As an Activator for Learning
The Environment as the Third Educator
The physical learning environment is an important part of pre-school and children’s learning. It is known as the third educator. The concept of “the environment as the third educator“ originates from the Reggio Emilia philosophy and is about the importance of the environment, what is offered and how the material is presented.
It is widely considered that the environment and materials are of great importance to children’s interactions, development and learning and rest on democratic values. However, it is not only about the physical environment and the material within it but also our teaching that acts as an important tool for promoting the values and theories that we choose to follow. This means that educators have children at the forefront, along with the knowledge that reflects both the learning objectives, the curriculum and is based on scientific research and proven experiences in both content and working methods.
Building a Learning Environment
There is no ready-made recipe for building, developing, or transforming a physical learning environment. An important starting point when building a learning environment is to start from the children’s curiosities and ongoing development in connection with the pre-school’s didactic strategies.
What do we think the children could find, explore, and investigate? How can we create environments that provide opportunities for enjoyable learning and meaningful contexts? How can we use the design of a setting and the children’s interests to create transdisciplinary environments where children can explore a variety of materials and activities?
Building a learning environment is about staging, preparing, and transforming the physical environment through a holistic perspective where all parts of the curriculum are connected through enjoyable transdisciplinary projects. The room should be set up in a way which encourages social interactions and meaningful conversations to take place, where experiences will transform into learnings.
The learning environment should be one which invites varied and stimulating choices and supports children in broadening their knowledge and play patterns.
It should be based on wonder, curiosity, and joy and where the material is appealing, accessible and clear - an environment that is permissive for all children.
It must be adaptable and flexible and can be changed based on the scenarios the children are in, the project theme or the teaching taking place. Therefore, the materials should be rich, varied, imaginatively transformed, and displayed carefully in various configurations and characterized by their aesthetic dimensions.
Making the Materials Sing
How can we make the materials in the physical environment sing? What kind of material makes other materials sing? And what materials can help children sing?
A material can be silent and almost invisible but can be given new life when connected to another material. Together, the materials are transformed into something that can inspire, challenge and encourage children’s exploration and learning.
If we imagine the materials as tones and rhythms and see the physical learning environment and educators as conductors, we can create musical harmony and ambience. Through the power of the material, we can create wonder and introduce engaging scenarios that turn into beautiful symphonies of singing material. But we need to have a humble awareness of the impact that different materials can have on us. It is therefore equally important to also reflect on the combination of materials which could create noise and a musical imbalance.
For example, a strip of warm white LED lights that lie along the table can easily make the pen and paper sing and invite the children to a harmonious creation, as our eyes are automatically directed towards the brightest point.
By being aware of the light, children can highlight certain surfaces or objects and combine light with other materials to either enhance or reduce the effects.
Light and Shadow as an Activator for Learning and Exploration
Light is a magical phenomenon that has the ability to amaze and fascinate children.
Working with light, shadows, colours, and reflections stimulates wonder and challenges children’s interest in science. The subject area invites children to exciting contexts where they are given the opportunity to explore and investigate physical phenomena.
However, it is not only about us setting up an activity, but also about how we use pre-school didactic strategies to plan the teaching and bring it to life. This way we can support children in creating an understanding of the various phenomena and subject areas they encounter.
Light can change the perspective of everything it shines on or reflects off, regardless of whether it is sunbeams that reflect through the letter mirrors that hang by the window or whether it is a light beam from a flashlight. Depending on the position of the light and its angles, exciting changes can occur. Light can illuminate details that create curiosity, creativity and wonder and help us create a sense of clarity such as seeing what the room contains, what type of room it is and how it is intended to be used.
In addition to facilitating the understanding of the room, the lighting contributes to its character and how we experience something concrete to something abstract. With the help of light, you can create aesthetically pleasing dimensions and atmospheres that create an ambience but also signal a message.
When setting up a table with a lamp that shines on objects, such as a feather, miniature elephant and cellophane plastic, children can study and explore light in relation to the material as well as variations of the different shadows that occur. How the shadow is created and how it changes depending on the angle of light in relation to the position of the object becomes an exciting phenomenon that encourages and challenges children to try their own ideas and theories.
