What We Can All Learn from Reggio Emilia
By Tom Limbert, Head Teacher
Even before our plane landed on Italian soil, we felt grateful and fortunate. We knew that not everyone involved in early childhood education works for a school that values professional development enough and has the resources to send three staff members to northern Italy to be a part of the Spring Study Tour of Reggio Emilia. I had been reading and hearing about the schools of Reggio Emilia since the early 1990s and was eager and curious to see what made these schools so special. It did not take long for me to realize why these schools are such a topic of conversation among early childhood educators around the world. On the very first day of the conference, we watched a video that opened with the line, “We invest heavily in our children.” I was shocked to hear invest, a word heard a lot in our society, used in the same sentence as the word children. Our journey was underway.
At the opening meeting of the conference, we were all surprised by the graciousness and humility of our hosts as they told the two hundred attendees not to try duplicating their schools or their experience. Instead, they hoped a week of presentations and visits to schools would show that when people work together, for and with children, they can achieve wonderful results. Coming from Bing and having worked at other laboratory nursery schools, I was aware of this phenomenon. But the difference in Reggio Emilia is the involvement and commitment of the entire community in its schools and its children.
The first school in Reggio Emilia was built brick by brick from the rubble of World War II. Then in the early 1960s, the women’s movement played a great role in expanding the school system because women wanting to join the work force demanded that the local government help build quality schools for their children. The network of early childhood educational services directly operated by the municipality of Reggio Emilia now includes twenty-one scuole dell’infanzia (preschools) and thirteen nidi (infant-toddler centers). From the beginning, these schools have been concerned with the rights of children, and their philosophies and practices and are guided by the belief in the enormous potential of children.
Our weeklong study tour included visiting the schools and attending presentations conducted by teachers and other members of the Reggio Emilia school network. The careful design of each school is particularly impressive: not a simple afterthought of the pressing need for schools, each design reflects the collaboration of teachers and architects to build the best possible spaces for children to learn in. For instance, most schools have a piazza in the center for children to meet with friends, reflecting the emphasis on collaboration, dialogue, and community. As I traveled from floor to floor in the warm and inviting schools and felt the warmth and invitation that each school emitted, I thought of back home where we throw a modular building down if we need more space for our children to learn in.
The week’s presentations were uniformly inspiring, informational, and thought-provoking. Again and again throughout the week, speakers stressed the importance of dialogue and collaboration—collaboration among teachers, among children, among teachers and parents, among parents and the community. Presentations of classroom projects focused on this collaboration and also on the respect the teachers give to the children’s ideas. When a classroom of five-year-olds expressed interest in the climbing plants that hang from a large wall in the piazza of their school, the teachers helped channel the interest into an extended study of the plants. After recording a conversation in which the children discussed the possibility of drawing a replicate mural of the hanging plants, the teachers provided a huge piece of paper for the children to work with. The children also made a clay representation of the hanging vines that was then fired in a kiln, painted by the children, and now shares wall space with real plants.
In the most exciting presentation, fittingly on the last day of the study tour, Giovanni Piazza discussed “Extraordinary Encounters Between Children and Computers.” We saw pictures and heard stories of five-year-old children doing wonderfully creative projects with computers, scanners, and other modern technology—not alone, but in small groups. Though working with children for nearly thirty years, Piazza told of the children’s endeavors with admirable passion and child-like enthusiasm. He acknowledged the controversy surrounding young children and computers but explained that he trusts the children’s instincts and ideas when they are simply allowed to explore the technology that is an undeniable part of their world. The teacher or the parent is no longer the person who knows, Piazza reminded us, and accepting this idea requires adults to enter into a life-long learning process.
Children as teachers and teachers as learners: this idea was reiterated throughout the week and will stay with me throughout my life and career working with young children. As teachers, we are researchers whose subjects are children: we learn from them as much as they learn from us. It is a powerful reversal of the formula we were given as children, and it is an exciting and dynamic way to look at a profession that is not always regarded highly in our society. In Reggio Emilia, children are truly valued and respected and people collaborate with the children’s best interests always in mind. At Bing, it is true, we are fortunate to find ourselves in a similar environment of respecting and valuing the rights and potential of children. Just think what our society would be like if that environment were universal.