Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Creating Environments as a “Third Teacher”

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. and Laura Salau, RECE.

To early childhood educators around the world, but especially to those in our province, Ontario, Canada, this blog post is designed to support your continuous professional learning. It is the fourth post in a series focused on the pedagogical approaches from How Does Learning Happen? (2014). These approaches are interdependent, they do not stand alone. They are being presented in the order that they appear in How Does Learning Happen? Beginning with Responsive Relationships, followed by Learning through Play, Exploration and Inquiry and Educators as Co-Learners. This post is about the “Third Teacher”. The final two posts, on Pedagogical Documentation, Reflective Practice and Collaborative Inquiry will follow. In each post for all six pedagogical approaches, a PowerPoint, video and handouts connected to the topic will be included. Writing and curating these resources has supported my learning while sheltering in place. It is my hope that others also in quarantine will be using this time for professional learning and will find this blog helpful. For this post, I invited a long-time friend, colleague and former student, Laura Salau to contribute because whenever I visit her classroom in the ever-inspiring Seneca ECE Lab School Newnham, it embodies the concept of the environment as the third teacher.

According to How Does Learning Happen? (2014) the environment is the context in which learning takes place. The environment was described by Loris Malaguzzi as “the third teacher” and is valued for its power to organize, promote relationships, and educate. It mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space. Malaguzzi (1993) spoke of the three teachers of children – adults, other children, and their physical environment. Therefore, the environment is the third teacher. By seeing the environment as a teacher, you recognize that your surroundings take on a life of their own that contribute to children’s learning and development (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). For more on the Reggio Emilia Approach check out my page Curating Resources about the Reggio Emilia Approach.

Care is taken to prepare the environment for play and learning. Educators consider what is in the environment and how it contributes or detracts from children’s learning. I have been in many, many centres and have noticed jarring clutter and colour. Too much stuff everywhere, on the walls and on the shelves. Organization is key. Thought should be given to how and what materials are arranged on the shelves and what appears on the walls. The organization is organic instead of rigid. It serves a larger purpose. Malaguzzi (1994) suggests that we think of it as a living organism. Filling the environment with the essence of children is key. The work and reflections of the children, their photographs, and the documentation of their experiences should fill the space (Gandini, 2002). In any post written during this time of COVID-19, the pandemic in the room cannot be ignored! What environmental considerations have to be taken in the age of COVID-19? This question is not easy to answer. Deep thinking and reflection is required. As a result of having time to reflect during this pandemic, I asked Laura what she has been continually thinking about as it relates to people, environments and early learning practice?”

Environments are set to be responsive to children’s ideas, investigations and engagements. Educators may feel pressure to set up invitations or provocations and fill the space with an overwhelming amount of pre-determined materials, creating an over-stimulating sensory overload. When do we begin to think of relationship? Relationship between child and the environment and child and material? What possibilities emerge when we welcome singular materials into our space based on relations? How might this activate different kinds of relations among materials, one another and space? What if material had an identity? As we examine the complexity of material, we hope to explore living systems correlated and interceded in relationship. Material is entangled into our lives and part of our stories. What if we perceived and placed value on materials we encounter? Reflect on this question as you view the video of the Labschool environment.

How do we choose and make connections to materials? Emotional connectedness becomes the foundation when thinking in relation(ship) with material. How does material impact our lives? Does it have the impact to change our focus and direction? What would it look like to be provided time and space to forge connection? To acquaint ourselves with each other, our environment, the earth, all spaces and the space between the spaces. What if we encountered materials with the rationale to be in relation?

We wondered what it would look like to offer children a collection of textiles. Beautiful hanging sheers and translucent draperies; various sensually textured fabrics; and threads of yarn and strings. We were excited to become absorbed and observe the relationality between human and material. Is there a relationship between human and material, material and human or material with other the material … we wonder if material also chooses to be chosen? Does the material wait to be found, touched, thrown, laid upon, draped across a face?  In this exchange, in welcoming of relations, how might it respond back to the child, welcoming, dancing and playing gently with each embrace? How might the beauty of this exchange deepen children’s relationship with material, savour it and spend time in and with the presence of it? How may this deepen our relations with all things?

What if our focus was on relationships? Being with and responding to … in reciprocity between people, spaces, Land, material. Is it possible that materials give to us? Respond to our touch? How might we see the agency of materials in the classroom; infusing life, movement, form, shape, colour and light into our classrooms? What if the relationship with material and with all things is entangled in a dance of give and take, take and give? How might this change our relationship with them and theirs with us? I wonder how this pandemic will change our environments and the materials we provide within them. I wonder about the beautiful array of thread the children weave in and out of their play, the flowing translucent sheers cascading through the air, the raw artifacts harvested from our earth. In some cases, this time we have had to reflect may invite change; provoke wonder, noticing and listening, leading to a focus of materials and relationality. Children being in relation to the skeletal environment in its naked form. Maybe the window, walls, light and space become the curriculum as children experience space, relations and materials. We will all create and redefine the space together. The children will guide us and lead the way … only if we listen, only if we notice, only if we are open to change.

I so appreciate Laura’s perspectives as she deepens my thinking in a profound way. The environment as the third teacher is not about decorating or invitations and provocations, it is as complex as the first and second teacher. In addition to considering the indoor environment, it is important in this time of COVID-19 to reflect on the potential of the outdoor environment.

