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.

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