The learning environment is often viewed as "the third teacher"footnote 1: it can either enhance learning, optimizing students' potential to respond creatively and meaningfully, or detract from it. Researchers and practitioners in a wide range of disciplines, including early childhood education, developmental education, psychology, cognitive science, and school architecture and design, have come to understand that a key to learning in today's world is the social space in which it occurs, more than the physical space (Fraser, 2012; Helm et al., 2007; OWP/P Architects et al., 2010).

A classroom that is functioning successfully as a third teacher will be responsive to the children's interests, provide opportunities for children to make their thinking visible, and then foster further learning and engagement. (Fraser, 2012, p. 67)

In Kindergarten the classroom environment is thoughtfully designed to invite, provoke, and enhance learning, and to encourage communication, collaboration, and inquiry. The space, with all the objects in it, including the various materials and resources for learning, is created and arranged as the children's learning process unfolds – it is constantly being negotiated by and with the children. This fluid, inclusive, and dynamic social space evolves, in part, as children express their thinking and wonderings and as ideas pique their interest. The educators' anticipation and recognition of the children's learning needs throughout the day and over time, based on their observations and analysis (assessment for learning), also drive the collaborative creation of the environment. In addition, the educators' practice of discussing, displaying, and sharing the children's work as well as documenting the children's learning through photographs, transcripts, and video clips – that is, the practice of making the children's learning visible – contributes to the creation of a learning environment that reflects and helps extend the children's interests and accomplishments.

Read: Karyn Callaghan, The Environment Is a Teacher (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013)

View: Video clips

  • "A new perspective"
  • "Questioning our assumptions"
  • "Rethinking the space"
  • "Investigating the natural world"

Rethinking the learning environment

We need to think about creating classroom environments that give children the opportunity for wonder, mystery and discovery; an environment that speaks to young children's inherent curiosity and innate yearning for exploration is a classroom where children are passionate about learning... (Heard & McDonough, 2009, p. 2)

Educators plan and begin to create the learning environment before the children arrive in the classroom, using their understanding of children, of their development, and of how they learn, and looking at the space from a child's perspective. They place materials and resources where children can see them and ensure that children have plenty of light and a view of (and if possible, access to) the outdoors. They consider how to create an environment that will support children's learning and accommodate a diversity of choices and needs in terms of space, time, and the use of materials.

Before the children arrive in the classroom: Sample strategies from educators

  • Take photographs of the room before making changes to support learning.
  • Set the room up for learning. Arrange the tables to accommodate small groups, in various places around the classroom, rather than in cafeteria-style rows.
  • Consider the space from a child's perspective. What do the children see from their height?
  • Create areas for different kinds of learning and play. Try to make them versatile, to allow for purposeful learning and conversation.
  • Think about the organization of materials and the kind and quantity of materials the children can access.
  • Select and arrange materials and resources in ways that invite children to explore and that provoke learning but that do not overstimulate or overwhelm.
  • Take "after" photographs. The images will help you see how the children's play and learning are affected by the changes.

Questions for reflection: How can we incorporate considerations about space and time in our learning environment design?

In what ways can we:

  • organize spaces to make them "dynamic" – that is, to ensure that they can be changed quickly and easily to meet children's varying needs, and their changes in focus, through the course of the day?
  • organize and use the space creatively, efficiently, and flexibly to accommodate multiple purposes, such as brief large-group meetings and opportunities for small-group and individual work?
  • ensure that the learning environment supports learning for all children, accommodating a range of diverse needs and learning styles?
  • anticipate how the organization of the space itself – the different areas for learning, the availability of open spaces – might invite imaginative play and provoke thinking and learning among the children?

Thinking about time and space

Kindergarten educators carefully consider how the use of time and space affects the children's learning. At the beginning of the year, the educators work collaboratively to set the classroom up for learning and to plan the "flow of the day". They work around daily school schedules (e.g., times for gym, lunch, recess, and library) in order to provide as much uninterrupted time as possible for children's play and inquiry, both in and out of doors, and to minimize transitions (see "A Flexible Approach to Learning: The Flow of the Day", in Chapter 3.1, "Considerations for Program Planning"). After the plan has been devised, it is adjusted in collaboration with the children, as necessary, to meet the children's changing needs. Educators strive for fluid and flexible plans in each instance, so that opportunities to respond to the children and to co-create with them can be readily accommodated.

Thinking about materials and resources

As the Kindergarten program gets under way, the educators observe the children's behaviour and make adjustments in response to what they see. They consider how materials and resources – their availability, quantity, and arrangement – affect the children's play. They take into account each child's individual perspective – based, for example, on the materials the child chooses to play with, how the child approaches print found in the environment (in books, charts created in the classroom, and various other forms), and the sorts of things the child thinks, wonders, and asks questions about.

