Maximising the Potential of the ‘Third Teacher’: Indoor Developmental Play Environments: 3–8 Yrs
Maximising the potential of the 'third teacher'
Sandra Ludlow 0
0 Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Avondale College , NSW
The educators of Reggio Emilia call the environment the “third teacher” because it “speaks to children about what they can do, how and where they can do it and how they can work together” (Paiman & Terrani, 1998, p.1). They see space as an “aquarium that mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes and cultures of the people who live in it” (Gandini, 1994, p.149). Curtis and Carter speak of the environment as providing the “bones of the curriculum” (2008, p.54). Bones because its function is to hold up or support the learning process. What is your third teacher saying? How are your bones functioning? This article seeks to suggest implications for practice arising from the beliefs, theories, position and vision statements of 21st century Australian early childhood and to support these implications with practical suggestions.
Recent early childhood position statements and
curriculum framework documents
ECA, 2008, NSW DoCS, 2002)
research on brain development, child development,
socio-cultural theory and various curriculum models
to clearly articulate beliefs about how children learn.
These same documents outline the pedagogical
practices that teachers should engage in to foster
in children the “skills, knowledge, attitudes and
sensitivities” (NSW DoCS, 2002) that will enable
them to reach their full potential. These position
statements can be used to shed light on the kinds of
environments that support, empower and maximise
Beliefs that emerge from various position
statements, framework documents and theories
• The child is a capable and resourceful
constructor of their own learning.
• The teacher / carer is a facilitator and
coconstructor of learning.
• The child’s community, family and teacher /
caregivers are partners in a child’s education
and co-architects of a child’s wellbeing.
• Learning occurs optimally in social and
• The development of dispositions to learn
underpin learner success.
• Each child is unique.
• Democratic practices such as diversity and
social justice enable children to become active
members of our society.
• Environmental sustainability is dependent
on children developing a commitment to the
environment and a disposition to create rather
than to consume.
(Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Early Childhood
Australia, 2008; Epstein, 2007; NSW DoCS, 2002)
A consideration of these issues must begin
with a vision for the future. What skills will children
of the 21st century need to develop in order to
become fully functioning adult Australians? Early
Childhood Australia suggests that, “the children we
are educating today will need to be resilient, flexible,
innovative, clever and connected to their fellow
human beings and to the natural environment”
in order to become valuable contributors
to a “caring and just” society. The question needs
to be asked: What kinds of environments foster the
development of these skills and dispositions?
The capable and resourceful child
If we believe that environments should support
the child to become a capable and resourceful
constructor of their own knowledge, then we will
provision the educational environment with a
predominance of hands on, open-ended materials
such as various lengths and types of wood, junk
materials, natural materials, fabric and clay.
These materials will allow children to productively
investigate, experiment, problem solve and test
hypotheses without close adult supervision
Our task as teachers is to invent, arrange,
manipulate or create the context and then the
children will want to learn
(Lubawy, 2009, p.135)
Aesthetic presentations of materials invite the
child to interact with the materials, fostering curiosity,
engagement and innovation. Positioning these
materials in smaller well-defined spaces will scaffold
concentration and more in-depth investigation. Small
mats (1 metre x 1 metre) placed on the floor can be
used to temporarily define an individual learning /
working space. This space allows children to spend
time in focused, individualised investigation.
Breaking up the play space into these well
defined areas by using movable shelving, tables and
screens has several advantages, all of which support
children’s independence and disposition to learn.
Well-defined, consistent play spaces help:
• children feel comfortable in the learning
environment and plan their play;
• avoid sensory overload;
• scaffold positive peer interaction;
• development of self confidence;
• children readily find, use and return the
• children make choices, particularly when
diverse items are stored in matching
(Curtis & Carter, 2008; Epstein, 2007; Walker, 2007)
Aesthetic presentations of materials, together
with the use of natural materials in discrete play
spaces engages children’s senses and facilitates
development of their appreciation of beauty, respect
for the environment, sense of wonder, creativity
and problem solving skills
(Epstein, 2007; NSW
. The educators of Reggio Emilia have
attained world renown for the aesthetic elements
of their classroom environments. Their emphasis
on “different forms of lighting, such as lamps, the
careful use of colour and form, a thoughtfulness
in the placement of any material, however small”
(Millikan, 2003, p.62)
, focuses children’s attention
on the “extraordinary in the ordinary”. This provokes
a sense of wonder and curiosity and invites
investigation. Considering line, colour, shape,
patterns, texture, light and shadow as you choose
and position materials and equipment draws
attention to the material’s aesthetic qualities. Careful
use of white, cream and pastel colours can reduce
aggression and stress levels and increase academic
(Wohlfarth, 1982 cited in Crowther,
. Harnessing the elements of size, scale and
different levels maximises aesthetic qualities
& Carter, 2008)
Providing materials and opportunities in the
environment which encourage children to record and
keep track of their learning
fosters the notion of the capable, resourceful child,
that is, one who wonders, explores and develops the
disposition to persist and take an interest. Having
paper, clipboard, pencils, textas and marker pens
for children to use to draw and record thinking and
constructions helps them keep track of their learning.
It also helps the child to represent their discovery
and learning in a different language / medium.
1 Space for
2 Open-ended materials
3 Personal exploration [Photography: Sandra Ludlow]
Revisiting a piece of work in this way deepens
the child’s investigation by “providing a basis for
continuing discussion and further opportunities
and possibilities for concept formation”
. Providing children with access to
digital cameras and digital voice recorders to
capture a construction or piece of artwork allows
for this same revisiting, celebration of learning and
social construction of knowledge. The discussions
that emerge from these resources also enrich
opportunities for language skill development.
As you plan your classroom environment, plan
the layout of the space so that you minimise the
need to pack away materials in preparation for the
next activity. Timetabling large blocks of time also
assists in reducing transitions and packing up.
These two practices further scaffold opportunities
for a child to think more deeply. As you consider
these issues, it is wise to note that, “What children
learn does not follow as an automatic result from
what is taught. Rather it is in a large part due to the
children’s own doing as a consequence of their
activities and our resources” (Malaguzzi, 1998, p.67).
to the child's
Partnerships and co-construction of learning
Environments further support this notion of the
capable child when they make children’s learning
visible to adults, peers and community visitors.
Respectful documentation and display of children’s
completed projects and portfolios, in combination
with the practice of allowing works in progress to
remain up (rather than being packed up at the end of
each session), shows a respect for and celebration
of children’s effort and processes. This scaffolds
child’s disposition to learn as well as their sense of
self as a capable learner. Documentation highlights,
to both adults and peers, the uniqueness of each
child’s thinking and learning. It also invites comment
and participation from other peers, adults and
visitors who see this work. Their comments often
provoke opportunities for children to explain, clarify,
refine and think more deeply about their work.
Providing talking points between the children and
their parents allows adults to become partners in a
child’s construction of knowledge.
Another element of partnership and
coconstruction of knowledge is found in the social and
collaborative nature of young children’s learning.
The theories of Vygotsky and his notion of the zone
of proximal development have shown educators the
power of working with peers. If we value this type
of construction of knowledge, then our classrooms
will reflect this. Materials will be offered as both
individual and shared experiences. There will be
more than one painting easel, positioned
side-byside so that children can discuss their own work and
comment together on their work as it progresses.
The clay table will offer enough clay and materials
for a number of children to work side-by-side,
sharing conversations and discoveries. There will
be enough space and duplo pieces for a number of
children to create and build together or side-by-side.
What language do the chairs in your room
speak? The number of chairs placed around a table
sends a non-verbal message to the children about
how many children may use / share the materials at
one time. The positioning of chairs in the learning
environment has the potential to set the social
landscape of the classroom. The type of chairs also
sends a message, soft cozy armchairs or cushions
incorporated into a reading nook tend to invite
children to curl up and read or, even better, invite
multiple children to share the reading experience.
Armchairs invite family members to linger in the
classroom to share experiences with the child and
watch the child interact with the materials. They
also provide adults with a place to sit and read their
child’s portfolio. In this way, specific aspects of the
environment contribute to the co-construction of
Diversity and social justice
Environments that intentionally support the concepts
of diversity and social justice contribute to the child’s
acquisition of democratic principles, wellbeing and
belonging. At the same time, they also have the
potential to support the Christian ethos of the school /
centre. To achieve these goals, environments should
contain materials that reflect the cultural
makeup of the children’s lives and local community, e.g.
religious icons and resources, cultural artefacts,
books and messages in the local languages,
posters, photos, figurines, dolls, eating utensils (the
list is only limited by your resourcefulness).
Social justice is further supported if the
environment contains a space for whole group
discussions and room meetings to occur. This
space is useful because it allows room for children
to negotiate, plan, review and celebrate the
group’s thinking and investigating. It scaffolds the
acceptance of different points of view and respect for
others’ work, thus offering opportunities for children
to connect with their peers and teachers.
When necessary, the environment should
incorporate assistive technologies and equipment
(e.g. DD dolls, communication boards, walkers,
lamps, large print books) to help children with a
disability feel comfortable and competent.
Environmental sustainability is fostered when
children develop a sense of commitment to and
ownership of the environment
(Dodge et al.,
. The classroom environment scaffolds the
• The children work collaboratively on shared
When these happenings become regular
occurrences, the children in your care are becoming
capable and resourceful constructors of their own
knowledge and you, their teacher, will have become
a facilitator and co-constructor of their knowledge.
Now, your classroom environment will be operating
as the third teacher. TEACH
development of this commitment when children are
permitted to take responsibility for setting up the
environment, maintaining its tidiness and taking
care of the equipment, materials and animals in
the classroom. This has the additional benefit of
fostering in children a sense of mastery, confidence
and security (NSW DoCS, 2002).
Other practices that will to help foster a
commitment to sustainability include: using both
sides of a piece of paper; reusing glass jars to store
paint, small collectables and paste; collecting fabric
scraps, old buttons, shells, pine cones, stones etc.
for sorting and pattern making; keeping a reverse
garbage junk construction box in the classroom and
accepting contributions to it from both the child’s
family and community members; and using
secondhand pieces of furniture, baskets and wooden
. Implementing such
practices will foster in children the disposition to
be creators rather than consumers and raise their
awareness to the need to reduce their environmental
In preparation for this article, I asked several
practising teachers for their suggestions about
setting up environments for developmental play.
They reported that consultation fosters ownership
of the environment and that both staff and children
should be given opportunities to negotiate the layout
and contents of the environment. They also attested
to the fact that children’s engagement with materials
or provisions is enhanced when the environment
remains consistent. It is wise to make small changes
to the provisions in learning centres rather than
completely changing the centres every week. Any
changes to be made to the environment should be
implemented incrementally. Once the changes have
been implemented, spend time during staff meetings
reflecting on their effectiveness.
You will know that your environment is acting as the
third teacher when:
• It leads children to use the provisions to
confidently and independently explore,
work and solve problems and to sustain
• Children are able to independently find, use
and return materials;
• Children and adults are comfortable in the
• Children’s learning is visible to adults and
• Children offer their ideas for investigations
and contribute materials to the classroom
will foster in
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