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My Field Trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy: The Bedrock of Higher-Level Learning

Reggio facility images

On my bucket list has always been a visit to Reggio Emilia, Italy where the famous experiential early childhood preschool approach is lauded and emulated worldwide. Having presented at the U.S. Play Coalition’s annual Value of Play Conference at Clemson University in April, I was kindly invited by ICS Senior Fellow, Dr. Dee Stegelin, who hosts a group of students from Clemson, the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston, to join them.

The Reggio Emilia Approach is an educational philosophy based on the image of the child who possesses strong potential, who is a subject of rights, and who learns and grows in the relationship with others. The child is not an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge by adults – rather he has skills and competencies which need to be nurtured and extended by adults in a rich environment. So, the Reggio Approach is not a system or method but rather a long-term educational project constantly evolving as educators reflect on the practical experience of young children’s learning processes.

The key values of the Reggio Approach are:

  • A powerful image of the child – it views children as strong, confident and competent
  • Relationships where children, “teachers” and parents are equally important
  • Children’s creativity – it emphasizes the importance of the environment in supporting children’s development, play and learning
  • Understand how children learn, as individuals and in groups – it does this through setting aside time for long-term projects and reflective practice.

A Little History

The city of Reggio Emilia is situated in northern Italy just 30 miles from Bologna and is a typical Italian city with a wonderful Piazza Camillo Prampolini where the open-air market operates twice a week, flanked by the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the civic museum. There are numerous restaurants and cafés all dotted around the city center and our favorite was Piazza Fontanesi where many spritzes were enjoyed after a long day of teaching and learning!

The area of Italy in which Reggio Emilia is situated was devastated by the effects of the Second World War. The pre-school was founded in 1945 – a small amount of money was given to the community following the sale of a tank, a few horses and an abandoned truck. The villagers had to begin to rebuild their lives, starting by building a preschool. They saw this as a way of giving their children a better future by building a new type of school – one where children would be taken seriously and believed in. In 1945, Loris Malaguzzi was a primary school teacher working in Reggio Emilia. When he heard about the preschool being built, he cycled to the village to find out what was happening. Listening to the women who were working and discovering how important the preschool was to them, he was inspired to learn more about very young children by training as a psychologist. Until his death in 1994, he dedicated his life to developing the Reggio Approach.

Hands-On Learning

The cherry on the cake was a wonderful morning spent at a Reggio infant-toddler center called Airone. The Pedagogista named Alexandra was in charge of the daily organization of life in the setting, staff management and overseeing projects (similar to what we would think of as a manager in UK settings or US daycare centers).The Ateliarista, Emilia, was involved in six different settings or centers – her responsibilities involve upkeep of the spaces and research for materials both natural and recycled (from local companies), and the building and construction outside and in the role play area. She works with the teachers to plan projects as well as helping with the documentation. The ateliaristas often have an artistic background which brings more to the classes, and the teachers and ateliaristas complement each other. The projects are always child-centred, and the child brings the skills, abilities and competencies to the project, and the role of the teachers is to enhance the skills of the child. They speak of Projects rather than Planning, as they feel that a plan is strict and can be rigid, whereas a project is flexible and can be adapted to suit the age and stage of development of each individual child and their interests.

An important element of the Reggio Approach is family involvement and participation. Alexandra spoke of the centers as “interactive places – not parking places!” They highly value the community in which the setting is located, keeping them informed of events happening and involving them as much as they can. Loris Malaguzzi, in the 1960s and 70s, used to actually take the children out into the streets and squares to involve the community. Nowadays, they are noticing less participation and they feel this is a social problem which is prevalent worldwide – they are trying to involve the parents through proposing new activities which include them (such as a beautiful circular sensory pathway which the parents help construct with the staff and children). The question is whether the lack of interest and involvement is a cultural or social or political problem – it was heartening to see that even in this little “shrine” of best practices, they too are suffering the challenges of our modern society.

I was drawn to the outdoor area and was entranced to observe a group of three children creating clay models inspired by a pumpkin, logs of wood and gourds. The outdoor area is completely natural – it is partly wooded and has a thick hedge where the children could hide and use as dens. There were logs set in an uneven circle and wonderful bamboo poles strung up to form a magical wind chime instrument. The terrain had mounds for climbing up and rolling down, and there was grass which was lovely and weedy and the children would collect the weeds and then pound them into concoctions in the “mud kitchen.” There was not a plastic toy or piece of equipment in sight!

An enduring image I will have forever is being in a small sensorial room with a teacher and three 18-month-old children who had little formal language, but plenty of motivation and energy. The teacher had set up a projector from which she showed pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Twin Towers, and Tower Bridge. These pictures were projected onto the wall and the children were playing with large cardboard cylinders (which had come from the inside of rolls of paper). With very little intervention from the teacher, the children would build the construction to emulate the picture on the wall – I have honestly never seen 18-month-old children so engaged and with such cognitive understanding of what they were doing.

The shrieks of delight as they achieved those feats is a sound that will ring in my ears eternally – I truly felt as though I had witnessed something very special and on a higher level of learning.

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