The classroom environment as the third teacher


The spaces where we live, work, and learn each day have a profound impact on our experiences.


They have the power to cultivate a strong sense of self, belonging, inspiration, and motivation.


Our environments also encourage us to pause and experience wonder, beauty, comfort, and a new perspective.


This is especially true for students in schools and child care centers.


Made well-known through the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education, three teachers guide your child’s early learning years: the parent, the teacher, and the environment.


At Bright Horizons, our Discovery Driven Learning® framework emphasizes the importance of the environment. We create joyful, inspiring, and engaging Learner-Centered Environments to support the child’s development of agency, self-respect, and self-confidence through daily interactions with engaging materials.


The environment acts as the third teacher when we:

  • Create spaces that reflect the child’s emerging and evolving interests and create a sense of belonging. We want the environment to be a space that feels welcoming and comfortable for everyone. It should reflect children’s and families’ lives and include real, meaningful items, such as the children’s photographs, books, and work samples. We want children to have places for childhood that feel peaceful, engaging, and authentic.
  • Think creatively about layout and organization. Classroom environments are thoughtfully organized to offer space for a variety of learning areas, such as messy or wet art areas, reading and writing spaces, and places for science, math, project work, dramatic play, and large and small groups. Teachers work to create places for “protected” play away from traffic paths where children can delve into projects and play without interruption. Each of these spaces offers materials in low, open shelves or in accessible containers which promote children’s independence over their choices.
  • Intentionally choose materials to be beautiful, have purpose, and be engaging. We strive to use natural materials, such as wood, stone, wicker, and safe plants, as well as real household items, e.g., real dishes and silverware for mealtimes. These materials show respect for children’s competencies and support a calm, peaceful learning space. They feel pleasing in the hands and have aesthetic value as well.
  • Document learning.  Making children’s learning visible is a big part of Discovery Driven Learning because children feel respected, seen, and heard when they see their work displayed in meaningful ways around the room. Documentation at a child’s eye level helps them reflect on their work, extend thinking, and develop new ideas.
  • Create beautiful spaces. We believe the environment should be as aesthetically beautiful as it is practical. It should be organized, uncluttered, and designed to promote children’s independence. Teachers may offer visually pleasing displays, such as a vase with flowers, natural objects on an attractive shelf, or art materials sorted and organized by color in baskets or trays. We use natural light, and light from soft lamps to create a home-like ambiance suitable for learning.
  • Set children up for success and independence. A classroom should be designed at the children’s eye level, meaning all the materials and displays are at children’s level of sight, and not towering over them or out of reach. When we design spaces at children’s eye-level, children feel respected and competent. Learning materials are easy to access and visually organized on low, open shelves and containers. These shelves and baskets are labeled with images and names of each material, so children begin to identify print and the meaning it carries as well as feel competent in being able to independently clean up. 


Why a Bright Horizons child care center is a great place for childhood


In conclusion, the environment of your child’s center impacts everything from their social-emotional & physical well-being to their view of themselves and the world.


We design our centers with this much detail because we believe that a quality environment is essential to the success of your child’s early learning experience.


By curating spaces that are safe, engaging, and designed specifically for your children, they are free to discover their full potential.


Ready to start a conversation with a center director at your local Bright Horizons? Find a center near you.

Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands