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How the Environment Inspires Curriculum

by Julianne Wurm
How the Environment Inspires the Curriculum

Working in Reggio-inspired ways

Working with schools on transforming their practice or at least beginning on the path of Reggio-inspired practice has taught me many lessons. I have visited schools around the country and had reinforced time after time the idea that what we believe about children is visible in the choices we make within our schools. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environment. The choices about the environment we create also link directly to the play and learning in individual classrooms and schools. As part of the educational experience, we can render a great influence on the how and why of the actual play that is enacted, and curriculum engaged, by virtue of the choices we make in constructing these spaces. It is for these reasons that the environment is a wonderfully concrete place to begin asking educators to look at what they are communicating about how they view children.

What does environment as the third teacher mean?

It is important to begin by unpacking what is meant by the idea of the environment as the third teacher. This concept, brought into awareness through the schools of Reggio Emilia, connotes something that has always lived within early childhood—a particular care and attention to the settings in which children learn. The Reggianni have taken the examination and articulation of the environment to a new level.

This concept of the environment as a participant in the educational experience opens up the possibility for students to engage the environment with their peers and respond to thoughtful decisions made by the educators in an effort to support student engagement. This calls on the adults to render the environment a living space that actively participates in the educative process.

Our ideas about these lived spaces have evolved and been influenced in different ways by educators as varied as Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, Vivian Paley and Loris Malaguzzi. Each of these educators has left their own influence: from child-sized furnishings, to the creation of social spaces for language development, and the importance of a stage for storytelling. These details, when woven together, have shown us both in theory and practice that schools for young children are spaces that attend to social interaction, problem solving, dramatic play, storytelling, fantasy, conflict and its resolution, and communication as a few of the vehicles for children to build their repertoire and further their understanding of the world. In order to achieve this balance of engagement, the environment is critical to offer opportunities to think, construct and create for children. So part of the work for us as educators is to strive to create a space that supports the interaction and engagement of the children with their environment on their own terms and at times without adult mediation. Essentially, the school puts at the disposition of the children the places and the materials, and the students make their new stories and worlds fueled by their imaginations.

Looking at the environment you have

Typically, I ask educators to create a map of the environment in which they work and discuss ways that their environment is working or is challenging. This offers teachers a wonderful platform to begin examining and dialoguing about their practice in collaboration with their colleagues. Teachers can also look at inventive ways to make minor changes in an attempt to align their environment more closely with this view of children. It is amazing how powerful simple changes can become in a cumulative fashion, made one at a time. For example, one of the most important steps I have seen schools make is de-cluttering their spaces, which can be full of unintentional knick-knacks. An armful of boxes and hefty bags in a quest to simplify surfaces and examine the intentionality of the choices made within an environment produced great results. Once the actual setting is uncovered, it is possible for the participating professionals to imagine, as children do, the possibilities that exist within the environment.

What is the purpose: Making changes

Recently, I was working with a school that had been in operation for many years. The teachers had taken great care to lay out the environment for my visit with audio recorders and headphones draped on the rug for use, as well as paints with brushes, multiple sized papers, a light table, etc. In this particular instance, the care of the presentation was noted, but despite this, it was difficult to overlook the clutter— overwhelming clutter, dust, and lack of purpose behind many of the articles included in the environment. It was like visiting my grandmother’s attic. What struck me, which happens for all of us as individuals, is that we sometimes stop seeing the environment in which we live. We have to look beyond the pile of recycling or old pillows.

One of the first things we did at this school was walk through the entire space, room by room, while I asked the staff to talk to each other about the purpose behind the choices that had been made. The question I found myself asking over and over was, “What is the purpose…(of this or that)?” If the response was a shoulder shrug or a blank look—then the teachers needed to talk to each other about what these choices communicated about the view of children alive in this environment; as well as the possibilities these choices eliminated for their students. Essentially, what was the thinking behind the couches, plants, storage of paints, materials to be thrown away, mirrors, light tables, everything. Clutter communicates something to children—just like eating off of paper plates or having wall hangings all at adult eye level—and what is implicitly communicated plays out in student engagement and behavior.

