The third teacher, the environment. The North American Reggio Alliance (NAREA) shares this from their frequently asked questions section of their website, the environment is viewed as the third teacher, with the power to provoke curiosity and learning, and encourage interaction. The elements of light, transparency and natural materials are strongly valued. The walls, floors, doors, hallways, natural light versus artificial, windows, sight line, surfaces, traffic patterns, and the careful and purposeful presentation of learning materials are all something that early childhood educators consider carefully at the start of the school year as they set up their rooms. They then adjust, change over, and rearrange over the course of the year, always considering the way the children use the space and materials. Some teachers have a lot of control over their environments, while others must struggle with “retrofitting” their spaces to fit their vision of an ideal environment.
I have seen both sides of the spectrum—what I consider a grand space like School within School at Peabody, housed in a structure built in 1879 in Washington, DC, translates beautifully to the Reggio approach with its high ceilings, almost floor to ceiling windows with views of the Capitol Building, wide steps leading up to its perch on the top floor of the building opening to a central foyer. I have also seen teachers struggling with the challenges of being required to keep their classroom’s walls bare and ceilings clear of hanging artwork to meet fire code regulations. This changes the way these teachers approach the "how" and "what" of classroom activities. Either way, creativity and inspiration soar.
Let’s consider the walls of a classroom; if the walls could talk, and they certainly should, they would tell the story of what the children have been doing, what they have been researching, and the concepts they have been investigating. They should tell the story of their journey, their experience, the purpose they have given to their pursuits. Lilian Katz proposes a special use for walls which is also evident in the Reggio approach—the walls formalize and “give voice” to the "child as investigator" role. The walls make the child’s research evident. Children’s reflections about what they have learned and are expressing can be seen through collected and then printed quotes as well as art work, drawings, tables, along with the adults’ insights and thoughts. All are tales to be told by the walls.
Then there are those uncooperative walls—what happens when they simply don’t want to talk? There are our friends who must keep the walls clear, there are others with limited wall space, and then there are recommendations to use up precious wall space for teacher-made or commercially-made “support” materials like posters, word walls, charts, planners, etc.
We fall into the walls are precious real estate category. We want to display the children’s work with care and beauty. Walls are used as galleries for children’s work. With the prekindergarten class exhibits, the walls also feature child-friendly documentation (at child’s eye level, with photographs, and in large, san serif fonts) to chronicle their journey, but the focus is always their own work. For our adults, our teacher and parent reflections, we have moved all of that documentation online to an “intranet” resource for member families—we are a parent cooperative, so parents are very present members of the learning community. This keeps the walls to a story line that maintains the child as the central character.
We have had some visitors to the School who have suggested adding word walls and “teaching” posters. We find these contrary to our purposes. What story do they tell? Is it only the adult’s or even worse, a third party entity unfamiliar with our storyline? Our story is evident in the children’s voices and in their work and play. The walls, even with our limitations, tell the children's stories and sing their praises and joy.