This is the third part in an ongoing series about finding the right preschool for your family; you can read the introduction here. The first posts covered Montessori and Waldorf schools.
“Imagination” by naokosstoop
Full disclosure: I taught in a Reggio-Inspired school for three years, and overall I really enjoyed the experience. There are so many terms used to describe this approach to education, it can become horribly confusing – Reggio Emilia, Reggio-Inspired, emergent curriculum, the project approach, inquiry-based learning – enough already! For the sake of simplicity, throughout this article I am going to use the term Reggio-Inspired. So what is a Reggio-Inspired school? Simply put, it is a school whose practices are inspired by the now rather famous preschools in the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy.
In this article, I will walk you through a day in the life of a Reggio-Inspired class, take a look at the unique way curriculum is developed, the background, philosophy, strengths, critiques and resources. I am excited to tell you that I have also corralled Lori Pickert to answer a few questions for us – Lori is the former director of a Reggio-Inspired school, and currently is a project-based homeschooling Mama, blogger, and educational consultant – look for the interview later this week. Ready to get started?
A Day in the Life:
Child working on a mural, Reggio Emilia, Italy; photo courtesy Reggio Children
The sunlight is streaming in through large windows, and natural objects are carefully arranged alongside art supplies and other materials around the classroom. Throughout the room is evidence of the children’s work: photographs of children working on projects, transcripts of conversations, stories, paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Each day is a new chance for exploration – you never know what will happen, or where the children will lead. The current project began with the children’s interest in flowers. A group of children really wanted to pick flowers to give to one another in bouquets. After several conversations with the children and with each other, the teachers decided that this was worth exploring.
Over the weeks, the flower project had taken them to a local Lavender Farm on a field trip, to a florist shop, and to the library, where the class checked out many books on flowers. In the classroom, the project has splintered into several groups – one group of children is very interested in planting and growing flowers, another is building a florist shop out of cardboard boxes, and a third group has veered off and become interested in creatures that live underground, especially worms.
The classroom is ever-changing, to meet the needs and interests of the class. A work table is set up in the room where a small group of children are examining seeds, digging in soil, and watering plants. A vermicomposting center (worm composting) has been established, and two girls are working with a teacher there, examining worms and gently turning the earth. In the center of the room, a group of five children are painting a massive cardboard box structure – soon to be the flower shop.
A boy begins to get hungry midmorning, and heads over to the snack table to fix himself something to eat. He carefully pours himself a glass of water, puts a few slices of cheese and a piece of apple onto a plate and sits down. Soon, several of his friends have joined him for a quick snack. When they are done, they clean up their dishes and get back to work on the flower shop.
As the children work and play, the teachers are making careful observations. The teacher sitting at the vermicomposting center is writing down the questions the children have about worms – she does not give them the answers to their questions, but approaches them with an attitude that says, “we’ll find out together.” The other teacher is photographing the work on the flower shop, and recording snippets of conversation going on around the building of the shop. The room is a happy buzz of activity.
At lunch time, the children wash hands and sit down together to eat. The table is set nicely, with small vases of flowers and real plates. After cleaning up the dishes, the afternoon light beckons many of the children out into the garden. One of the teachers accompanies the group going outside, while the other teacher stays in with the kids who want to paint.
After a while, one of the children painting suggests that they paint outside, in the garden. The teacher says “Okay, why not?” and so the children help their teacher carry paper, brushes, paints, and cups of water outside into the garden. This little group paints in the garden, laying on their stomachs, leaning against trees, for much of the afternoon. The two girls who were working with the worms inside have been bug-hunting under rocks in the garden. In the late afternoon, an impromptu story time starts up, and pretty soon most of the children have gathered around, tired from a very busy day.
Reggio-Inspired Preschool of the Arts, Madison, WI
There is no set curriculum in a Reggio-Inspired school. Rather, the curriculum is open to all possibilities, with topics for exploration based on the interests of the class. This is sometimes referred to as Emergent Curriculum, the Project Approach, or Inquiry Based Learning. Projects can last anywhere from a day to a year, and may end up somewhere completely different from where they began (for instance a project beginning with flowers may eventually turn into a study of stores and commerce by way of a flower shop).
Teachers carefully observe the children and ask questions to determine the direction the class will take. Communication is vital – teachers need to share their observations with one another and with parents, to keep everyone abreast of the constantly shifting curriculum.
No matter what the project, many modes of expression will be used: painting, drawing, storytelling, 3D sculpture, dramatic play, music, poetry, writing, map making, and more can all be used to express what the children are learning. These are what founder Loris Malaguzzi described as The Hundred Languages of Children.
The arts are vital to the schools in Reggio Emilia, and art plays a large role in most Reggio-Inspired schools as well. In Reggio Emilia, each municipal preschool has an atelier as well as an atelierista – a teacher trained in the visual arts – to help the children and teachers realize their ideas. Art techniques are taught, and children are encouraged to talk about their own and other’s work objectively. More collaborative artwork is done than in a typical preschool: groups of children often work together on a single mural and are encouraged to revise not only their own work, but their friends work as well.
