The Environment as a Third Teacher

My professional inquiry group is looking into how the environment plays a role in language acquisition. Every time we meet and discuss the role of the environment, I can’t help but think of the Reggio Emilia philosophy and its emphasis on the environment being the third teacher. If you want to read more about this philosophy click here. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy, believed that children have three teachers: the first is the parent, the second is the teacher, and the third is the environment. It is the relationship between these three teachers that fosters learning. Here is a great example of how these three elements work together to inspire learning:img_4929-1

“The teachers takes action, at first by seeking out spider storybooks in the school library and checking out non-fiction books from the local library. A chance conversation between one of the teachers and her neighbor results in the donation of a live tarantula—elevating the investigation to the next level. Parents, alerted to the spider investigation through daily email communication, begin talking and reading about spiders with their children at home. The construction of knowledge becomes apparent as children include egg sacs, spinnerets, and multiple eyes in their drawings; count off the legs of the spiders; and compare spiders to other insects found on the playground.” (Biermeier, 2015)


I found that example in a wonderful article called Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent Curriculum in Relationship-Driven Learning Environments. It outlined the various ways in which a Reggio-inspired environment can impact teaching and learning. In particular, it discussed three roles that the environment plays: it fosters creativity, it celebrates the child’s identity, and it reflects our values. I’m going to delve deeper into each of these three roles.

Fostering creativity 


The environment can either stifle or foster creativity. If students are allowed to display their art work, if they are provided with the resources to create art out of a variety of materials, if they are inspired by provocations and invitations to learn, then they will find a way to express themselves.

“Creativity is the conduit—the instrument that allows us to communicate with and understand others.” (Biermeier, 2015).

Art surpasses spoken language, it speaks to every language. Students don’t need to speak a particular language to show they understand a topic – they can make a painting, a sculpture, a sketch. Creating environments that allow students to express themselves in ways other than spoken or written word is important. Another idea behind the Reggio approach is the 100 Languages of Children, which discusses the multitudes of ways that children express themselves. I think education often emphasizes spoken and written word, but there are so many other ways that children can express their understanding.  There is a beautiful poem written by Loris Malaguzzi that talks about the 100 languages. I encourage you to read it sometime.

Celebrating the child’s identity


Reggio-inspired classrooms are based around student and teacher interests. There are no store-bought alphabet charts, nothing generic or unnecessary – instead, they reflect the personalities and identities of the teachers and children in that community.  There are photos of children and their families, student work scattered around the room, documentation of learning up on the walls, personal cubby spaces, and interesting/inviting materials accessible to students. At international schools, the environment celebrates the various cultures and languages of the students. Students feel as though school is an extension of home –  a place where they feel safe to take risks in their learning and comfortable to be themselves. I loved this quote from the article: “It [should be] an environment that opens its arms wide, surrounding children with a sense of who they are.”

Reflecting our values


In a Reggio-inspired school, every element of a classroom is intentional. Teachers carefully think through how they organize classroom supplies, how they display student work, and how they schedule the day. Educators  model their own values – both in the way they act and they way they set up the classroom environment.


This article left me with some questions. Are our values reflected in our classroom environments? Do we as educators understand the impact that the environment has and ensure we are intentional in how we create our environments? How can we ensure our environment promotes and encourages language learning? Can older grades be influenced by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, even though it’s typically only seem in early childhood classrooms? If so, what would that look like?

Before you go off to ponder these questions, I’ll leave you with one final quote:

 “If we want to promote the hunger for learning, then we should create environments in which students and teachers feel safe to venture beyond what is already known—environments that reflect our values and celebrate students and teachers as uniquely creative individuals.” (Biermeier, 2015)


2 thoughts on “The Environment as a Third Teacher

  1. Hey Sara!

    I really enjoyed reading your post…and I think a lot of that is because I so clearly picture your actual classroom when you’re writing this. I admire how you set up your classroom so that it’s so engaging for students but is also such an inviting, stimulating space…you manage it with your calm demeanour! I think you embody what Reggio Emilio strived to communicate and your students are so lucky to be a part of a class whose teacher is so dedicated to making their space so tailored to their interests. You give them the ultimate learning environment! 🙂

    Remember at the beginning of the year, we looked at those photos of teacher spaces in a classroom? I imagine that some people can misinterpret what a ‘personal’ touch might be when talking environments…I bet some of them would argue that their elaborate “teacher space/desk/office/whatever” is how they reflect their values in the room…what do you think?

    “Can older grades be influenced by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, even though it’s typically only seem in early childhood classrooms? If so, what would that look like?”

    Good question…I think a lot do really consider the environment and others totally don’t. I bet you could have a great conversation with Helen about this – her environment is very different from ours but her logic behind it is also compelling/true to her. I definitely encourage you to check out some of the other learning spaces in school with walk-through opportunities! I’ll totally use this lens when I’m doing walk-throughs, so thank you!

  2. Sara – you raise some thoughtful questions at the end of your post, and I shared many of Melinda’s thoughts on them.

    You have done so much to reflect the values you write about in the learning environment for your students. It really is a special place, one which is beautiful, restful, yet stimulating and certainly acts as what Kath Murdoch would describe as the “third teacher”.

    Your post made me wonder how we can foster and instil these qualities and values in other classrooms across Elementary. I don’t think any Reggio-inspired school ever posts photos of their environment online, but there is such a school in Bangkok that is K-6 and is absolutely beautiful…you should try and see it before you these shores for Europe!

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