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The "Third Teacher"; How to Create a Space for Learning and Development

Take a look around you. How do you feel with the space you are in? Are you overwhelmed? Distracted? Maybe you're centered and calm. What if you flipped the question... How does the space around you make you feel?

This question pertains just as much to our children as it does to ourselves; except they have far less control over their environment compared to us. In Reggio Emilia, the environment is seen as a "third teacher" that creates learning. In the Montessori approach, the environment is seen as a key factor to promote independence and learning. The Waldorf approach views the environment as a nurturing space with a focus on warmth, safety and belonging. All of these popular approaches to early childhood education view the environment as a critical factor in learning and development.

So then why do we treat it with such apathy?

First, let's divide "environment" into two concepts: space and ambiance. This is a foundational distinction made in Reggio Emilia. Space refers to the structure itself, something that many of us cannot change. Walls, doors, floors, windows, large furniture items, etc. How do these fixtures allow for natural light, air and ideas to flow through the house or classroom space? Are areas closed off? Doors difficult to open? Are the windows low enough for a child to peer out and observe? Ambiance refers to the "feeling" or mood brought on in the space. Is it clean and well kept? Are the kids' projects displayed at their height? Are toys kept behind a closet only a teacher can access? Are there mirrors so the children can see themselves in action?

Of course, there are constraints we will face when trying to optimize our space and ambiance. Most of us cannot bulldoze our house and build a new one just for the purpose of creating the ideal space with an open plan, large windows and free-flowing air. However, there are tips we can follow to optimize what we have around us.

Mirrors Adding windows to increase natural light and create a feeling of a bigger space probably isn't an option for you. I know it's not for me! However, mirrors are an easy way to reflect what light you have while giving your child a way to see and watch what they are doing. Children can fine tune their motor skills through self observation in mirrors. They can compare their silly face to your silly face and try to imitate it back. It allows them to see what's behind them, without turning their heads. You can often find mirrors pretty cheap at yard sales and thrift stores too! On often overlooked learning tool that will brighten and create space.

Living Plants You may have greenery around you now, but think about your selection. If it is plastic, ask yourself, why? I have a mix of plastic, silk and real plants throughout our environment. Plastic ones are often being repurposed after use in a holiday decoration or celebration (like the mix of hibiscus and bird of paradise on my desk from our 2 year old's birthday). There is also a forest of plants in my bay window area and they are growing as fast as she is! These plants purify our air, give a sense of comfort while also providing lessons in care. We mist them daily, water them weekly (or as needed) and turn them when necessary for sun. Recently, we started some seeds in an old egg carton, which is providing another lesson in nature. So while, yes, living plants are another chore; they also provide ample opportunity to learn while supporting an environment for learning. Here is a helpful list of indoor-friendly plants.

Accessible areas

If all of your child's daily routine things are out of reach, what is that saying about your views on their responsibility? If you're comfortable with it, consider bringing these items lower for easier access. For example, in my kitchen, I have a bottom cabinet where I keep all of her dishes, cups and silverware. It is generally neat and organized, but most importantly, she knows where everything is. At dinner time, she will go get the bowl, cup and utensils she wants. No more fights over the blue cup or the red cup. In the morning, when I am putting away dishes, I hand hers over and she puts them away by herself. Another example is our bathroom. I tried the kid's sink, but that didn't fit well for us in that space. Cute? Sure! Functional, not quite. Instead, I recycled a sturdy box a medium sized item came in. It's smoother and more water resistant than a cardboard box, but that's essentially what it is. A fancy cardboard box that was headed towards the trash. On top of it, we put her hairbrush, a mirror, toothbrush and toothpaste. It's a simple way to give her independence in her morning routine. And, even better, it was free (unlike that sink).

Kid-Level Design

This is important and goes along with accessibility. Get on your child's level and look around. The world looks entirely different down there. Those timeless family photos on the wall? They might be too high for his eyes to appreciate. That clutter you're ignoring next to the curtain? It's at the perfect height to distract him. If you want to display art on the wall, think about how to bring it down to his level. This can help inspire his own creations. You can also display his own works! We have a gallery wall in our bedroom hallway that showcases her talents, complete with little title tags like you'd see in a museum of fine art. Essentially, everything that's at your level is too high for your child to admire or learn from so consider how you can bring some of that ambiance down to them.

Junk the Overflowing Toy Box

If you are overwhelmed and stressed by that overflowing toy box, guess what? They are too. Children focus easier in an organized space. Children learn smoothly with predictable patterns. Children demonstrate higher self esteem when given chores and responsibilities. Throwing all the toys in a box and shutting the lid is super easy, I get it! I have a small bin of random toys, I won't lie. However the vast majority of toys are separated into smaller bins and buckets. Our toy box is actually turned on its side to create a kid-level cubby and shelf. I have the bins that slide into that space and they are organized by type (dinosaurs, forest animals, cars, etc.) If guests come and I absolutely need a kid-free view, then the toy box can easily turn rightways and the boxes stay inside, with the big lid on top. I'm big about rotating toys and have a closet of "out of season" toys. The best solution to reducing clutter though are open ended toys, such as those popular in the Waldorf approach (check out Sarah's Silks for great ideas). The more simplistic a toy, the more your child's imagination can run wild (for most children). I will write a post in the coming weeks about passive and active toys to explain this further and hopefully cut down on toy-clutter (and noise!).

Another big clutter maker in our house, which also can lead to feelings of anxiety, are books. Believe it or not, books could have a negative impact on learning! Just like toys, when there are too many books, too many ripped pages, tossed all around... I'm sure you get the idea. A wonderful way to reduce this clutter and promote an environment for optimal learning is... the library! Our libraries are wonderful and mostly free community resources that offer books and so much more. I highly encourage you to take trips weekly. This will support your child's development and connection with their community.

There are many ways to support your child's learning and the foundation to this learning is their environment. There may be many aspects you are bound to, especially when it comes to space. On the other hand, the ambiance may leave you with more wiggle room. You can change the ambiance with each passing season for novelty and curiosity, or leave many aspects of it consistent for structure and predictability. When making these changes, stay focused on what's important at their level and ultimately *less is more* in so many ways. Less (fill in the blank) allows more imagination and creativity to fill the area. Don't think of your child's learning environment as a cage in a laboratory, but rather as a playground that reaches up to the sky. Unless of course your child wants to be a scientist, then let that laboratory grow wild.

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