Why The Environment Is Considered The 3rd Teacher In The Reggio Emilia Approach

We place enormous value on the role of the environment as a motivating and animating force in creating spaces for relations, options and emotional and cognitive situations that produce a sense of well-being and security

– Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio Emilia

For those unfamiliar with the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, these words from its Italian ‘father’, Loris Malaguzzi highlight one of its guiding principles and that is that the environmental set-up – the space that the children inhabit – is recognised as playing an active and integral role to making learning meaningful.

Whilst other early learning approaches also emphasise the importance of the school environment in the learning process, the Reggio Emilia approach goes even further, enhancing and extending the relationship between how and what children learn in their classroom environment.

The Reggio Emilia approach has become a global benchmark for excellence in early childhood education and this article explores some of the reasons why it considers the environment to be the third teacher.

To put the role of the environment into context, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach. The approach views children as competent, capable and independent learners. Children are encouraged to learn through self-guided interaction and the educators learn alongside the children. Teachers don’t ‘impart’ knowledge, they use their deep understanding of how children think, question and explore to travel together with the child, the parents, the community and the environment on a journey of mutual self-discovery.

The physical environment is seen as an essential and integral component of the learning process, which helps shape children’s identities and aids self-development.

Reggio Emilia has deep roots in nature. To channel this idea, authentic, nature-inspired materials are used extensively in both indoor and outdoor settings at its schools. The surroundings offer rich visual stimuli and hands-on sensory experiences which allow each child to reach his or her full potential and these spaces evolve continuously to enable children to use all their senses and to express themselves creatively.

Aesthetics are another crucial aspect of the environment. Beauty is believed to help with concentration, and so in order to encourage children to dig deep on their journey of self-discovery, exploration and collaboration, the Reggio Emilia environments are carefully constructed using premium finishes, furnishings and fittings to create calm, well-organised, well-maintained and beautiful spaces which are nonetheless homely, safe and comfortable. Natural materials, such as wooden furniture, are typically included rather than synthetics to emphasise the importance of nature.

The environment also plays a key role in fostering a child’s self-esteem and an understanding of their own competence. Children are valued as strong, capable and resilient and the engaging, nature-inspired environments in Reggio Emilia-inspired schools are carefully planned and resourced to offer opportunities to explore, discover and grow. The spaces are also adapted to suit each age group.

If you are interested in discovering more about the Reggio Emilia approach, you may like to read our article which discusses Reggio Emilia vs Montessori.