The Third Teacher

By Sally Hall

Games shelves, musical instruments and seating area

You may have noticed that Dacres Wood looked a little different after the summer holidays! In the reserve the leaves were starting to brown, the baby moorhens had grown fast, and berries, helicopters and conkers were appearing on the trees. But the biggest changes were to be seen indoors!

Tool board

There were lots of new things to see indoors including: a music corner, new shelves stacked with games, a craft corner complete with bead and button boxes, fabric shelves, a new tool board in the garage and pockets on the wall for kids to store their ongoing projects (made by Rowan and one of the kids’ grandma!)

Some of our inspiration for the space was drawn from the Reggio Emilia approach from Italy which has many crossovers with self-directed learning. Reggio Emilia values an ordered and usable space which they call the ‘Third Teacher’ because, if set up correctly, the space can be a great inspiration for learning.

Craft bits board

Practitioners arrange their classrooms so that children can work on their projects with ease, and aim to fill their spaces with natural light, order and beauty. Furthermore, areas develop and evolve to match the emerging interests of the children, and authentic tools and materials fill the spaces as opposed to educational materials, respecting children’s capabilities and need to learn with the ‘tools of the culture’ (a term used in Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn).

With all this in mind, Rowan and I also just really wanted the space to be accessible and more practical to use. Materials and tools needed to be better organised and laid out in a fashion that the group would know where to find what they needed and so that they could see and reach them. We like the Reggio Emilia focus on natural materials, but didn’t want to avoid plastics and electronics. Mainly we wanted to set up opportunities for more child-led creative projects by making ‘Loose Parts’, whether plastic, natural or metal, more accessible and easy to find. We also wanted to work on the sound indoors, using furnishings and fabrics to soften the acoustics.

But all this takes time. One day during the holidays, Rowan and I were at Dacres Wood knee deep in games, books and toys to sort through. At lunchtime we sat to rest by the pond and looked around at the trees and the plants.

The pond at Dacres Wood

We thought about how much time it was taking to decorate and organise the indoors spaces, and sighed at how much more we still wanted to do. In comparison, the pond and the forest needs no curation at all! The forest is beautiful as it is, ever-evolving and abundant with materials to manipulate and use in so many different ways. In the last few weeks alone, we have used the natural materials from the forest to make pictures and nature posters, hawthorn ketchup, nettle rope and lots more.

Weaving with reeds
Making hawthorn ketchup
Catching frogs

But working on the ‘third teacher’ indoors was a labour of love, and the difference in the use of the space has been really worth the effort. The children have worked on so many craft projects this term that we’ve nearly run out of beads and buttons – we’ll have to pick up more from Work and Play soon.

The new music corner has been a hit too and the new violin and melodica have been well used, and lots of kids have learned ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, the tune we use to call for lunchtime and meeting time. In the garage, the tools are much easier to find now they are displayed on the tool board and vitally, the new peg system means that they get put straight back after use.

Finally, it was heartwarming to see that we were no the only group thinking about the ‘third teacher’ over the summer. At the beginning of term lots of other self-directed spaces around the world were posting pictures online of their spruced up spaces. I was particularly excited by the groups in France:

L’Ecole Champ Libre in Normandy

Palotchka in Nîmes:

L’Ecole Pleine Nature in the Pyrenees:

So the ‘Third Teacher’ at Dacres Wood, has cleaned up her image this year! However, she still has a way to go and will continue to evolve as our little group grows and develops.


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