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Understanding the role of the Environment as Third Teacher within your Program

One contemporary approach to early childhood education is the influence of Reggio Emilia, in which the physical environment is integral to learning. Beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, play spaces act as provocations for play and learning.

Written by: Joanne Harris Educational Advisor  

The phrase ‘Environment as the Third Teacher’ is frequently used and embedded within contemporary approaches to early childhood programs, but what does it look like in practical terms?

One of the most recognised contemporary approaches to early childhood education is the influence of Reggio Emilia, in which the learning environment is integral to learning. Play spaces are carefully designed to welcome children and families into beautiful and aesthetically pleasing areas, full of possibilities. Resources and materials are purposeful, encouraging children to spark creativity and problem-solving skills.

Exploring the environment as the third teacher

Loris Malaguzzi, the ‘founder’ of this theory was a teacher with a degree in pedagogy, who described the physical environment as the third teacher. Put in a more specific context, he concluded that adults and other children make up the other two-thirds of the equation which sets the scene for optimum learning.

As a constructivist, he believed that children required a more holistic kind of education after World War II and was an active member and leader who championed the rebuilding of the small city of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, which included schools and facilities for children.

The strong vision held was that children have their own rights, learn best by being active participants, and that curiosity is key to their learning and development. Even today, Reggio Schools focus on what the children initiate as the basis for understanding, and ultimately their physical and emotional development.

The total learning environment, including the resources provided for children, is maximised through the interaction and engagement of the learners it is created for. Simple provocations set up by educators who know how to pique their curiosity by observing their interests are best, in a way that triggers deeper levels of thinking and questions just waiting to be explored.

How Learning is built into the environment 

Any space truly comes alive once it is furnished, but it is the engagement through the interaction with resources that drives the learning process. The energy of the children and educators together which is what brings it to life. Through their questions borne out of their curiosity, exploration, and experimentation can begin with the adults as the guide to go on the journey alongside them.

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician, educator, and innovator, acclaimed for her educational method that builds on the way children learn naturally. She described the learning environment as being ‘like a home for young children – welcoming, aesthetically pleasing and orderly.’

Returning to a familiar and comfortable environment, children can pick up where they left off from one day to another or create new opportunities from one moment to the next. It is as if the environment is a silent partner and observer whose job it is to be a permanent location to hold the energy of play within its walls. 

It is not important whether the bones of a learning environment are old, new, a small part, or the total atmosphere of an early learning service. This was certainly evident in the early days of rebuilding the little town of Reggio Emilia from the rubble remains of destroyed buildings, as well as the tiny schoolhouses that Maria Montessori created learning spaces for the neglected and vulnerable children in the slums of Italy when she opened her first schools in the early 20th century.

Creating Empowering and Respectful Environments 

With the rise in more choices of early education and care services across Australia that continues to climb to meet the demand, there is an exhaustive amount of information that can be embedded into their design and functionality. Combined with a clear vision of the philosophy and educational theory of children’s development, physical spaces encourage children’s sense of agency in many ways.

Purpose-built environments can cater more easily to children with developmentally appropriate and accessible facilities which have continued to improve. This is critical to provide opportunities for children to develop their emerging skills which encourage their independence and sense of autonomy during their time spent at the service.

As momentum for better quality learning environments for children multiplies, the value and impact the physical learning space has, the more recognition of the powerful impact it can have on what and how children learn.

Comparing Contemporary Approaches to Early Childhood Education

As the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance states, ‘Reggio’s belief that school is not preparation for life, but that school is life has begun to shape a different style of education within schools for young children throughout the world..’

One of the ways the Montessori approach to education differs from Reggio Emilia is that children can attend services that continue throughout their education until they complete high school. Another of the other more noticeable differences is the study pathways that can be undertaken to become certified as Montessori educators who embed their programs in alignment with the National Quality Framework (NQF).

What unites both approaches to early childhood education is that they both have a central focus on supporting a high level of autonomy for children and their learning. There is an emphasis on the children’s interests being central to the program and that adults and children work together in deeply respectful ways of speaking and listening to have their needs met.

Whilst Reggio Emilia’s approach to learning is largely project-based and is driven by children’s interests, and their voice is shared collaboratively with educators through documentation; Montessori education focuses on four developmental stages in which children learn practical life skills. With adult guidance in the Prepared Environment, the emphasis is on ensuring children can develop intrinsic motivation to learn through clearly organised learning environments with few interruptions so as not to disturb learning and concentration.

With the benefit of the wisdom drawn from early childhood pioneers such as Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori, we are fortunate to live out their legacy of work in the modern era. As the world has grown closer through technology and travel their influence has transformed early childhood educators worldwide

Millions of educators continue to be ‘inspired’ by the Reggio Emilia approach and by the materials, resources, aesthetics, and documentation that they choose to implement to create similar learning environments and understandings about how children are viewed. 

Whichever theory educators are inspired by the common goal is the holistic approach to children’s development, and that they are given every opportunity to develop skills that motivate them to move and explore their learning environment with confidence. It is important to note even if a service does not follow one specific pedagogy that underpins it, the Early Years Frameworks and National Quality Standards provide a collective central guide based on the best of each.

Every service operates under a philosophy that is made up of a range of service policies and legal requirements; but the depth of the quality of care is linked to that which is provided by the staff, families, and community that it is a part of and the type of beliefs about children and their well-being and development.

For more ideas about embedding contemporary approaches to quality early childhood environments please visit

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