It has always been intuitively obvious to me that the environment is a source of inspiration, good mood, and motivation. Whenever I feel a need for inspiration, I take a walk, drive to the countryside, and change the environment. Going to new places, seeing the unseen motivates me to learn something new or open another page in my life.
As my motherhood journey started, suddenly I got interested in various early learning philosophies. I learned that my unspoken intuition on the importance of environment was right on spot. The environment influences children’s learning to a great extent.
What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.
—Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children
The author of these words, Loris Malaguzzi, was the founder and director of the renowned municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. His philosophy challenged educators to see children as competent and capable learners.
The way we set up an environment reflects our thinking, our image of the child, and the values we want to communicate to children. Malaguzzi defined the environment as the third teacher. The environment can help shape a child’s identity as a powerful player in his or her own life and the lives of others.
The Montessori approach depicted the creation of an environment which had order, was aesthetically pleasing and encouraged sensory exploration. This influence can be seen today in many contemporary early childhood settings. Steiner education has a strong influence in the arts, natural environment, creativity and well-being and how the environment impacts on the program offered.
So, how can we create a flexible, inspiring, relationship driven environment which help children learn themselves instead of being taught?
Creativity thrives where there is time to explore, experiment and play with ideas. It is only possible when furniture is designed and space is organized so that children could easily access and use them. Use see-through containers so that children can easily find things on their own. The magic happens when children discover colours, shapes, and textures by considering how to use them.
Furnishing defines space
We consider furniture multi-functionality to be one of our top priorities as it pushes children to create new forms and understand themselves in relation to their surroundings. Children grow and change everyday and the environment doesn’t need to stay the same! For example, screens might serve as a divider of two spaces and at the same time can be used to create shadow pictures and tell stories. Children are wonderful constructors and are delighted when has the opportunity to inhabit new places.
Open the space to all
Rather than separate spaces being used for separate purposes, compose a connecting space where children can move freely. Openness is conducive to participation and interaction between children, parents, teachers and community.
Lighten up with colors
Many adults paint their children’s room with bright primary colors, as it is usually believed that children favor them. Instead it is better to create the feeling of light and space brought by the use of light or white walls which can be elevated by children’s artwork or incorporate big windows into a room so that interior would integrate with outside environment. It is children themselves who contribute color through their clothing and belongings, their artwork too.
Focal points attract attention
Use colour, light and sensory objects to support the focal point for learning in the space, enhancing children’s curiosity and desire to investigate. Creating a focal point which attracts the eye and promotes curiosity, is a key to the last component of creating a space. It can be an interesting object, something from nature, the built environment or pops of color which draw the attention of a child into the space.
Nature inspires beauty
The outside environment is the source of color and texture, and here plants can be widely used to create inspiring environment. This also creates a natural link between inside and outside. Fostering a link with the outside environment is important because learning and discovery cannot be seen to be an island. Rather, within indoors children learn how to become full and active participants outdoors.
Aesthetics heighten the senses, brings an individual into the space, and creates the mood of the environment. Consider sight, sound, smell and touch, as this relates to the way a person feels when interacting in the space. Fill the space with natural elements, open-ended, authentic materials for children to manipulate, design and create.
Loris Malaguzzi said “The child has a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking, of playing, of speaking…”.
Children have unlimited potential, they just need our help to unlock it. The environment has to allow them to make mistakes, take risks and make discoveries. Only inspiring environment will help children to express their “one hundred languages” and gives possibilities to learn new things.
Indeed, it is easy to see why Reggio educators call the environment ‘the third teacher’.