How the Environment Affects Learning

lee longoAn environment is a living, changing system. Its conditions how we feel, think, behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives” Jim Greenman.

Have you noticed more and more home improvement shows popping up, and many stores featuring home décor items?Some estimates measure that the home décor business is at a 60 billion a year market. We all want our environment to be a place of comfort, we want to feel good and our homes reflect our image we hold of ourselves. When we talk about the environment at the education level and within the Reggio Emilia Philosophy we speak of the environment as the third teacher.

In many early preschool class-rooms we find colorful furniture, with bright plastic toys, bulletin boards and walls filled with children’s art work that all looks the same. Colorful bins are arranged to house toys. In the child’s dramatic play area plastic items are used to resemble food and dishes. Snack is offered on napkins, even their outdoor spaces lack natural elements. These spaces have the intention of making it look like a “child friendly and safe space”. Is this what children need, and do these spaces encourage learning?

Children are very sensitive and can sense that the environment we offer them reflects the image we have of them. In this traditional preschool space, we are saying: you have to use plastic because you’re not capable, you may break it. Items are in colorful bins so it will be bright and you might be attracted to look in. Your art has to be pre-determined and like others, you’re not capable of creating real unique art. You’re not innately curious, we don’t want you to take risks and we don’t really respect you.

A classroom can be inviting, inspiring and a place where true learning takes place while presenting a positive image of the child. The image of the child in the Reggio Emilia model is that children are “capable, naturally born with curiosity and eager to learn”. In this model of teaching the importance of the environment is taken seriously.
So how is this space different and how can it teach, and how can it reflect positively toward our belief in children? The Reggio Emilia classroom has the ability to have endless learning opportunities. It is unlike most classrooms, but immediately it speaks to you. The room is alive and ever changing. A teacher’s intention of carefully placed items is not only inviting to the child but it sparks curiosity to see more. The intention is to provoke interest; children are not told what to create, materials are presented and it is up to the child to create whatever they wish. This allows freedom and ownership of their work.

The comforts of home are evident and it represents that children and families are respected and honored. This environment encourages children to use their imagination, interact and learn from each other, learn from their surroundings, take an appropriate level of risk, and the ability to come up with their own questions and find the answers through exploration. It fosters the growth of their social and cognitive development.

What might this unique space look like? It may have a low couch, lamp and coffee table with children’s books arranged on it. Family pictures are framed and displayed at the child’s view. Nature is evident throughout by careful placement of plants or natural or organic items displayed in a science area. The children’s dramatic play area may have real food items and glass objects that children see at home. Natural materials and collections are placed in baskets or clear containers for children to choose on their own. Crayons may be placed in groupings of the same variation of color for children to explore shades of color and discover the differences. Blocks are placed by natural building resources such as stones, shells, small branches and bark. Items such as these are interesting for children to explore and develop their curiosity and critical thinking skills. They can observe closely and use their senses, develop vocabulary and enhance their social skills to collaborate with others. When a snack is offered, the children are encouraged to set the table and are given the use of glass dishes. Just like at home children learn to respect their environment and take care of delicate items. Appropriate risks help to build self confidence in their abilities.

Children’s creations are framed and carefully exhibited around the room and school. Each is unique. Photographs depicting the process of their work and dictation of children’s own words relay the story of what their work represents. It is exhibited for all to see. The room is aesthetically beautiful yet functional and reflective of the learning taking place and continues to change as learning progresses. This space conditions how children “feel, think and behave”. Most importantly it reflects the image we hold of them is that they are valued and capable. This in itself can foster a lifelong love for learning.

“We don’t want to teach children something they can learn by themselves. We don’t want to give them thoughts that they can come up with themselves. What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that comes from being the authors of their own work.”
Loris Malaguzzi