Dynamic Learning Environments with Colour and Light
A basic idea that prevails when I build environments is that they should be transdisciplinary and rhizomatic. Children should be able to move between different subject areas and disciplines in the room. With a changeable, adaptable, and flexible environment, you can mix and match with luminous materials such as cubes, blocks, cylinders, pebbles and balls to transform and change the environment through very simple but effective ways.
With different light materials, I have had the opportunity to stage four different environments, by changing colour and combining materials to both change and strengthen the room’s identity. Different colours of light sources can be used to create different exciting atmospheres.
Colours symbolise and create associations. The colour blue can be linked to water, just as the colour green links to nature. The different colours in light up materials have made it possible to create clear and inviting environments by changing the brightness and colours according to different learning themes or activities that I want the children to meet and explore.
The first thing you meet in the light room is construction material that shines attractively on the mirror table. Children can both explore and investigate the light and colours as well as building and constructing with different materials. Building and construction is a tool that enables children to understand the various phenomena in society. It allows children to create structures through play. A creation that consists of aesthetics, geometry, language and empathy, mathematics and science in connection with exciting social interactions.
With the help of a projector, you can create a digital learning environment, where digital meets the analogue in an enjoyable way. The projector is a fantastic tool for creating captivating and changing learning environments. By projecting images or films, I can strengthen and deepen children’s explorations and invite the children to enriching play areas and learning contexts. With tools such as the projector, imaginative and exciting environments are created that invite us to other dimensions, where imagination and reality can be connected and united. We can be immersed in the savannah of Africa with the lions, be fascinated by swimming fish in the sea or be amazed by the light that shines from the projector; children get the opportunity to play, learn and explore in inviting and challenging worlds of play.
A light table is also an exciting tool for studying light and colour which invites exploration and investigation. With a light table, children can, for example, examine nature’s beautiful phenomena such as plants and flowers, study biology, science and humans, as well as animal skeletons and anatomy with the help of exciting X-rays. They can happily explore the basic properties of mathematics with the help of rice, sand or water in connection with objects such as buckets, decilitres of measurements, copper spoons and funnels. In this way, children can be given the opportunity to develop an understanding of, for example, measurement, weight, volume and number to reason and reflect mathematically.
With transparent, coloured stones and mosaic pieces, children can explore art in relation to patterns. They can study coloured cellophane plastic in connection with light reflection and colour mixing to see and discover colours in different ways. They can build and construct using transparent blocks that encourage 3D buildings and new perspectives.
These fascinating materials encourage exciting interactions at the light table and create conditions for enriching teaching opportunities where children, with the help of educators, can create understanding and knowledge about the subject area.
Mirrors are another excellent addition to the environment. Mirrors create depth, reflections, wonder and they excite young explorers. With the help of mirrors children can also explore themselves. The mirror becomes a tool for exploring the child’s own self-image, identity and body perception and promotes an in-depth understanding of mathematics, perspectives, and symmetries.
Mirrors also stimulate the senses and play a role in how we experience our physical bodies and the discovery of the body as a tool, as well as investigation through perception and vision of the room.
One of the last but equally important aspects is to offer linguistic and aesthetic learning environments that enable each child to find their way of expression through language. It is about giving children the conditions to investigate and understand their world through rhizomatic learning and expressions. Where they can develop and affirm their skills through a hundred ways of thinking, of expressing themselves and in connection with image, creation, drama, music, digitality etc. Therefore, there is also a place in the light room where children can express their thoughts, hypotheses, and their theories through the expression of art, such as drawing, sketching, painting, shaping and forming.
There are a lot of exciting materials to add to the environment to create fun and meaningful contexts. Contexts where children can meet, explore and develop in relation to the wonder of learning.
About the author:
Pedagogista, Educator, author, lecturer and inspirer.
Author of the book: Digitalitet i förskolan.
The owner of the Instagram account @pedagog.inspiration, with over 18.7k followers.