Insights 1: Environment as the Third Teacher

As we mark our first month of school and reflect on all that is accomplished in such a short period of time, we begin our reflections series to share some of the insight and research behind our work. 
This is a chance to explain in more detail why we do what we do and to answer some questions about our practice so that you can bridge that understanding at home. 
At CNS, our mission is to deliver the conditions that define high-quality preschool, from the best compensated and highly trained educators to the most well-researched state-of-the art instructional practices, every detail matters -- and we are especially intentional about the experience that we provide for your children. Such intentionality is possible because of our core commitment to the most qualified teams of teachers and the best developed practice. The result is a difference that makes CNS unique.
For example, last Friday we welcomed a group of teachers to study the CNS environment because we have been identified as having designed spaces to promote the optimal learning. Given this recent attention, we thought this might be a great first topic for our insights series. 
What does it mean that our environment is the third teacher? Why do we pay such close attention to our space? 
One of the things that you will notice at CNS is the attention to the environment as third teacher. As you will see from this video on environment and provocations, teachers spend lots of time thinking about the impact of space on learning and the value of authentic materials on sophisticated inquiry. From the real digital microscopes to the fine art, our goal is to create the space that allows from true scientific inquiry, mathematical problem solving and artistic expression. 
While much of this has Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and Montessori influences from over 100 years, it is also informed by by growing brain research on executive functioning and optimal learning. 
We begin with walls, furniture, and floors in muted colors so that the true attention can be to the careful use of color in the work and documentation from the children. 
Why aren't there primary colors, alphabet rugs, and commercial posters in our classrooms? 
Not only are the traditional primary colors less appealing and less engaging, they also are less successful. In fact, growing studies referenced below have even shown the impact of this kind of decoration on everything from focus to later test scores. 
Our goal is to provide, learning labs and art studios that would inspire people of all ages. Our children deserve the optimal opportunities and we are committed to making sure every detail is just right. Recently, we shared a video from Michael Resnick of the MIT Media Lab who describes his project on Lifelong Kindergarten. 
At home, you might also find this intentional placement of toys and materials supports learning and engagement. 
How do we decide on the materials in the classroom? 

In addition to our attention to light, layout and design, we also want to ensure that every classroom has access to the same tools and experiences. 
At CNS, we are very careful to have real and authentic materials from the glasses and plates at snack to the hammers and safety goggles in small groups. Visitors quickly inquire about the many things that are accessible and perhaps less common in many preschools,  such as the glass jars full of natural materials, the fine art, the globe, the binoculars, the magnifying glasses, fresh flowers, bowls of fruit, types of literature...each and every item is discussed by our teams to consider what does every child needs to learn best. 
Why are all the baskets labeled in the same way? Why are there so many CNS made picture schedules or signs? 
There is also a great sense of order at CNS. While we have many messy moments (shaving cream, finger paint...), we know that children must learn to care for the materials to enjoy the full range.
The labels allow children to be independent in finding and returning things to their space. The labels help support their executive functioning and categorizing. The labels also support early literacy with picture cues and print. 
We rely on the visual supports also in our daily schedule, in our routines and agreements. Many of these give us steps to put our shoes on, steps for using a tissue, steps for cleaning up snack...All of this has the developmental support and predictability that help children learn. We also want to support children with specific learning profiles who may need more support in socio-pragmatic language, receptive language, body awareness....

Our spaces are designed to support the early meaning making, responsibility and sophistication. We know the child is capable when give the opportunity. 
How do we carefully stage provocations to balance connecting to familiar materials, exploring new opportunities and mastering important skills? 
Since children need a balance of familiar and novel with lots of time to practice, our teachers have to be well versed in how to provide the traditional early learning experiences that support development and the sophisticated worldly inquiry materials to extend the learning. 
The experiences that are staged each morning (and can often be seen on our Facebook and Instagram) are called provocations. 
Supporting the complex development of children requires a range of understanding by educators. Our teachers have to both know child development and nursery rhymes as well as scientific inquiry and fine art. Because at one moment children are figuring out toileting and eating and at another moment, coming up with clever poetic metaphors for the wind. As a result, teachers must know when to provide simple steps and when to offer wide experimentation and language. 
Each day, they must not only plan to offer experiences in every domain, but because brain research shows us that learning is integrated, they must figure out how to provide them in the most connected way. For example, you might see the sensory and fine motor practice of play dough presented aesthetically with dramatic play tools as well as  letter stamps for literacy awareness. Likely, they also may have made the play dough to support scientific understanding of chemistry.  This video offers an opportunity to appreciate the intentionality teachers demonstrate each day. 
The way that teachers add complexity to the familiar and differentiate for varied levels is through careful layering. Through their observations, assessments and notes, they decide what will be the next skill or question that children might benefit from exploring. Without a set curriculum or canned curriculum, they are able to match these experiences to the specific needs of their groups. 
 “The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experience s. We must widen the range of topics and goals, the types of situations we offer and their degree of structure, the kinds and combinations of resources and materials, and the possible interactions with things, peers, and adults.”
Loris Malaguzzi
How does this layering help children move through stages of development and mastery? 

Many of the materials in our environment are familiar throughout development because children need time to work through stages. 
How does the staging of materials influence and elevate the learning? 

One of the best examples of the power of a staged provocation might be the way that our colored pencils are organized in a matching container. When children see the tools so well presented, rather than just in a jar of mixed-up crayons, they tend to be more focused and deliberate on how they represent and use the colors in their art. 
How are other elements like our approach to food, our decision to being media free, our commitment to classroom management, focus on documentation of the process of learning...all impact the environment that children learn? 

Of course, the environment is not just the physical space, but also the overall culture of the school. From the Montessori peacefulness of gentle inside voices from teachers to the respect of the pace of childhood. CNS is not loud, rushed, or chaotic. Many decisions create our "environment" and those came up in our discussion with visitors. It is all interrelated and is a larger way of being. Over the many editions of our "insights" we will share other aspects as well. 
What is the largest take away about the environment?  

At the end of the presentation with these educators on Friday, and in our advocacy with educators all around the world, we acknowledge that the research in early childhood education is very clear. While many programs are nice and playful, the longitudinal impact rests in the quality of the program. 
As we compare the importance of creating an environment for optimal learning, we said 
  • there are some children who will have only fruits and vegetables for snack; and others who will have processed goldfish and sugary chemically-dyed bars
  • there are some children who will complete paper plate crafts; and others who will be making art inspired by fine art
  • there are some children who will use real hammers and tools; and others who will be left to plastic toys
  • there are some children who will design their own kitchen out of boxes and recycled materials; and others who will have pre-made kitchens
  • there are some children that will learn scientific terms like anemone-fish or clownfish; and others who know only media character names like Nemo
  • there are some children that will be outside every day for over a third of the day (rain, shine, sleet, snow...)and have movement throughout the day; and others who will only go out when the skies are dry and will wait for gym to move
  • there are some children who will learn literacy and math through real application; and others who will have decontextualized letter of the week
  • there are some children who will have digital microscopes to explore live animals; and others who will be coloring in worksheets of bugs
  • there are some children who will make agreements to foster a caring community; and others who will follow the rules to avoid a consequence or receive an award
All of the children will be fine, but according to research and simple intuition, the ones who have the more thoughtful experience will be healthier, more inventive, more creative, and more collaborative than those who don't. 
At CNS, we work tirelessly to integrate all the research for a measurably unique experience. 
We look forward to hearing your questions and sharing our research with you. Feel free to send inquiries our way, as we always appreciate the opportunity to answer them for the larger group. 
Cady and Kelly