & Skjelbred, D. (2004). Pedagogiske tekster for kommunikasjon og læring. Universitetsforlaget.  

Strong-Wilson, T. & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and Place: Reggio Emilia’s Environment As Third Teacher. Theory into practice, 46(1), 40-47. 

Thorbergsen, E. (2007). Barnehagens rom : – nye muligheter. Pedagogisk forum.  

Utdanningsdirektoratet. (2017). Rammeplan for barnehagen. 

Utdanningsdirektoratet. (2021, 08.01.2021). Universell utforming av barnehage- og skolebygg. Hentet 28.08.2023 fra 

Scroll to Top