Exploring the community is a regular feature. Field trips can be quite frequent, and spontaneously arise from the needs of the class. In a Reggio-Inspired school, a field trip is used as another method of gathering information and exploring a topic. For example, if a class wants to know more about trains, they may take a trip to watch trains come and go at the station or take a ride on the subway.
The classroom is seen as the third teacher. The schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, are beautiful – floor to ceiling windows let the light stream in, the classrooms open to a center piazza, and each classroom also opens to the outside. Of course, unless a school is built from scratch, we are usually not lucky enough to have such ideal conditions! Still, a Reggio-Inspired classroom should feel light, and great care should be taken to arrange objects, organize supplies, and display artwork and documentation. Also, the classroom is seen as flexible in a Reggio-Inspired school – throughout the year, furniture will be moved and materials will be rotated to suit the needs of the class.
Background & Philosophy:
Reggio-Inspired Learning Brooke Preschool, Cranston, RI
In 1963, Loris Malaguzzi founded the municipal preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, that we now think of as Reggio schools. Malaguzzi championed the right of children to express themselves in a multitude of ways, and stressed the need for parents and teachers to communicate and work together. These schools are a true collaboration between children, teachers, and parents.
Reggio-Inspired schools view learning as an exciting, creative inquiry process. This is very different from the traditional view that school is a place to be passively filled with knowledge. The teachers in a Reggio-Inspired school are not there to give answers; they are there to observe, to facilitate learning, and to learn right alongside the children.
Anything and everything is considered worthy of study, as long as the children are curious about it. The seeds for projects undertaken in Reggio-Inspired classrooms come from inspiration of all sorts: A new baby in a child’s family can prompt a baby or care-taking project, a new pet chicken at the school might ignite an interest in flight (why can’t the chicken fly very well, but other birds can?), while play in the block area could lead to a study of skyscrapers; the potential is limitless. Ideas are sometimes introduced by teachers, but it is the children who will determine the direction the project takes.
Documentation is a key part of any Reggio-Inspired classroom: Paintings, sculptures, photographs of work, written transcripts of conversations and stories should be readily apparent when you walk into the class. This documentation gives children something to refer back to when they are working on a project, and gives parents a window into the learning process.
Parents are often highly involved in Reggio-Inspired schools. Some are parent cooperatives, where parents regularly work alongside teachers, while other schools include parent volunteers. Parent outreach and education is also vital, and many Reggio-Inspired schools hold evening workshops and meetings to accommodate working parents.
What Reggio-Inspired Schools Do Well
- Integrated Art education. Myriad forms of artistic expression are a fundamental part of Reggio-Inspired schools, and some schools have an art specialist and dedicated art space, similar to the atelierista and atelier in the Italian schools. Art is incorporated into every project.
- Building critical thinking skills; learning how to learn. Children gain experience asking questions and hunting for answers. They learn to trust themselves, as their curiosity is met with enthusiasm.
- Parental and community involvement. Reggio-Inspired schools are typically very good at communicating with families and offering workshops, classes, and volunteer opportunities.
- Because the Reggio schools are so different from other schools, it takes a lot of work to educate teachers and families about the philosophy behind the school, and some schools do this more successfully than others. This is not to say that there aren’t excellent Reggio-Inspired schools out there; there are. Don’t be afraid to ask for a tour, ask lots of questions, and go with your instincts.
- Some parents are simply not comfortable with such an open-ended learning environment. A Reggio-Inspired school looks and operates much differently from other preschools, with the curriculum driven by the children instead of being teacher-directed, and some families are not comfortable with this.
Is Reggio right for your family?
If you are looking for an open-ended, creative environment for your child, a Reggio-Inspired school could be just what you are looking for. Reggio-Inspired schools thrive on curiosity, critical thinking, and free expression. If you are looking for a school with a predictable curriculum and teacher-directed topics, this may not be right for your family. There are not a whole lot of Reggio-Inspired schools out there – although the numbers are growing – if you are interested in a Reggio-Inspired school but cannot find one in your area, you might want to consider getting together with other parents in your community to form a cooperative preschool – if there is any interest in this, I would be happy to pull together another post with information on starting a parent cooperative preschool.
North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) – Background on the schools in Reggio Emilia, links to international organizations involved in the Reggio-Inspired schools.
Reggio-Inspired – An social network devoted to collaboration and communication among Reggio-Inspired educators.
Reggio Children – Information on the Hundred Languages of Children Exhibition, professional development, and background information.
“A School Must Rest On The Idea That All Children Are Different” - Article in Newsweek, 1991, describing the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Public Preschool Program in Englewood Uses Italian Approach – Article in the NYTimes, 2009, descibing a public New Jersey school that has adopted the Reggio approach.
Learning Materials Workshop – This online shop carries many books about and by the children of Reggio Emilia.