Inside the classroom: A professional learning conversation about materials

The term "learning environment" encompasses many things – the layout of the space, the appearance and "feel" of the space, and the materials that are used by the children. The following scenario illustrates how, in contrast to the traditional practice of providing as many different learning materials as possible, using a smaller, intentional selection of materials can enhance learning. This is an example of how educators can modify the learning environment on the basis of reflection to support children's growth in learning.

The educator team had been observing a group of children playing with a bin full of farm animal figures that had accumulated over the last few years. The educators consulted briefly about their observations:

Educator 1: I've noticed that Jana and Hailey have been spending a lot of time with the toy farm animals. They often smash the animals together as though they're fighting. I'm a little concerned, because I'm not sure what they are learning in this kind of play. We seem to be spending a lot of time intervening and trying to redirect their play.

Educator 2: I agree. We've both been putting out fires. Maybe we should just put the animals away.

Educator 1: I've been wondering about that, too. But what if we tried something different? I'm thinking that the problem might have something to do with the large and random assortment of materials – there are so many different kinds of animals! I thought we might try having the children sort them, but there may be too many – it might be overwhelming.

Educator 2: What if we removed some of the animals but still left a variety? We could also add some materials that might help the children extend their thinking. What if we added some materials they could use to make fences?

Educator 1: Sounds good. Let's talk with the children about what we noticed and see what they think.

Immediately after they removed a large portion of the animals and added fencing materials, the educators observed that the children's play started to change, as did their interactions. The children were making fences and sorting the animals, and they were using words such as "more than" and "almost" to communicate mathematical concepts such as comparing and estimating. The educators interacted with the children by noticing and naming their learning – "I see that you were comparing the number of animals in the two pens you created. How did you figure out ...?"

The educator team said that this kind of reflection on their part, where they would come together briefly to discuss their observations and make adjustments on the basis of their shared insights, was typical for them in their practice.

Questions for reflection: How can we maximize the effectiveness of materials and resources in our learning environment?

In what ways can we:

  • anticipate how materials and resources will be used to support learning throughout the day?
  • think about how the materials might provoke or challenge children to think and learn?
  • consider the intent of the learning when deciding what materials to add to – or remove from – learning areas?
  • take account of all the materials in the room? For example, are there enough to engage children without overwhelming them? Are they developmentally appropriate and challenging? Do they promote appropriate risk-taking? Do they reflect the diversity of the children in the class, the school, the community, and the province?
  • ensure that the materials in the classroom environment reflect the strengths, needs, capabilities, and interests of each child?

Co-constructing the learning environment

Educators report that children become much more engaged in their learning when the learning environment is planned and designed in negotiation with the children – that is, when "the children's voice" is heard in planning the environment and organizing and selecting materials for learning.

Many physical features in the environment are fixed. Such constraints call for problem solving by the educators and the children together to find ways to create a flexible and dynamic learning environment.

Educators find creative ways to support children in making independent and informed choices within the learning environment. For example, educators consider how the nature, placement, and quantity of materials in the environment might affect the children's play, taking into account the intent of the learning. They engage children in negotiating the organization of the materials. They discuss how and where the materials might be stored so that children can access them readily. Educators can put in place various kinds of supports, such as photos and labels, to help children make and act on independent choices as they play and interact in the learning environment.

Read: "Student Voice: Transforming Relationships", Capacity Building Series, K–12 (September 2013)

Questions for reflection: How can we include the children's voice in co-constructing the learning environment?

In what ways will we:

  • engage children in the process of determining and organizing materials in and around the room?
  • support them in making independent and informed choices? For example, are differentiated supports, such as photos, labels, and other visual aids, in place to help them make independent choices? Are materials and resources accessible to the children?
  • make sure that the children see their experiences reflected in the learning environment? For example, are the children's various backgrounds (e.g., cultural, linguistic, family structure, socio-economic) represented in the choice of reading materials?
  • ensure that the children's perspectives and ideas are represented in the environment and reflected in the selection of materials and resources?
  • include the children's voice in ongoing decisions about materials and resources and their organization and accessibility in the environment, without losing sight of the intention for learning?
  • involve the children in how and when the learning areas change and evolve?
  • make children's thinking and learning visible in the environment? For example, is the children's work displayed around the classroom?

The learning environment and beliefs about children

The following reflective questions can guide educators as they rethink traditional practices in the learning environment and move towards practices that reflect our current understanding of how children learn best.

See "The Learning Environment and Self-Regulation" in Chapter 2.2, "Thinking about Self-Regulation and Well-Being".

Questions for reflection: How does our learning environment reflect our beliefs about children and learning?

Our beliefs about children and how they learn are reflected in the learning environments we create. How does our learning environment reflect the following beliefs?

