The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Years Education

 In educational terms the northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia has a firmly established worldwide reputation for forward thinking and excellence in its approach to early childhood education. It is a socio-constructivist model. That is, it is influenced by the theory of Lev Vygotsky, which states that children (and adults) co-construct their theories and knowledge through the relationships that they build with other people and the surrounding environment. It also draws on the work of others such as Jean Piaget, Howard Gardner and Jerome Bruner. It promotes an image of the child as a strong, capable protagonist in his or her own learning, and, importantly, as a subject of rights. It is distinguished by a deeply embedded commitment to the role of research in learning and teaching. It is an approach where the expressive arts play a central role in learning and where a unique reciprocal learning relationship exists between teacher and child. Much attention is given to detailed observation and documentation of learning and the learning process takes priority over the final product. It is a model that demonstrates a strong relationship between school and community and provides a remarkable programme for professional development.  We must look back to the period immediately after the Second World War to understand the genesis of what has become known as the ‘Reggio Approach’. Two factors can be seen to have had a fundamental and far-reaching effect. It was the parents and citizens of Reggio Emilia who, in a show of collective responsibility and the desire to create a better society for their children, occupied a disused building that they turned into the first nursery school. This and the other schools that followed were quite literally built by the people. The effort and will of the parents was given direction through the extraordinary vision of Loris Malaguzzi, at the time a young teacher, who dedicated his life to the development of the philosophy now known as the Reggio Approach. In 1963 the local council or municipality opened the first municipal pre-school establishments for children of 3–6 years and in 1970 these were joined by the first infant-toddler centres for infants from three months to 3 years. In the late 1960s the original schools founded in the post-war period were integrated into the municipal system and given renewed impetus. From the start the municipal-run schools have been committed to progressive thinking and the advancement of an educational project that centres on the child. For these reasons the Reggio schools have attracted significant global interest and received international accolades.

 

 The Image of the Child

 

 All that takes place within the Reggio schools in terms of learning and teaching, building relationships and professional development stems from one overriding factor – the image of the child. Rather than seeing the child as an empty vessel waiting eagerly to be filled with knowledge, Reggio educators believe strongly in a child with unlimited potential who is eager to interact with and contribute to the world. They believe in a child who has a fundamental right to ‘realise and expand their potential’. This is a child who is driven by curiosity and imagination, a capable child who delights in taking responsibility for his or her own learning, a child who listens and is listened to, a child with an enormous need to love and to be loved, a child who is valued. Indeed the way in which children’s many strengths and abilities are valued and ‘listened to’ is fundamental to this approach.

 The words and conversations of the children demonstrate capacities to reflect and make hypotheses on very complex and often abstract thoughts and ideas, when given the time and emotional space to do so. Fundamentally, then, this is an image of a child who is a subject of rights.

 By valuing children in this way educators put much more emphasis on really listening to children. Indeed, the pedagogical basis of the whole Reggio approach has been called the pedagogy of listening – listening being a metaphor for the educators’ attempt to gain as real an understanding as possible of children and their learning processes. When our youngest children are literally listened to and given the time and space to express themselves we are faced with children capable of doing so in a much more complex and abstract way than children are generally given credit for. This is something that is revealed in the Reggio schools through the transcriptions of children’s in-depth conversations at a daily level. Unlike other pedagogies that can be guilty of treating early infancy as a preparation for later childhood and adulthood, and consequently seeing nursery education as a kind of antechamber to later stages of formal education, the Reggio Approach considers early infancy to be a distinct developmental phase in which children demonstrate an extraordinary curiosity about the world. Indeed, the name of the schools, scuole dell’infanzia (schools of early childhood), does not have the connotations of ‘preparation’ and ‘pre-ness’ inherent in the Anglo-American term ‘pre-school’. This image of the child has a fundamental and far-reaching effect on the learning and teaching that takes place in the schools.

 


 WHAT IS THE REGGIO APPROACH

 

 One of the most interesting elements within the Reggio Approach is the central importance given to the expressive arts as a vehicle for learning. Detailed drawing activities are a daily occurrence in the schools and the outstanding standard of work produced by the children has become widely acknowledged. Children are also encouraged to participate in a variety of expressive activities such as sculpture, dramatic play, shadow play, puppetry, painting, dancing, music, ceramics, construction and writing. 

 Certain topics such as ‘light and dark’ recur as stimuli for children’s learning, and teachers and children have a wide variety of material and resources at their disposal. For such a theme children may be given the opportunity to explore the effects of light and shadow using torches and light tables. They may have the opportunity to draw with light by making holes in black card that is lit from behind; they may be given the opportunity to create shadow stories using objects on an overhead projector, stories in which they themselves can physically become a part.