Children thrive in indoor and outdoor spaces that invite them to investigate, imagine, think, create, solve problems, and make meaning from their experiences – especially when the spaces contain interesting and complex open-ended materials that children can use in many ways. In addition, when the schedule allows for long periods of uninterrupted play, with few transitions, children 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)

More and more, information is being provided from around the world, that suggests that the outdoor environment is safer for children post pandemic. An outdoor learning model that focuses on the Land as teacher is something I have advocated well before the pandemic. Maybe, now is the time? I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you what early learning environments indoors and outdoors will look like and more importantly feel like, when programs reopen. I do know that it is important for us to consider this time of closure as an opportunity to rethink. It is not about going back but about going forward. When we think about the environment as the third teacher, it may be a different teacher than before the pandemic. To support rethinking I have created this PowerPoint presentation.

I have also curated resources on the environment as third teacher. To begin with, I would like to recommend this article that can be accessed via Exchange Magazine written by Lella Gandini in 1991. I think it has particular relevance for 2020!

Let’s use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink and declutter environments, space and place. When this article was written, the author made the observation that “from one preschool to the next, from one child care center to another, you see similar kinds of activity centers, familiar educational materials, the same toys, and the same decorations on the walls — be it Santa Claus, Smurfs, or fall leaves” (Gandini, 1991, p. 5). We are reminded to consider how to create an environment that has a personality like the first and second teachers who are the unique and individual children and the adults in the room. Take time, during the process of rethinking your environment post-pandemic. Yes, it needs to be clean, sterile and safe. How can you avoid it being too impersonal? Think about the children (the first teachers). Think about the adults (the second teachers). Gandini (1991) offers these reflection questions;

  • Who are they as people?
  • What are their lives like outside of this building?
  • What are their daily experiences?
  • What are their homes like?
  • What do they bring to a centre from their culture?
  • What is the history of their centre or school?

The environment should not just be beautiful — it needs to be highly personal. Another reflection question to consider is “what is the community outside the centre?” The teachers of Reggio Emilia “value what is special about the spaces which surround their school. Part of their curriculum involves taking children to explore neighborhoods and landmarks in the city” (Gandini, 1991, p. 7). Walking through surrounding neighbourhoods may require masks and social distance but being outdoors during this time has been therapeutic for many of us and is for children. With more people staying at home, the streets in your neighbourhood and the landmarks in your community may be less crowded than before the pandemic. If the environment is the third teacher, as you go forward post-pandemic focus on the first and second teacher. Take time to observe, interact and engage with children. Now more than ever, relationships are key. The pedagogical approach of responsive relationships should be your focus. Then consider Carter’s (2007) strategies for making your environment “the third teacher”.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has a site with multiple videos about learning environments. I have embedded one here. The site, Think, Feel, Act: Lessons from Research about Young Children also has a handout “The Environment is a Teacher” that should be helpful to you as you consider creating environments as third teachers.

As you consider the environment as teacher and begin to rethink your spaces, there is much to learn from the perspectives of kindergarten programs. Child care centres do not normally have the luxury of starting fresh every fall as most run year-round. Now many of you do have this opportunity! This site about Ontario’s kindergarten program has many resources about indoor and outdoor environments that will be helpful as you reflect upon the pedagogical approach of the environment as teacher. I have taken a series of questions listed on this site and adapted them slightly to reflect this unprecedented time that we are living in.

  • Take photographs of the room before making changes to support children’s optimal health, safety and learning.
  • Set the room up for learning based on small groupings to enable more space between children. Arrange the tables to accommodate small groups, in various places around the classroom.
  • Consider the space from a child’s perspective. What do the children see from their height? What do the children see that may cause anxiety and concern? How can you address this in the set-up of the environment?
  • Limit the sharing of materials. Can each child have their own art supplies? Can each child have their own sensory bin?
  • Create areas for different kinds of learning and play. Try to make them versatile, to allow for purposeful learning and conversation.
  • Think about the organization of materials and the kind and quantity of materials the children can access. Reduce clutter. Keep only the minimal of materials needed to support children’s play and learning. Keep the materials that can be continually sterilized.
  • Select and arrange materials and resources in ways that invite children to explore and that provoke learning but that do not overstimulate, overwhelm or cause health concerns. Be creative in your choices of materials. Not only should they invite and provoke, they need to be sanitized after individual use.
  • Take “after” photographs. The images will help you see how the children’s play and learning are affected by the changes.

Creating environments as third teacher post-pandemic is going to be challenging. This is the ideal time to learn about this pedagogical approach and apply it to practice. We welcome your comments, thoughts, reflections and ideas as we consider the third teacher and how it is teaching. To end this post, we leave you with the words of Loris Malaguzzi. When the wonderful preschools in Reggio Emilia were created it was after a world war. A challenging time indeed! There is much we can learn from this historical and inspiring example.

The environment should act as an aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and culture of the people who live in it. This is what we are working towards ~ Loris Malaguzzi

9 thoughts on “Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Creating Environments as a “Third Teacher”

  1. This was an excellent read! However, how do you implement these great ideas and strategies around spacial play among infants? I agree that during this pandemic around us, we may have our art tables for smaller groups, or individual art materials to demote sharing among children, this is not easily accomplished with infants.


  2. Thank you for providing these inspiring and thought provoking resources to think with as we prepare to return to classrooms.


  3. Pingback: Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Reflective Practice and Collaborative Inquiry | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  4. Pingback: Falling In Love With Language! | Living Avivaloca

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