The Third Teacher

Preschool Students Exploring Conner Prairie Grounds

Wherever you are right now, stop, look up, and then scan the space you are in. How would you describe it? Use your senses to notice what your space looks like, feels like, smells like, sounds like, and yes, even tastes like. Take a minute to fully recognize your environment.

Does this sound a little strange? Actually, your environment is very important to your learning and what you will likely remember or apply from reading this short post. In the early learning world, the environment is often referred to as the third teacher. A human’s environment plays a central role in making learning meaningful. Loris Malaguzzi, the creator of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy in Reggio Emilia, Italy, viewed the environment as a place that is inviting, authentic, reflective of culture and community, and filled with purposeful, natural materials.

The environment is also a setting that is functional and beautiful. In fact, at the Conner Prairie preschool, Preschool on the Prairie, beauty is of extremely high value. We believe children deserve beautiful materials and spaces that reflect the inner and outer loveliness of how they see themselves in their world. The environment has the power to inform and shape the way our students play, imagine, test, consider, and choose the materials they wish to use.

How Building Relationships with Environment Shapes Early Learning

Children are building relationships with their families, teachers, and their environment everyday. The quality of these relationships hold the power to open up and set ablaze the self-determined learning taking place each day of their young lives.The environmental space reflects the child’s learning, and students should direct the process of developing their own play environment.

 An example of this self-determination of children developing their own environment occurred when several children at Preschool on the Prairie were interested in building. They had access to wood blocks, large cardboard boxes, and a variety of other materials. The teachers noticed how they were playing, what language they used in their play, and listened to their request for more materials. A few hammers, roofing nails and scrap pieces of wood were added to an empty sensory bin. Within a week, students determined they needed more space and expressed their desire to have a dedicated space for designing and constructing. Teachers and students discussed where these materials should be, moved them together, and staked out a safe space for their use. Additional tools were added, along with a table and wood stumps and boards which were promptly fashioned into a long bench. Children visit and stay in this space everyday because they see themselves reflected in their environment.

Preschool on the Prairie class exploring the Conner Prairie grounds

The Impact of an Intentional Environment

At Preschool on the Prairie, we are fortunate to be surrounded by woods and wide open fields, so our natural world comes naturally! We spend close to 90% of our time outside, only using our physical building for stormy or extremely cold weather. The environment is our school, our meeting place, our hello and goodbye place, our place to balance our bodies over fallen logs, climb over old fences and search for snails and roly polys under rotting bark. It’s our muddy puddle place, it is our anything-can-happen place.

On the days we must use the inside of our building, it is important it reflects the natural environment. For instance, you will see area rugs on hardwood floors and find natural items from the woods scattered throughout the building. You will find soft gray walls that are empty on purpose – they provide space for children’s drawings and writings they may want to tape for display. You will find pictures and documentation illustrating the learning they are creating and connecting. You will find natural light and soft lamp light, called sympathetic lighting, that invites children to come into a space to play.

Noticing the environment and its impact on how and what we are learning is intentional work. Our environment literally has the power to restore freedom to the restrictive, draw attention to the inconspicuous, and honor the culture and tradition of our families and communities. It is a force that surrounds us continuously – watch how it changes in the course of a morning, a day, or over seasons. You’ll be amazed at what you see. All children deserve an inviting and safe place to belong. All children deserve teachers that recognize their third teacher, the environment. All children should see themselves represented in their environment because in that place, a developing mind is set free to connect and truly learn.

Janna Lynas Is The Manager Of Preschool On The Prairie

About the Author

Janna Lynas is the manager of Preschool on the Prairie where she believes that time, space and freedom are all children need to learn about themselves, their world, and their place in it.