‘Environment as the Third Teacher’ has become a common mantra in the early years community. As it has, beautiful classrooms, displays and carefully arranged invitations at centres have proliferated. Yet, is it all really necessary? What if we don’t have the money? or time? What is the intent behind it all?
Considering the environment as a third teacher has allowed us to think about the importance of the the environment in early years learning programs and that is crucial. There is no doubt that our surroundings have an impact on us and that in early years settings, they are of primary importance.
If, however, we want our environments to have impact, then it must be about more than decorating, collecting materials and following the latest Pinterest trend. We have to consider the intention and rationale of what we are doing.
Why are we doing what we are doing? How is what we are doing helping to promote and honour student learning?
Here are some things I have considered when thinking about the rationale for aesthetics in the classroom.
Children are miracles. Believing that every child is a miracle can transform the way we design for children’s care. When we invite a miracle into our lives, we prepare ourselves and the environment around us. We may set out flowers or special offerings. We may cleanse ourselves, the space, or our thoughts of everything but the love inside us. We make it our job to create, with reverence and gratitude, a space that is worthy of a miracle! Action follows thought. We can choose to change. We can choose to design spaces for miracles, not minimums.Anita Rui Olds, 1999
By designing beautiful and organized, inviting environments, we are honouring the children who enter our spaces; we are valuing them; we are viewing them as capable, responsible learners; we are saying ‘welcome, we believe in you.’ I ask myself, “How is what I am creating in my classroom honouring the children within?”
Aesthetics means not only how something looks and functions but its potential to shape experience, and in doing so, to shape the mind.
Ann Lewin-Baldwin. Twelve Best Practices for Early Childhood Education, p. 79.
To consider this quote is to consider how the environment shapes the choices, experience and learning of the children who enter into it. Vea Vecchi, a consultant of Reggio Children and longtime atelierista at the Diana municipal preschool, offers great depth of thinking on this idea.
In her book, Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia (2010), she reminds us that the consideration of aesthetics in Reggio schools is rooted in deep and thoughtful philosophical consideration:
“Reflection is needed in order to understand to what extent Reggio Emilia’s recognition of aesthetics affects not simply such appearances, but a way of ‘doing’ school and consequently learning by children and adults and the pedagogical philosophy.” (Vecchi, p. 7, 2010).
She explains that aesthetics are an instigator of creativity and learning:
“If aesthetics fosters sensibility and the ability for connecting things far removed from each other, and if learning takes place through new connections between disparate elements, then aesthetics can be considered an important activator for learning.” (Vecchi, p. 9, 2010)
Moreover, aesthetics impacts learning in all disciplines:
“It [aesthetics] is not uniquely connected with art but becomes a ‘way of researching, a key for interpretation a place of experience.” (Vecchi, p. 11, 2010)
So, do our classrooms need to look like a photo from a design magazine?
I would suggest that while an aesthetically pleasing environment is of course a goal we should strive towards, I would venture to suggest that becoming overly focused on merely the look of things without deep consideration of why we are doing so belies the initial intent and depth of thinking that lies at the root of the concept of the environment as the third teacher.
I believe that we need to ensure that our focus is on considering the impact of the environments we are creating on the learning and well being of the children. How does it build connections and relationship? How does it provoke thoughtful exploration of materials and ideas? How does is impact rich learning? How does it value the children who live within it?
Written by Sandra Rosekat