The Environment as the Third Teacher: An Integral Part of How Learning Happens

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. One of the aspects of my work in early childhood education that I am grateful for is the opportunity to visit programs for children, both indoors and outdoors, from infant and toddler spaces, to preschool and kindergarten classes, to classes for grades one, two and three, as well as before and after school programs. This semester I had over thirty students to supervise in their field placements. I was thrilled to see rooms that supported play and inquiry, but sadden to see cases of children sitting at desks doing seatwork in spaces that lacked an attention to aesthetics and the learning environment. I am proud to be a registered early childhood educator in Ontario as our recently published early years pedagogy, How Does Learning Happen? supports the idea of the environment as the third teacher. The document calls for educators to provide “environments and experiences for children to explore ideas, investigate their theories, and interact with others in play” (p.11).

How Does Learning Happen?

How Does Learning Happen?

According to How Does Learning Happen? the environment is the context in which learning takes place. “It mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space” (p. 20). Educators should pay heed to the environment to make sure that their beliefs and values about children and learning are represented in the space. I sometimes struggle with the limitations of the learning spaces at the university where I teach early childhood studies. It is difficult (but not impossible) to provide experiential learning in a classroom designed for lectures. I know that there are limitations in the learning environments in which early childhood educators work that are beyond control. I do believe though that there are ways to support spaces that invite investigation, imagination, deep thinking, creativity, problem solving and meaning making. One way to do it, according to Ontario’s early years pedagogy, is to use complex open-ended materials that children can use in many ways. Another term to describe complex open-ended materials is loose parts!

Screenshot 2015-11-26 13.58.23

Loose Parts Play

Aside from visiting early years programs in Ontario, I have had the pleasure of touring the Boulder Journey Schooltwo amazing preschools in Sweden and the pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia. I took my first study tour to Reggio in 2006. It was there I realized how important these materials were to the learning environment and wrote this article with a friend and colleague, Evette Serota.

Screenshot 2015-11-26 14.11.06

It has taken many years for me to see loose parts incorporated in learning environments within many of the programs that I visit. However, I worry when I visit programs that they only have a small shelf for loose parts or provide a limited time during the day for loose parts play. Children need long periods of uninterrupted play to discover the possibilities of open-ended materials. According to How Does Learning Happen? these long periods of play, when they are accompanied by few transitions result in children who are calmer and more engaged.

When the environment supports children’s growing autonomy and independence, challenging behaviours are reduced and educators can focus more fully on observing, interacting, and extending children’s learning and development in meaningful ways ~ How Does Learning Happen? (2014)

Ontario’s pedagogy goes on to say that all of these benefits occur especially within children’s connections to and interactions with the natural world because of the growing body of research that suggests that connecting to the natural world contributes to children’s well being in so many ways. Suzanne Axelsson with whom I co-moderate the global #ReggioPLC Twitter chats, writes in her blog, Interaction Imagination that the outdoor environment is an important third teacher too … the third teacher is NOT just indoors. I would suggest that the natural world is the ultimate teacher!Learning in Nature

I have always interpreted the third teacher as meaning that the environment functions so successfully, it is as if there was an additional teacher in the room. In Reggio Emilia early learning environments, the use of space encourages encounters, communication, and relationships (Gandini, 2004). Much care is taken in preparing the environment because it acts as a third teacher (Fraser, 2011). There is an underlying order and beauty in the design and organization. Every corner of every room has an identity and purpose, is rich in potential to engage and communicate, and is valued and cared for by children and adults. Creating and planning environments that act as a third teacher is a recommended pedagogical approach in How Does Learning Happen. This resource is meant as a guide and it’s purpose is to inspire educators and administrators in early years settings. It is clearly influenced by the Reggio Emilia Approach. For those inspired to learn more about the Reggio Emilia Approach I highly recommend this comprehensive resource.

Reggio inspired innovative spaces

May the collection inspire you to consider the environment as the third teacher. May you value your space and let your space reflect your values.

We value space, to create a handsome environment and its potential to inspire social, affective and cognitive learning. The space is an aquarium that mirrors the ideas and values of the people who live in it ~ Loris Malaguzzi

9 thoughts on “The Environment as the Third Teacher: An Integral Part of How Learning Happens

  1. I love being in environments that put me in awe. What a gift for children. The entire experience becomes a provocation for playful learning, wondering and dreaming!


  2. I started developing a great appreciation for the environment as 3rd teacher while I was a Montessori Directress. The concept of being a “facilitator” of learning and allowing the children to determine their learning objectives of the day by choosing the beautiful and inviting materials in their environment. Definitely agree on how you prepare your environment is important. Maybe one of the most important aspects in achieving a successful early learning environment.


  3. Pingback: The Colour of Learning: A Reflection on Reggio, Constructivism and Provocations | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  4. Pingback: My Evolving Thoughts On Loose Parts | Living Avivaloca

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