If the environment is the third teacher what language does she speak?

Girls assembling a drill.

Children playing outside.

by Ann Pairman and Lisa Terreni (2001)

Our motivation to write about the significance of developing quality early childhood environments for young children comes from many years of hands-on teaching in early childhood centres. Our current work for Early Childhood Development, which includes professional development, playgroup work and advice to establishing services, has heightened our awareness of issues relating to early childhood environments.

Through our work we have been struck by the number of groups looking at behaviour management issues. However, we have noticed that when teachers and parents carefully observe the environment and children’s interactions within that environment, and implement appropriate changes, there has often been an instant and startling positive impact on the children’s level of involvement in activities and their interactions with each other.

Another major influence on our thinking has been the work of early childhood educators from Reggio Emilia. We are interested in how the theoretical underpinnings of their approach has manifested in New Zealand and other Western countries. The influence Reggio Emilia programmes have had on early childhood educators’ thinking - in the design of educational equipment, use of colour, space and lighting in early childhood centres, and the growing awareness of the importance of aesthetics in educational environments, reinforces our own belief that the Arts and aesthetics education are integral to developing quality early childhood programmes.

We have titled this paper 'If the environment is the third teacher what language does she speak?' because we believe the early childhood environment gives children important messages and cues. In other words, the environment ‘speaks’ to children - about what they can do, how and where they can do it and how they can work together.

"What is in a space, a room or a yard, and how it is arranged can affect the behaviour of people; it can make it easier to act in certain kinds of ways, harder to act in others. We don’t ordinarily think to take out a deck of cards at a dinner table set for six, even though the number and arrangement suggest a poker game. The whole setting gives us cues about expected behaviour, and generally we do what we have been invited to do…in a similar way, particular settings invite children to involve themselves in particular activities, and the extent ofchildren’s constructive participation in the activity will depend in large part on how well certain concrete, measurable aspects of the surrounding physical space meet their "hunger, attitudes and interests…"

The adults and teachers who work in the early childhood environment largely construct the ‘language’ of the environment so it is important that educators understand this language. It is our belief that a quality environment responds to the hundred languages of children identified by Loris Malaguzzi (pedagogist director of the journal ‘Bambini’ and a key figure in the development and promotion of the Reggio Emilia early childhood centres) in his poem The hundred languages of children. 3 The early childhood environment needs to say to children… Yes! This is a place for singing and understanding, a place to discover, to invent and to dream, a place for listening and marvelling.

We’ve identified three key aspects to any early childhoodenvironment as the physical environment, the interactional environment (social interactions within the environment) and the temporal environment (routines/time). However this paperonly attempts to examine two key areas of the physical environment - organisation and aesthetics. We consider that these two key areas contribute significantly to the messages andcues given to children by the environment.

In this paper we also comment on the way the physical environment influences the emotional climate of an earlychildhood setting, and the influence this has on children's learning and well being. We make suggestions about planningan environment that caters for a mixed age group.

Diagram One - The key aspects of an early childhood environment
Diagram showing the key aspects of an ECE environment.

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Last updated: 6 January 2012