Have Your Third Teacher Meet the First Teacher: Bringing the Inside Out

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. One of the benefits of a long career in early learning is the opportunity to see how the profession evolves and responds to new thinking, ideas and concepts. A concept is an abstract idea. Conception is the act of conceiving a child or an idea! A misconception is the result of a flawed understanding of a concept. I am here to admit what I understood about the principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach initially were based on a flawed understanding or a misconception. It is my theory that this led to a hyper focus on the environment as the third teacher and a lack of recognition of the importance of the outdoor environment which is in essence the first teacher. In this previously written blog I was just starting to come to grips with my thinking and I hope this post will generate some comments from others so that I can deepen my thoughts as I will learn from you. I have always learned from others. When I began to hear about the Reggio approach to early learning many years ago, I wanted to see what the principles looked like in practice. As a faculty member in a community college teaching early childhood education, I was looking for a focus for my courses that would help students move away from themes to a curriculum that was more authentic and meaningful. I signed up for a conference at another college with a labschool that was Reggio inspired. When I walked through the rooms, I had an overwhelming desire to stay and get comfortable because the environment was so welcoming. Soon after we were brought to the auditorium and I saw for the first time the Open Window slides from Reggio Children. It was during the slide presentation, that I picked up the misconception that one of the principles of the approach was “bringing the outside in”. This is actually called biophilic design and it is more than just bringing the outside in, it’s about making and strengthening a connection with many aspects of nature and it is not a principle of the approach. It is a design feature that focuses on natural light, views on nature, plants, natural materials, textures and patterns. You can see it in this screenshot from an article by Tarr (2001) which depicts some Open Window images. This one in particular shows a dining room.

In the years that followed I visited the schools of Reggio Emilia and became an advocate of bringing the outside in. It was such a beautiful contrast to the many centres and classrooms that I visited that were over-decorated, cluttered and too commercial. I still love indoor environments that share this aesthetic code. In March of 2018, I had the honour to attend a study tour to Reggio with two former students who are labschool teachers at the college where I taught. When you visit the schools of Reggio Emilia, you are asked not to take photos of the indoor environment, not only to protect children but to prevent others from trying to duplicate in an inauthentic way. As Howard Gardner said in 1997:

I think that it’s a mistake to take any school approach and assume, like a flower, that you can take it from one soil and put it into another one. That never works. This doesn’t mean at all that [we] can’t learn a tremendous amount from it, but we have to reinvent it. … We have to figure out what are the aspects which are most important to us and what kind of soil we need here to make those aspects thrive.

In 2018, we were allowed to take photos of the outdoor environment and at one point during a visit to a particular school, I had the nerve to ask if I could take photos of a dining room and a display that had been set up for the visitors and was kindly given permission.

The Newnham campus labschool at Seneca College has always been a special space, for me, for students, for children, for families, for faculty, for teachers and visitors. Even though I retired in 2014 and my retirement party was hosted at this wonderful, joyful place I will continue to have a special relationship with the labschool. Every summer I organize the Rhythm of Learning in Nature for the York Region Nature Collaborative and a special feature of this week long retreat for nature loving, Reggio-inspired, forest and bush school influenced educators is a visit to the labschool. This year, the participants had the opportunity to see the newly unveiled dining room!

I can just imagine what is like for children to be in this space and look forward to visiting when it is in full use! This space is inspiring, and it gives me comfort to know that the outdoor environment in this place of joy has not been overlooked. This brings me back to my earlier point and I will give a word of caution to early learning teachers. I understand the focus on the indoor environment and bringing the outside in but if this is done without considering bringing the inside out children are missing out! When the third teacher meets the first teacher magic can happen. This I know from the time I spent in the bush learning centre at Lake St. George during the Rhythm of Learning in Nature. Earlier, in the spring an area at this amazing site was cleared by the staff to make room for a space that would be devoted to the early years. Through relationships that were established during the York Region Nature Collaborative’s first annual spring conference: The Land As Our First Teacher, a traditional wigwam was erected which sits amongst the trees next to what was a rudimentary mud kitchen and music area. The participants at #Rhythm2019 were then invited to create invitations for children using what the Land had to offer and on the final day in partnership with Earth Day Canada, the community came to experience an Earth Day POP-UP!

As I look over these photos that I captured I think back to my overriding focus on indoor environments and think about what possibilities are inherent when the third teacher gets to meet the first teacher. By bringing a few indoor materials outside such as pots and pans, string and rope children can experience nature in magical ways. It is not about making and strengthening nature indoors using natural light, plants and natural materials as these are already fully in abundance. It is about honouring the Land as the First Teacher and letting nature create the aesthetic code.

In my sunset years in early learning, my focus is changing. I spent the first thirty years supporting and advocating for bringing the outside in. This fall is the first time I am not teaching a college or university course and so I am missing that September “back to school” feeling. Yet, when I am on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which I am on often and see the photos of inspiring indoor environments all set up and ready to go, those feelings come back and with them is the hope that the third teacher will get to meet the first teacher in this coming school year for children everywhere!

4 thoughts on “Have Your Third Teacher Meet the First Teacher: Bringing the Inside Out

  1. When I look at these photos it makes me think about the relationships that are intertwined between the people who designed them, those who will be invited to play, with and without materials and hoping that children will have an abundance of unhurried time to explore. I love your wording Diane …. “where the third teacher will meet the first teacher”!


    • We have been approaching children’s experiential learning soley through the outdoor environment at Birdwings Forest School. A few of the inside things come out to invite different ways into interact and form relationships with the bush and creek that is our learning space. Not too much! Enough for familiar play, a recognition of play urges, a challenge to form a new relationship with others and the environment. So much rich learning and beauty already there.


  2. Diane this is so beautiful and thank you well for EVERYTHING! We are always inspired by you and filled with such gratitude from being apart of your journey and you part of mine. You have and always be my greatest mentor…. Much light and love to you. When you feel up for it please come by for lunch in our dining hall! xo


  3. The pictures capture only a part of the experience. Hearing the children’s laughter, and hearing their voices filter through the trees each day as they made new discoveries in the Bush School was an experience I will cherish. When the 3rd Teacher is literally Earth, the learning comes so naturally – and this Teacher gained so much from working together with such an amazing group of Educators!!


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