Our Sewickley Academy Early Childhood team began to implement changes to our curriculum and teaching practices, during the 2016-2017 school year, based on a new philosophy of how children learn. Known as the Reggio Emilia Approach, this philosophy is rooted in the idea that learning should be play-based and student-centered. Our Early Childhood team has studied this way of thinking through books, articles, seminars with speakers who specialize in the approach, and many internet searches, but we felt we needed more. We were incredibly honored to be sent to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to learn firsthand how this type of learning affects preschool and kindergarten students. We spent a week with educators from around the world, learning from top professionals in the field.
To understand the Reggio Emilia Approach to teaching, it is important to know the history of the city. Reggio Emilia, a town in the northern part of Italy, is home to approximately 170,000 people. Like all of Italy after World War II, Reggio Emilia was dealing with post-war depression and the aftermath of fascism, and the city was left in ruins. In the face of this despair, however, this small community worked together to build a school for the children using bricks and materials from buildings that had been bombed.
The energetic and highly-motivated community’s dedication to their children caught the attention of a man named Loris Malaguzzi. He left his job as a teacher in the state-run schools to become part of the effort. Malaguzzi studied at the University of Urbino and the Italian National Research Center in Rome, completing degrees in pedagogy and psychology. Throughout his education, Malaguzzi was heavily influenced by different educational theorists: Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and Montessori, each of whom inspired him to develop a new approach to working with children. Malaguzzi was a constructivist believing that each person constructs their own meaning through their own life experiences, and children are no different.
Today, Reggio collaborates with public and private schools of all levels in Italy, as well as in and around the community of Reggio Emilia. One such place is the new K-8 Loris Malaguzzi International Centre which was also the main venue for our week of study. Four hundred educators met in the auditorium as we stood to applaud each of the 47 countries present. Reggio Emilia, “The City of People” as it is known, supports the rights for education for all. They strongly believe that every child has a right to education no matter race, religion, or ability, and it is the responsibility of the community to build and grow together.
The Reggio Approach is based on the natural development of children. Children have infinite potential for learning from their environment which needs to be activated early on or it will be lost as they grow. Reggio Emilia teaches that learning is an interactive process of exchange, not an accumulation of knowledge. Children use a hundred different languages in their learning and thinking and express this knowledge through languages of creativity and discovery. In a Reggio Emilia preschool, children communicate and collaborate with each other and their teachers. It is the process of learning, not the final product, that allows each child’s self-discovery and ability to express how he or she sees the world. As a facilitator in this approach, teachers are considered co-learners and collaborators with the children, not just instructors.
Reggio Emilia philosophy is based upon the following set of principles:
- Children must have some control over the direction of their learning;
- Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing;
- Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they must be allowed to explore;
- Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.
According to Malaguzzi, the physical space where children learn is critically important in early childhood programs; he often refers to the learning environment as the “third teacher.” The three preschools we observed, each unique in their own way, demonstrated this concept with an open common space that was warm and inviting, providing an opportunity for the parent to talk with the teacher and to see their child’s involvement in class. Each school was filled with natural light, and student artwork and photographs were on display throughout the space. The schools have a room known as the “Atelier” that is filled with natural materials like shells, flowers, or vegetables, technology such as laptops and microscopes, and houses ongoing individual projects. We witnessed the interaction of adults with children in small groups and the interactions of children with their peers. We observed the children prepare lunch alongside the cooks by crushing herbs that were grown in the community garden.
We reflected on how we can bring this same sense of community not only to Sewickley Academy, but to the surrounding communities as well. Parent and community involvement are the cornerstones of the Reggio Emilia Approach. We discussed how our documentation, or “making learning visible,” can be shared throughout the Early Childhood building and our community.
The teacher’s role in allowing these processes to work is vital. Malaguzzi states that, “teaching is a profession that cannot afford to think small.” We have to let go of the predispositions that we know and allow children to discover on their own. Instead of providing children with cutouts of a flower and instructing them how to arrange it, we may give them a fresh-cut flower and allow them to use different languages of discovery, like drawing, painting, or using clay, to create their own version of that flower. This shift recognizes that every child sees the world differently and promotes self-expression. Our job as educators is to encourage their learning. We ask questions to prompt student thinking and document this process by making their learning visible through pictures, videos, transcribed conversations, and student work.
We learned that though we can’t be Reggio Emilia itself, we can and must fully embrace our unique qualities with integrity, which makes Sewickley Academy such a special place for children to learn and grow.
Written by Lindsey Petruska and Crista Pryor