  • The learning environment functions as the "third educator".

    What does the environment say to the children? How do the items displayed on the walls enhance and extend children's thinking? How will we know if the environment is overstimulating, with too many distracting colours and materials? Do we have too many commercial materials that are not of real interest to the children?

  • Children learn through play and inquiry.

    In what ways do our existing resources, materials, and classroom layout support play-based, child-driven learning? What will we do to make the learning areas flexible so that they provide opportunities for purposeful learning and conversations? How will we monitor their effectiveness?

  • Children are competent and capable, and their learning is enhanced when their voice is included and when they are engaged with educators in co-constructing their learning environment (see above).

    Is the learning environment mostly built, made, and/or co-created with and by the children? What is our evidence?

  • The principles of universal design for learning (UDL) and differentiation support learning for all children.

    Does the environment allow for multiple entry points for learning and for demonstration of learning (saying and/or doing and/or representing)? Do our materials and resources support various different learning styles?

  • Children learn best when conceptual understandings from across the four frames are integrated.

    What do we do to remain alert to the connections that can be made between children's thinking and conceptual understandings from across the four frames – Belonging and Contributing, Self-Regulation and Well-Being, Demonstrating Literacy and Mathematics Behaviours, and Problem Solving and Innovating? In what ways does our learning environment support the development of children's self-regulation skills? Have we embedded materials and resources that support learning related to literacy and mathematics in all areas of the classroom? Do we provide opportunities for children to express their ideas through visual arts and music? In what ways do we provoke problem solving in areas unrelated to mathematics?

  • Play-based learning in an inquiry stance engages children's innate curiosity.

    Does our learning environment reflect the children's inquiries rather than featuring seasonal themes and assigned topics? Will the appearance of the learning environment change throughout the year? What will drive the changes? What might happen if we use fewer materials and arrange them in a novel way in the classroom? What might happen if we introduce natural and found materials?

  • Children benefit from understanding the intention for learning.

    Do the materials and resources in our learning environment confuse or "bury" the point of the learning? For example, do the children really understand that the words displayed on the walls inside popcorn kernels are high-frequency words? Or do our materials and resources help children grasp what they are learning? For example, do we display and discuss words as they crop up repeatedly in our conversations and in reading and writing?

Learning in the outdoors

The learning environment extends to the outdoors. A growing body of research suggests that connecting to the natural world contributes to children's mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well-being (Louv, 2005). Children's natural curiosity and sense of wonder can be fostered by providing them with many opportunities to learn outdoors. The learning that takes place in classroom experiences can be explored in the "extended classroom" that nature provides. Similarly, the natural environment can be reflected in the indoor learning environment.

For many reasons, including the prevalence of electronic media, children today spend relatively little time in natural environments. This "nature deficit" has been linked to disturbing trends such as childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Outdoor spaces offer valuable learning opportunities, and natural settings can inspire the kind of thinking, learning, leadership, and innovation that may be inhibited in children in the classroom but that, once revealed, can be incorporated back into the classroom environment.

In the Kindergarten program, learning in the outdoors is included as part of the instructional day, and the educators play an active role, engaging with children in an inquiry stance as they play, explore, and learn together outside the classroom.

Questions for reflection: How can we make the outdoors part of the learning environment?

In what ways can we:

  • extend the learning environment beyond the classroom – into the outdoors as well as to the rest of the school and to the community beyond the school? For example, how can we use diverse settings for inquiry and imaginative play to promote learning that can then be brought back into the classroom?
  • build outdoor learning into the flow of the school day?
  • reflect the natural environment within the classroom? For example, are we introducing natural and found objects among the materials children can use in the classroom?
  • help children to explore the natural world more deeply and directly, beyond the learning that natural items in the classroom can provoke?

Misconceptions about the learning environment:

  • That the learning environment should be designed with an emphasis on aesthetics, focusing on things like neutral colours and pretty storage containers (e.g., wicker baskets) and using commercial materials to decorate the walls, rather than on creating an environment that supports learning and makes children's thinking and learning visible
  • That the children's input amounts to little more than choosing the materials for a selected activity, such as dramatic play
  • That furniture should be arranged to facilitate whole-group activities, such as snack, lunch, or crafts, rather than to support learning as it occurs throughout the day
  • That "learning environment" refers merely to the size of the space and the furniture in the room, and refers only to the indoor classroom
  • That learning in the outdoors requires travel beyond the school grounds, or extensive knowledge of the natural world


  • footnote[1] Back to paragraph The environment as "third teacher" or "third educator" is central to the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the approach, considered the three teachers of children to be adults, other children, and their physical environment. Others think of the learning environment as the "third teacher" after the two classroom educators (Gandini, 1998, p. 177).