Considering Environment as ‘Third Teacher’

Today I wanted to share an interesting blog from Viv Shearsby, an experienced Early Childhood educator from New Zealand.

Children are consistently learning regardless of the involvement of an adult/teacher or their peers. Even when a child is alone they are learning. With this in mind, consideration of the environment becomes a critical undertaking within the planning of an early childhood programme.

Personal identity is co-constructed and reflected in the places we regularly participate in. In order to reflect the values and beliefs of a community within a space, an environment benefits from flexibility so as to create a responsive platform that supports children’s learning as they develop and grow. It is also important that teachers reflect on their own values, and how their values impact on the decisions they make about the arrangement of space, the equipment, and materials made available to children (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002).

The effort and thought that goes into creating beautiful spaces for children reflects the belief that children deserve the very best, and that their aesthetic senses need to be nurtured in the early years. Children are active learners, which means play spaces need to be stimulating and offer children many opportunities. The environment needs to invite children to become involved and encourage them to explore a wide variety of materials (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002). The physical setting in which children play and learn is crucial in facilitating their experiences. The environment communicates to children ‘what’s ok in this place’, ‘what’s valued here’, and ‘how the child may behave, interact, and be involved’. We know that children learn through active participation with people, places, and things. This can be facilitated through the physical layout of space, access to resources and equipment, and through direct and subtle messages from adults and peers in an early childhood setting.

“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: It must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up to date and responsive to their need to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge. All the things that surround people in the school and which they can use — the objects, the materials, and the structures — are not seen as passive elements, but on the contrary, are seen as elements that condition and are conditioned by the actions of the children and adults who are active in it.”
(Edwards, Gandini, and Foreman, 1998, p.177)

“Collaboration is one of the strongest messages that the environment, in its role as the third teacher communicates. An environment that is planned to act as the third teacher is particularly effective in helping children learn skills for working with others in a group.” (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002, p113). The ways in which we lay out and create spaces indicate ‘what’s ok here’ to the children. For example, using shelving units, couches, or partitions to delineate an area may tell children where to enter this space, and can indicate how many people are able to work in this area comfortably. Soft floor covering and cushions can demonstrate that working on the floor is okay in here. In the same way, a hard floor and a round table with no chairs can say, ‘stand at this table to work, it’s not a problem if something gets spilled, and talk/share with the person alongside you’. It is essential that in creating an environment that acts as a third teacher, children are given the opportunity to work with others in the co-construction of knowledge.

internal space
(Image courtesy of CPIT Early Learning Centre, 2014)

Diversity is a gift to us all, and valuing difference through our environment aids in the development of strong personal and national identity, and provides a platform for inclusive and accepting communities. Early learning services benefit from considering the cultural values made evident in their environments. The challenge for each early childhood centre is to understand firstly, their own philosophy, and secondly, the nature of the community they serve. Developing shared insight into what you, your families, and community value can provide teachers and management with the opportunity to align and reflect shared whānau and community aspirations in their centre, and in the programme for learning. When teachers review the philosophy of their service, and identify the values inherent in that philosophy, they can translate this into pedagogy of practice that includes and is reflected in environmental considerations.

external space
(Installation by John Allen, Image courtesy of Infantastic TRCC, 2007)

Undertaking deeper consideration of the environment can enable teachers to conceptualise their role less as a teacher controlling the group, and more as a partner with the children in the social construction of knowledge, and the exploration of working theories and areas of interest. Enhancing the physical environment and reflecting on the ways in which the core curriculum underpins learning can dramatically alter children’s learning experiences. Teachers can become better able to respect the children’s ideas, and trust in the children’s resourcefulness and competence (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002). Rich, purposeful, and well-designed spaces support children’s cultural identity, concepts of the world, social success, and holistic learning.


Fraser, S., & Gestwicki, C. (2002). Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom. Albany, NY: Delmar – Thomson Learning.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. and Foreman, (1998). The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach- Advanced Reflections. Greenwich CT 06831, USA: Ablex Publishing Corporation

Earlychildhood News: An Environment that Positively Impacts Young Children

ECE Educate: Key aesthetic considerations for an early childhood environment

He Kepu: He Kepu: Reggio Emilia Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education: How can this approach enhance visual arts experiences in New Zealand? (PDF)

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Viv Shearsby

Viv is an Early Years Team Leader at CORE Education. She has 25 years experience in early childhood education with specialist skills and experience in leadership, mentoring, and educational management. She is passionate about early childhood environments and curriculum, and has wide experience in pedagogy and practice, critical inquiry, and review. During her career, Viv has engaged in many leadership roles within the Christchurch early childhood community and across Aotearoa.

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