Environment as Protagonist


There have been many times over the past couple of weeks that I have found myself reflecting on the Reggio Emilia Approach’s fundamental principle of The environment as the third teacher,  and what exactly this means to our school, our teachers, and our families. Indeed, when visitors come to Preschool of the Arts, their comments always touch upon the beauty of our classrooms and the materials they see present within the school. But, in thinking about our school as this kind of ever-changing living protagonist, what does this principle really mean to us as educators as we create environments for young children?

In the book Bringing Reggio Emilia Home, Louise Boyd Cadwell describes the environment as the third teacher in this way, “The design and use of space encourage encounters, communication, and relationships. There is an underlying order and beauty in the design and organization of all the space in a school and the equipment and materials in it. Every corner of every space has an identity and a purpose, is rich in potential to engage and to communicate, and is valued and cared for by children and adults.” At Preschool of the Arts we know that the environment is a valuable teacher if it is aesthetically pleasing, amiable, comfortable, clean, inviting, organized, and engaging. This is true of all space, whether big or small, or open or furnished. This is true of floor space, ceiling space, and wall space. This is true within our walls, and outside on our playgrounds.

The environment is the most visible aspect of the work done in the schools by all the protagonists. It conveys the message that this is a place where adults have thought about the quality and instructive power of space. ~Lella Gandini

The environment as educator is full of variety, with large spaces and small spaces, spaces for building, for dancing, for dramatic play, for talking, for wondering, and for reflecting. There are places for organizing, finding, and working with materials of all kinds. There are spaces for big groups and for small groups to think and imagine and make things together in a setting where both teacher and child can concentrate without distraction or interruption. Each space and each small corner of every space has an identity, and a purpose.


We have learned that no space is marginal, no corner is unimportant, and each space needs to be alive, flexible, and open to change. Teachers converse about the possibilities offered by the spaces and materials, and how the environment can best support children across all domains of development.  This speaks to the intentionality of our teachers when creating the environments which support this kind of rich interaction and relationship. It also brings to the surface our process of reflecting on our physical (and emotional) environments, and how we go about changing and refining and questioning how these areas and materials will support the work and learning occurring in our classrooms and studios.

When Rachel Smith and I travelled to Reggio Emilia in April 2016 to take part in an international study group, we had many conversations about this topic and we reflected together about our experiences, what we observed, and how that learning could and would inform our practice at Preschool of the Arts. Here is a reflection we wrote about environment.

“During our observations of children in their school settings, and through stories and projects presented to us during large group sessions, we have noticed the reoccurring theme of freedoms allowed to children. The children here seem free to explore, choose and work in their own ways, but they are also very focused with their choices. They have ownership of ideas and work, and this is supported by the adults around them. Part of this comes from the teacher’s image of the child and respect for their ideas. Part of this comes from the sense of timelessness that flows through life here. But there is more.

The classroom children and teachers come together to share their ideas and their life. They begin the day with the idea of proposals. The teacher asks them about their thoughts, ideas and plans. They work collaboratively, ideas being sorted out as a group, and plans being made. Not every thought or idea can be pursued…and that is perfectly fine. The teachers value the children’s proposals and the children value their own ideas. This creates an environment where they are focused and engaged in the areas and or projects they are working in/on. 

When work is pursued in this way, children remain engaged in their work. They don’t flit from area to area. They don’t seem to get “bored”.

As we take in these ideas and reflect on our classrooms, school and community, we wonder what messages our environments are sending. “Environment as a third teacher” means so much more than just a beautiful flow or beautiful materials and furniture. It should be something that supports this kind of freedom and focus.”

How do we best use and present our environment in a way that allows this kind of focus? 

How can we work with children to gain this sense of focused freedom?

Do the children understand the possibility of the materials?

Intentionality and reflection on our choices provoke us to recognize the instructive power of an environment. This takes practice and negotiation on the part of the teachers, and an openness to vulnerability as we wonder and question together while creating our beautiful spaces. All of this takes form in the feeling of well- being that embraces all who enter our school.

Reflection by Kelly Blondin, Art Specialist and Pedigogista

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