The environment as the third teacher

I love the way educators in Reggio Emilia regard the environment as the third teacher. For me, this phrase illustrates the relationship between space, experiences, reflective dialogue and children’s discoveries and theories.

The first thing I am aware of when visiting a setting inspired by the infant toddler centres in Reggio Emilia is beauty, calm and creativity and it is often the starting point for any setting commencing their journey with this philosophy. Colours are subtle, creating a calm emotional tone. Materials and finishes are carefully selected for their aesthetic, sensorial and functional qualities in order to create an environment that is culturally appropriate for babies and young children.

Large open spaces, small spaces and the outdoor space are seen as one connected learning environment all with a well thought out and clearly identified purpose. Space is created where children can:

  • meet, discuss and reflect upon their theories
  • express themselves through a variety of languages
  • explore and investigate independently, scaffolding their current line of enquiry
  • be involved in purposeful projects
  • reinforce their identity.

The synergy between the design features and the pedagogy highlight the architectural aspects of circularity, relationships and communication within the infant toddler centres and pre school buildings. (Rinaldi 1998)

The piazza is the central space shared by children, parents and teachers, a place for encounters and journeys, to discuss and debate, to share and reflect. Another central feature is the atelier, a place where anything is possible, a place for exploration and discovery. It epitomises Malaguzzi’s concept of the whole school as an environment for participation, research, and creative expression where children and adults learn from and alongside one another. I recently visited an amazing digital atelier at Little Barn Owls Nursery and Farm School, Horsham, with laptops, projectors, scanner, digital cameras, video recorders and digital microscope. It was amazing seeing young children interact with these materials connecting the 3D world with 2D images.

creativeexplorers. LightboxFinally, the resources, so simple and creative. There is a noticeable absence of toys and equipment with predetermined purposes and outcomes. Instead, open-ended resources such as natural and recycled materials or household artifacts allow opportunities for exploration, creativity and imagination. Provocations are introduced to the environment to provoke an interest, with enhancements providing opportunities for children to scaffold their own learning and developing their current line of thinking.

creativeexplorers materialsThe children are provided with a range of opaque, translucent and transparent materials such as beads, glass nuggets, buttons, and metal discs to explore and investigate using light boxes and overhead projectors which create interesting shadow displays which children can engage and interact with. These are complimented with fircones, feathers, shells, stones and seed pods for sorting and classifying, constructing or exploring on the light box.

creativeexplorers projectionThe overhead-projector provides a stimulating enhancement to their constructions providing another viewpoint as they build with wood off-cuts, cylinders, tubing and springs.


The educator has an important role in this environment and is seen as a valuable resource. By observing how children engage with these materials, listening to their discoveries, noting their dialogue and facial expressions, how they interact with spaces, can the adult enhance the environment, supporting children to develop theories and finding solutions to their queries.

The importance that is placed on the physical environment and the resources available to the children is summed up in the words of Loris Malaguzzi:

“Education must come to be recognised as the product of complex interactions, many of which can be realised only when the environment is a fully participating element.” (Malaguzzi 1997.)

If you are interested in understanding more about the environment as the third teacher and how is supports enquiry-based learning please contact me for details of the training packages I offer.

The role of the educator

Whilst working with a small setting recently, we explored the role of the educator. We established that the educator should be a …

  • Listener
  • Enabler
  • Teacher
  • Interpreter
  • and most importantly a partner in learning

We should see ourselves as travelling together with the child side by side as they explore and discover their world. Never in front, leading the child, or behind following the child.

Can we truly say we are travelling with the child at all times? Reflection of the educator and our role is vital when reflecting and analysing documentation. When do we step aside and observe and when we step in to prompt or provoke thinking? We need to always be mindful of not over directing learning, whilst aware that our offerings or guiding questions could enable dynamic thinking from children.

Children as researchers

Our intention is clearly to help children search for and discover parts of their world that may risk remaining hidden. Moreover, we want to be sure that the desires, interests and intelligences and capacity for enjoying and seeking – which are a child’s inborn resource – do not remain buried and unused. (Malaguzzi 1997)

This sums it up for me!

Inspiring quotes

I’ve been working with a new setting recently and in particular looking at the culture within the setting, highlighting the need to develop reciprocal relationships to support their development and was reminded of this quote from Carla Rinaldi.

The school sits within, and interacts with, it’s own cultural and social environment, and each protagonist – child, parent, teacher – brings his or her own values, interests, ideas and expertise, which are shared and respected by the others. (Rinaldi 2000)

3D Work and Third Level Thinking

I have just finished reading the latest publication from Reflections Nursery on their latest work on 3D materials. Their clear documentation really illustrates how children and staff developed as co-constructors of knowledge and understanding during their journey.The project valued time as a resource. Children were given time to explore and experiment, consolidating their understanding and educators used time to engage in reflective dialogue.

3D Work and Third Level Thinking is a fantastic resource for anyone inspired by the Reggio Approach to learning.