 Over the years, visitors from other countries have occasionally questioned the concentration on the graphic languages over other subjects, for example music or expressive movement. It is undoubtedly true that the startling detail and expressiveness in children’s drawings is a distinctive feature of the approach but it has never been considered the most important. In recent years the author has witnessed a tangible evolution in the development of other expressive languages with children.

 


 Why stress the expressive arts over literacy and numeracy?

 Consistent with the work on multiple intelligences by American psychologist Howard Gardner, educators in Reggio Emilia are fully aware of the importance of developing all areas of learning and understanding, not only the logical and linguistic. While literacy and numeracy activities undoubtedly have their place in the daily activities of the pre-school establishments, teachers believe strongly in the central role that the expressive arts have to play. 

 This is not a free journey but neither is it a journey with rigid timetables and schedules; rather, it is akin to a journey guided by a compass. Reggio educators talk of working without a teacher-led curriculum but this does not mean that forward thinking and preparation do not take place. Rather, teachers learn to observe children closely, listen to them carefully and give value to their own ideas so that they might gain an understanding of what interests children most and create strategies that allow the children to build upon their interests. Topics for study can come from the children themselves, from subjects that the teacher knows naturally interest children and also from the family and the greater community. Projects do not follow rigid timetables but rather meander slowly at the pace of the children. Children may be involved in a specific project over a lengthy period of time but not every day; rather, they return to it as their interests dictate, revisiting and re-evaluating what they learn. Children are the protagonists of their learning and are encouraged by teachers to develop projects and solve problems among themselves, using the teacher as a tool who can ‘lend’ help, information and experience when necessary. Central to this mode of learning and teaching is the development of reciprocal relationships of love and trust between adult and child and between the children themselves. Learning always takes place within a group setting because Reggio educators see interaction and the consideration of differing points of view to be fundamental to the learning process. The building of such relationships and indeed the development of such projects that can continue for days, weeks and sometimes the school year, takes a great amount of time and cannot be constrained by school timetables or specialist curricular lessons. Time, and how it is conceived, is therefore an important factor. Within the nurseries, learning and teaching take place always at the pace of the child.

 


 What is the role of the teacher in this type of learning process?

 The role of the teacher in the learning–teaching relationship known as progettazione can be summarised as follows.

  •  The teacher seeks to know each child as an individual person and to create a trusting relationship in which learning can take place.
  •  The teacher strives to support and encourage the child on the learning journey, encouraging them to reflect and to question. In this sense, the role of the teacher is not to dispense information or simply to correct. Rather, the teacher is like a tool that the children use when most needed. Sometimes they may observe; at other moments they act as co-investigators or scribes.
  •  They may challenge or provoke ideas through the use of open-ended questions and provocations of many kinds. Indeed, a fundamental stage in progettazione is knowing how to re-launch an idea or concept with the children in a way which provokes them into taking their understanding and experience to the next level.
  •  There is an enormous respect for children’s own theories and hypotheses. Allowing children to make mistakes in their quest to solve problems is considered fundamental to the learning process. Teachers are not quick to intervene at every problem the children confront. Indeed, allowing children to travel along what the adult may consider ‘the wrong path’ and encouraging the children to realise this autonomously is considered an important, if controversial, learning strategy.
  •  Through close observation and evaluation of evidence, the teacher learns to judge when intervention is most appropriate. It is only when time is taken to build a close and trusting relationship with the children that the teacher can become confident in this role. This remains one of the principal reasons for teachers and children remaining together for the three-year duration.

 


 The teacher is also a researcher into the ways in which children learn.

 

 The educator must observe the child’s learning process as closely as possible. By observing, the teacher enters into a relationship with the child. Reggio educators spend a huge amount of time observing children working in small groups in an attempt to come closer to the children’s understanding. The process of observation is considered partial and subjective, hence the need to observe and re-observe and to consider varying points of view.

 


 Community and Parent–School Relationships.

 

 Reggio educators describe their approach to learning and teaching as a ‘pedagogy of relationships’ as it is founded on the conviction that we learn through making connections between things, concepts and experiences, and that we do so by interacting with other people and with our surrounding environment. This is evident in the key role given to participation at every level: both within school (between children and between children and adults) and also outwith the school (between families and school and between the greater community and school). Parent and Community Participation is one of the most distinctive features of the Reggio Approach. Its central importance to the life of the school is highlighted in the Charter of Rights, which includes a section on the rights of parents.