So, in looking at the space used to learn for your children, I encourage teachers to examine the following:

  • What spaces have you created for your students?
  • Are they clearly identifiable?
  • Are they easily redefined to respond to student activity and interests?
  • Are they provocative and suggestive without limiting engagement?

Children have imaginations that help them create and fuel their stories, but it is helpful if areas of the classroom are clearly organized. So house play and dress up can be together with the storage of these items, although the characters that emerge from their stories will roam the setting, furthering their experience in many parts of the classroom space. Another example might include the light table and the implements that may be used with it, or the construction area—it is important for children to know where things go, and that is where we can help them live in the space—but it is up to the children to create the stories within these spaces. So, while the blocks may have an area in the classroom, that is not to say that the birthday party that began in the house play area cannot migrate to play out within the construction section. We want to offer the children fluidity of definition and this takes a critical and attentive eye to the flushing out of the environment.

Next steps

It is important to look at your environment with fresh eyes and a questioning stance. It is in this way that you are able to keep a dynamic and lived space that continues to engage your students and offers multiple opportunities for problem solving with your children. It is with this in mind that you are asked to remain open to the possibilities inherent within a space and seek to open possibilities for your students, permitting them engagement in ways we as adults might not imagine.

About the Author
Julianne Wurm started her career as a member of "Teach for America" where she taught in inner-city Houston, East Los Angeles and the Bronx, New York. Julie is the author of a best-selling book entitled Working in the Reggio Way: A Beginner's Guide for American Teachers, based on three years of living in Italy and original research she conducted in the famous schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Julie has worked with teachers and students around the country to bring inquiry alive in classrooms and support the documentation of student learning to get families inside the educational experiences of their children. Julie is currently attending the Teachers College at Columbia University completing her doctorate in Early Childhood Education. www.juliannewurm.com

Susan Stacey commented on  September 28, 2015

I have just returned from the Canadian Study Tour of Reggio Emilia. I have used Reggio Inspirations for many years, and consider myself a lifelong student of this approach. I can tell you that Reggio Schools are full of not only beautiful natural materials, but also lots of colour! Yet, these colours are carefully and intentionally chosen, are used in strategic ways (ie. to highlight a particular area) and are usually not glaring primary colours, but more subtle shades....just like many home environments. This judiscious use of colour makes the classrooms so attractive, and does not 'take away' from the natural environment. Just stunningly beautiful (see photos of school at the Loris Malaguzzie Centre for examples)

Toni Graham commented on  September 26, 2015

Reggio approach brings me inspiration to continue teaching from the "outside in." A vegetable and flower garden has been a fun addition. Touch/smell/color/harvest/share/texture/team work/TASTE!

Jackie Abrahamson commented on  September 02, 2015

It doesn't matter what color combinations are used in my opinion. It's the curriculum, teacher, child, family, combination that makes a difference. Personally, as a parent's opinion....I preferred my oldest daughter's brightly colored preschool classroom where her learning advanced quickly because she was happy. My middle child went to a natural setting environment (experiment). Same educational opportunity but we both were unhappy with the environment, not the teachers--just the quality. Color done appropriately makes me happier. Happier is more productive. Lack of color gives me a feeling of doom, despair, and that nothing matters. Just being honest.

Linda Colbourne commented on  August 28, 2015

I have been teaching kindergarten for many years and do pay careful attention to the environment. Parents always comment that the classroom looks so welcoming and my students are happy. Just recently I have seen many teachers busily working to rid their room of colour and plastic in favour of wicker, brown bulletin boards and adding rocks, pinecones to their room. While I clearly support the reduction in clutter and like the home elements I do not believe that the students in the "new" classrooms will learn more than the students in my brighter class. I also do not believe that those students will necessarily be happier. Yet I feel the teachers who have adapted this new approach have a feeling of superiority. I would some data and results before I whole heartly embraced a different approach. Do we have any studies comparing the learning of those in a colourful classroom compared to a more natural setting?

Hoa Pham commented on  April 16, 2015

I have been an advocate of Reggio and Reggio-inspired curriculum for a while. I have also been following your email and some of your articles.

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