The Environment as the Third Teacher: The Land as the First Teacher

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE and Cindy Green, RECE. In the Reggio Emilia preschools, the space encourages encounters, communication, and relationships. Such care is taken in the preparation of the environment that it acts as a third teacher. For decades we have worked with early learning students who were required to do placements. When we heard feedback from the educators working in our community, they would often tell us that it was like having a third teacher in the room. Years later, we learned about the Reggio principle, The Environment as the Third Teacher. Before learning about the principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach we taught our students that the way the environment was organized impacted the children’s experiences as well as their own. As a faculty we had endless discussions that sometimes got heated about what we should be teaching our students about the environment. Should it be completely child-directed, or should there be intentionality in the provision of time, space and materials? While we were not in agreement on the age-old argument about teacher direction versus child direction, we did stand in solidarity about what should not be included in children’s spaces, specifically worksheets and cut-out crafts. We all wanted the children to have opportunities to be creative and active. We supported each other, when we first learned about loose parts so that our students could see the possibilities inherent in these open-ended materials. We passed around a photocopied article, How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts by Simon Nicholson and shared our own collections of rocks, shells, boxes and beautiful stuff. 

Even though Simon Nicholson was a landscape architect and the article focused on the outdoor environment we focused our work with early childhood education students at both the diploma and degree level on the indoor environment. The outdoor environment, outdoor play and nature pedagogy were topics covered once a semester. We were lucky during those years to have access to an amazing outdoor campus with lakes, trails and forests. When we could, we tried to offer our students a chance to feel the importance of outdoor play in their bones. It did not happen often enough. I (Cindy) vividly remember a time when students were aware that we would be spending the morning out in the forest, so we had to talk about what it meant to dress “appropriately for the weather and terrain”. To my dismay, a student wearing white pants and high-heeled shoes was not at all interested in partaking in the experience. She did not want to be outside and her lack of connection to the natural world concerned me. I was perplexed as I grew up in and with nature. This experience taught me that not all people are comfortable outdoors and from that moment on, I made it a mission that early childhood students and educators already working with children needed to embrace and value nature or this would be a detriment to children. I (Diane) was also dismayed a few years ago when I asked a large class of early childhood education degree students to recall a time in their childhood when they felt the most powerful and the most alive. I had expected their answers to be similar to the early learning teachers in workshops that I have facilitated. Rather than describing time spent outdoors and outdoor environments that they had an emotional connection to, these students recalled when they were able to binge watch their favourite movies, build a fort indoors or reach a higher level in a video game. What is the impact of children’s lack of exposure to nature when there is a new generation of early learning teachers entering the profession who, for many have limited experiences in nature? We hope that those now teaching early learning pre-service teachers recognize the importance of providing outdoor experiences in their courses. Sometimes, we cover nature pedagogy from the confines of an indoor classroom through the provision of natural loose parts. Now we know that this is not enough. Today, we know it isn’t enough because we have felt it in our bones and in our hearts that the land is our first teacher. It is not the third teacher. It is the ultimate teacher.

king campus
Seneca College – King Campus

We both have retired from full-time teaching but that has not stopped us from learning and expanding our own understanding of what early childhood education students and practitioners should be learning. We have both found steady work as consultants and are contracted to provide workshops, keynotes and training to early learning teachers working with our youngest learners. We have recognized that we have much to learn about the land and look to the teachings of Indigenous people to understand more deeply. Something important is missing. We have realized this and hope to support a growing awareness in the early learning community. When Hopi Martin shared some of his Anishinaabe learning about the importance of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships with Indigenous community and the land, it resonated.

We hope that we can encourage others to join us on April 27th and 28th, 2019 at the Kortright Centre for Conservation as we learn what Indigenous peoples have always known: we learn best in a community of positive relationships connected to our natural environment.

Land as Our First Teacher – Kortright

Come join the York Region Nature Collaborative’s partnership with Indigenous community members. For the benefit of ourselves and our youngest learners, we will explore ways to establish and maintain good relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities on the beautiful land connected to the Humber River. Here is the registration link for the Land as our First Teacher: Establishing and Maintaining Relationships. We look forward to learning with you and hope this experience will have lasting impact on you both personally and professionally.

The Humber River

There is no better time than now to help children reconnect to nature and there is no better way to do it than to learn from our Indigenous communities. Understanding that the land is our first teacher will empower the early learning community.

Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth ~ Winona LaDuke


6 thoughts on “The Environment as the Third Teacher: The Land as the First Teacher

  1. “Today, we know it isn’t enough because we have felt it in our bones and in our hearts that the land is our first teacher. It is not the third teacher. It is the ultimate teacher.” This is definitely the quote of the month and I hope many reflect upon it.

    One of my frustrations about the development of interest in loose parts has been the indoor-focus for some educators. When you read Simon Nicholson’s paper, he alludes to phenomena and variables which go a whole lot further than open-ended resources. He talks about connections to the environment. For me, loose parts play indoors lacks the interplay between the weather, seasons, landscape and nature which adds value well beyond anything that can be offered indoors.

    Hopi Martin goes one step further. He helps us consider how our values and practice need to provide a sustainable framework/ethos in which this should happen: a one where the relationship we have with the land is fully acknowledged through acts of gratitude, reciprocity and genuine love and care.

    Does our loose parts play in education support the bigger holistic picture? I think world-wide there is much further reflection needed to make our practice grounded in what really matters to children, and the land.

    Liked by 1 person

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