When it’s time for children to start their schooling, parents face big decisions almost immediately. Different educational philosophies are available beginning in preschool that will govern curriculum, teaching and testing in the classroom.
One that U.S. parents are almost sure to encounter is Reggio Emilia education, an Italian form of preschool that has gained popularity in the U.S.
“What struck me in Reggio Emilia was seeing how imagination was cultivated there, reinforcing … the children’s sense of the possible,” Jerome Bruner, a well-known educational psychologist, wrote in the preface to “The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation.”
Bruner’s observation came on his first trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy, where the preschools were launched after World War II and still operate today. Many schools in the U.S. take inspiration from Reggio Emilia, offering a student-centered environment that encourages children to learn through experience, express themselves and play a role in directing their education.
“Young children are encouraged to explore their environment and express themselves through multiple paths and all their ‘languages,'” Bruner wrote. “Children experiment … in using spoken language, gestures, drawing, painting, building, clay and wire sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, music and emerging writing, to name but a few.”
Reggio Emilia and Creativity
Stacy Salley-Proctor, lead infant and early childhood consultation specialist at Montclair State University, says the exploration and expression integral to Reggio Emilia are important to help children discover themselves.”Since everyone learns differently, Reggio Emilia’s varied ways of teaching open the door for children to discover how they best understand and learn,” she wrote in an email.Bruner, who died in 2016, captured a scene of Reggio Emilia in action in his writing. “One day, in a Reggio municipal nursery school, I was observing some 4-year-old children and a teacher who were projecting shadows and making efforts to draw them,” he wrote. “The (children’s) concentration was absolute, but even more surprising was the freedom of exchange in expressing their imaginative ideas about what was making the shadows so odd, why they got smaller and swelled up … (the teacher) behaved as respectfully as if she had been dealing with Nobel Prize winners.”
An Emphasis on Documentation
Parents in the U.S. are used to testing that shows how students progress, and schools are generally happy to show how much children have learned. In Reggio Emilia preschools, “documentation of children’s learning isn’t to assess what they have learned, but to share the whole group’s learning with the children themselves,” Jen Lumanlan, host of the “Your Parenting Mojo” podcast, wrote in an email. “It is also shared with the school community, parents and the wider community.”
Hilary Seitz, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, described some topics Reggio Emilia teachers may document in Young Children, an education journal published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. They include:
— Individual child growth and development, such as progress in language development.
— Expected behaviors within groups, such as when playing with toys or eating together.
— Curriculum-driven activities, such as field trips, presentations and celebrations.
— Curriculum projects, such as learning about the life cycle of plants.
— Work samples that meet learning standards.
— Questions and answers about topics, such as classroom routines.
“The unique way children’s work is displayed is the epitome of child-centered and child-focused,” Sari Goodman, founder of The Parental Edge, which provides parent coaching and teacher training, wrote in an email.
“Display boards … come entirely from the children’s work, often accompanied by photos of the children engaged in the project and quotes dictated by the children to the teacher about their feelings, interpretations or explanations of their processes,” she says.
Jennifer Dietrich, who had three children attend The Willow School, a Reggio-inspired school in Georgia, speaks fondly of the “huge” binder of art, photos and descriptions showing student activities.
“One page could be a photo collage with a writeup,” she says. “‘Today we did this walk and found acorns and this is what we talked about.’ Another day could be, ‘Here are photos where we played with puddles most of the day.’ Every little thing my kid said would be in that book.”
The Classroom Environment
While most preschools try to look nice, with colorful toys carefully arranged in bins, a wall of books and an alphabet chart on the wall, Reggio Emilia schools take this to a new level. The classroom environment is very important, so much so that they call it “the third teacher.”
A quick search for Reggio-inspired classrooms on Pinterest shows brightly lit spaces, multiple textures, colorful art and wooden toys. Many of the rooms are beautiful, going far beyond standard preschool fare.
“The classrooms usually include areas you would normally find — dramatic play, book area, blocks, etc.,” Teresa Cole, founder and director of The Willow School wrote in an email. “But the kids are not confined to keep materials where they ‘belong.’ There are no toys that have one specific purpose or that ring, ding or sing. You’ll see lots of loose parts, art materials, clay … everything is open to interpretation.”
That interpretation is led by students and guided by teachers in discussions that often lead to exercises and small projects, which are then documented and shared.
Natalie Phillips, assistant professorial lecturer at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, saw healthy interaction as a teacher in a Reggio Emilia-inspired program. “I witnessed my preschool-aged students engage in regular dialog about their world, where they spoke about their families, environment and homes,” she wrote in an email.
“Two students, and eventually 10, returned to fears about the dark, and the illuminating power of light,” she says. “They discussed the source of natural light, the presence of artificial light and the necessity of darkness. These students used wooden blocks, rocks and flashlights to establish an elaborate nightlight system for the class to use during daily nap time.”
At a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool, parents won’t be handed a sheet stating everything their children will learn. Even the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, don’t have a blueprint for exactly what to teach. Often called an “emergent” curriculum, it varies because it is led by children, with teachers actively seeking out their interests.
Adam Cole, music director at The Willow School, says he starts with a plan of songs and games. “However, I am always on the lookout for something,” he wrote in an email. “If we do a song about being happy and a child says ‘I feel sad,’ we can change the song.”
Skills often picked up in Reggio-inspired schools include working well in groups, problem solving, welcoming new experiences and exhibiting confident self expression.
“We can see in our son his confidence and caring for his classmates,” Dietrich says. “He was encouraged to explore things he was interested in and it was an uplifting experience.”
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