The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children

By Lisa Wesley, Teacher

The initial springboard of learning is wonder and curiosity,” said Amelia Gambetti, an international consultant for Reggio Children, an early-childhood education organization based in Reggio Emilia, Italy. More than 200 early-childhood professionals attended a conference held in Santa Monica, Calif., January 28-30, about the Reggio Emilia schools’ approach to education. Gambetti illustrated Reggio Emilia’s belief in the importance of listening to children’s ideas and creating conditions for learning that will enhance children’s powers of thinking. The schools’ intention, she says, “is to generate questions and search for answers.” Teachers see themselves as learners and researchers alongside children. Their role is also to listen and document children’s thoughts and ideas so they can be used to encourage further exploration and also be revisited to provide further thoughts on a topic.

The conference was held in connection with the Santa Monica opening of “The Wonder of Learning—The Hundred Languages of Children” exhibit this past January. This traveling exhibit tells the story of the educational experiences of young children in the municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy, an area that is internationally known for its innovative and thoughtful approach to education in early childhood.

Bing teachers Lars Gustafson, Mark Mabry, Chia-wa Yeh and I attended the conference. The exhibit brought to life several school projects, or areas of exploration, through photos, videos, children’s words, and sometimes actual examples of their creations. One area showed toddlers’ exploration of a variety of paper, cloth and similar materials through one color: black. Working with only one color, the children concentrated on other aspects

of the materials. They crumpled, tore, rolled paper and otherwise explored the different properties of the materials. This project highlighted the fact that the children are valued for what they know and are capable of from a very young age. The Reggio Emilia municipal schools serve children from 3 months to 6 years.

Another project highlighted the Reggio Emilia schools’ emphasis on natural materials, as well as involving children in the process of learning and creating. Children gathered leaves, sticks, bark, flowers and other natural materials and then sorted them. Later they were ground into powders and used for explorations with clay. Eventually the children mixed the powders into the clay and collaboratively created a “bracelet” for a tree. They brought the bracelet outside to a tree, essentially returning the materials to the outdoor environment. Collaboration is a skill that is valued and fostered as part of Reggio Emilia’s approach to learning.

One of the most captivating examples of their approach was seen through children’s explorations of light. Participants saw a video of toddlers interacting with sunlight as it came through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a classroom casting a pattern of light and shadow on the floor that changed as they explored it. Photos and written documentation of older children exploring light from projectors and the sun using a variety of materials, such as bottles, plastic and tools, were also on display. Two groups of older children took their exploration further. One group designed a “light-catching machine” to explore sunlight. The children had to figure out how to catch and reproduce paths of light, eventually creating a “path of light” to illuminate certain areas of their school. This required a great deal of collaboration, planning, design, focus and experimentation. Another group constructed a “tower of light,” a sculpture on wheels that could be moved to seek out the right sunlight and was built in three parts that could be stacked and interchanged to obtain varied reflections. Projects like this often require the use of experts from the community, such as carpenters or engineers, who can help support the children’s ideas and broaden their knowledge of a topic. As part of the exhibit, participants viewed the actual “tower of light” and did their own experimenting with light through the use of light tables and projectors.

As part of the conference, participants toured First Presbyterian Nursery School. Their staff was inspired by the Reggio Emilia schools and sought to provide their own interpretation of the approach. Many elements of the Reggio Emilia schools were visible at First Presbyterian. For example, shelves displayed photos

of the families and many examples of children’s work. There were many cozy spaces for children to play alone or in small groups. The furniture in the housekeeping area, as well as the cups and plates used for meals, could have been found in any home. Throughout the school, children’s playthings were arranged beautifully, often in baskets. There was a separate studio with a variety of beautiful and natural materials and art supplies available for all to use. An atelierista, or art studio teacher, was part of the staff and was responsible for welcoming children’s ideas and helping them use the materials or other media to express themselves, often creating something relating to a class project. This spoke to the Reggio Emilia idea that children have a myriad of ways (symbolically called “one hundred languages”) to express themselves. As First Presbyterian teachers answered questions, it was clear that they valued children’s ideas and learning and were very thoughtful in their process of planning and reflecting on experiences in the classroom.

As the conference came to a close, presenters emphasized that participants should not try to recreate Reggio Emilia at their own school since each community and school is unique. Instead, participants were encouraged to reflect on their work with children and find ways to continually grow and learn.