Blogger Early & Family Literacy committee

Library Environment: Third Teacher & Invisible Hand

Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.

~James Clear, Atomic Habits

Two years ago, I read James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.  I gained several practical insights, but the sentence above shifted my entire paradigm sparking several changes in my elementary school library environment. Up until this point, I had spent most of my time dedicated to researching and implementing best teaching and literacy strategies. These are certainly important – strong and effective teaching and researched based story times are important for developing young readers – but I had never given intentional thought to my library and story time environment. Nor had I ever offered parents strategies for making the home a place that fosters early literacy skills.

In true librarian form, I began to research environment and quickly discovered the Reggio Emilia Approach (REA).  The philosophy began in the Italian city of Reggio in the late 1940s. Parents built schools that fostered critical thinking skills through both relationships and the learning environment. The Reggio Emilia approach considers the learning environment “the third teacher” alongside the adults and children.  An effective learning environment is not merely functional, but also beautiful, child-centered, and reflective of learning. In her book, Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom, Carol Fraser explains, “a classroom that is functioning successfully as a third teacher will respond to the children’s interests, provide opportunities for children to make their thinking visible and then foster further learning and engagement”.

I read several books about the Reggio Emilia approach and even had the opportunity to spend a weekend learning at the Opal School housed in the Portland Children’s Museum. Three days observing and interacting in these classrooms equipped me with teaching insights and practical ideas that I couldn’t wait to implement when I returned to my school library. What struck me most about the weekend was the power of a warm, welcoming, and literary rich environment and how this “third teacher” and “invisible hand” is crucial for nurturing emerging and early literacy skills. Children need to feel comfortable before any learning can take place.  The following is a list of the ways in which I have attempted to make my library environment a third teacher, a place where children feel comfortable and valued, and an invisible hand that helps develop emerging literacy skills.

Lighting – Natural and soft lighting is key, promoting a gentle and calm atmosphere. I bought extra floor lamps (I know this might not be allowed in all libraries and schools) and always have the library blinds open allowing natural light to flood the library. I keep the overhead fluorescent lights off. Strands of warm white twinkle lights hang above my teaching easel and various other places throughout the library.

Labels – I created simple labels for the items surrounding my story time and teaching area.

Exploration Centers – Never one for complicated step-by-step crafts, this simple concept was enlightening and liberating. After we read a book together, the children choose a table to visit. On the tables are loose parts or a simple art activity. For example, after reading Oliver Jeffers’ How to Catch a Star, one of the tables had half sheets of black paper, white crayons, and the small foil star stickers. Another table had small wooden stars and placemat sized pieces of white paper. Children were invited to make letters or words out of the stars. The third table had outlines of stars and a tray with small buttons, tiles, and cardstock stars. The children used the materials to fill in the stars and then returned the materials to the correct part of the tray. 

Music – Soft classical music is playing as the children walk into the library, when they look for books, and as they work in centers.

Baskets of books – Never underestimate the power of a basket of books. I have baskets made out of natural materials (instead of bright plastic) nestled all around the library with soft cushions next to each basket.

Literacy Provocations – Letter provocations are ways for nonreaders to manipulate letters and words. Wooden alphabet blocks, rubber letter stamps and washable inkpads, wooden letter tiles, letter beads, and magnetic poetry are favorites with all ages.

Mail Center – I have a permanent “post office” in the library. On a small table lives a mailbox, postcards, and small notecards and envelopes. Students know they can write me or another student a letter and “mail” it. My youngest students often draw pictures or write a series of random letters, but even this is promoting literacy and communication skills.

Eliminate Visual and Physical Clutter – I work hard to keep our learning area simple and streamlined so that the children’s attention is on our book, the words, and their activities.

Loris Malaguzzi, known for his development and contribution to the Reggio Emilia approach writes, “We value space, to create a handsome environment and its potential to inspire social, affective, and cognitive learning. The space is an aquarium that mirrors the ideas and values of the people who live (and learn) in it.”

Library spaces and home environments can be a third teacher and invisible hand gently pushing children toward new and deeper literacies.


Fraser, S. (2012). Authentic childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the classroom. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

Fernández, M. & Feliu Torruella, M. (2017). Reggio Emilia: An Essential Tool to Develop Critical Thinking in Early Childhood. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 6(1), 50-56. doi: 10.7821/naer.2017.1.207

Today’s blog post was written by Emmie Stuart, Librarian at the Percy Priest Elementary in Nashville, TN, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. She can be reached at 

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of:

I. Commitment to Client Group

III. Programming Skills

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *