When you talk about educational approaches, there are a few that pop to mind: conventional public school, Montessori, Waldorf, Language Immersion, International, and Unschooling all get a fair amount of play in the world of parenting these days. An often overlooked approach is Reggio Emilia – named for the region of Italy in which it was founded and now making inroads in American Education. The best, most concise explanation of the pedagogy I’ve run across is found in the introductory chapters of The Hundred Languages of Children:
“The Reggio system can be described succinctly as follows: It is a collection of schools for young children in which each child’s intellectual, emotional, social, and moral potentials are carefully cultivated and guided. The principal educational vehicle involves youngsters in long-term engrossing projects, which are carried out in a beautiful, healthy, love-filled setting.”
One of my favorite aspects of the Reggio Emilia approach is the emphasis on nature: the outdoor environment is just as important and influential as the classroom. Elements of nature are brought into the classrooms and Ateliers – from feathers and interesting rocks to branches hung from the ceiling. An effort is also made to go out into nature every day, regardless of the weather (exemptions for extreme weather are obviously made, but a little cold or a little precipitation does not keep these guys inside!)
Like many other approaches, Reggio Emilia is primarily child-led. Teachers are facilitators and guides, but rather than stand in front of the group and tell them How Things Are, they ask guiding questions and help children discover the answers for themselves. They build entire units based on a single question that sparks the interest of the group. They start with basic art along the theme, and then use that art to inspire more questions, and more art, and more knowledge until they have exhausted the topic. The example given to us on the tour of our chosen preschool is that one of the students in the 5 year old class started trying to build bridges over moats in the wet sand area outside. They came in and he asked the teacher how to keep his bridges from collapsing. This led to drawings, painting, straw bridges, rope bridges, papier mache bridges, students studied and talked about each other’s bridges. They brought in pictures of their favorite bridges from around the world, and the unit wrapped up with a field trip to the Golden Gate Bridge. The entire unit was documented with photographs and notes (and put on the school’s private blog) and these images were given to the parents, along with the art that had grown over the period of study.
The key message the children get from using their own art in every aspect of the projects is two fold: first, that what they have to say is important, and secondly, that even big ideas start small – sometimes with a simple mound of sand.
Another favorite part of the Reggio Emilia Approach is that it is wholly community based. The approach was born after World War Two, in a part of the country that had been ravaged and left many children orphaned. The community recognized that in order to rebuild and return to – or discover new version of – normal, they needed to start with the children. They had little resources and even less support from the government (still being run largely by the Vatican in those days) but they gathered up what funds and man-power they could and started a school that has since become a shining beacon to their country. This translates to the rest of the world thusly: parent participation is encouraged – in some cases even required. What the teachers and other students bring to the classroom is fundamental, but if the parents don’t support it and pitch in to demonstrate their own stake in the process, it is too easy for the children to flounder and for the program to lose some of its magic. It started out of necessity: without parent involvement the schools simply wouldn’t have thrived, but it has proven to be one of the most useful aspects of the pedagogy. The sense of community is invaluable for the children – they are reminded regularly that their parents are truly invested in their lives and they witness (and therefore learn) how interactions between adults work, how interactions between children and adults work, and how to apply those interactions to their own dealings with other children.
All of these traits can be brought into your home, should you feel like homeschooling is your best course of action, but I feel that they would be best applied in a setting with multiple families, so that the children’s ideas can build upon each other’s as they work their way through their chosen curriculums. (Being able to work off of someone else’s ideas is a vital skill for any adult – one that cannot be learned too early in life, don’t you think?) And if you’ve opted for a different schooling approach, turning your child’s play area/office into an atelier and encouraging project-based exploration of the world around them is a simple way to enrich everyone’s daily life. After all, as the saying goes: “not all teachers are parents, but all parents are teachers.”
NAREA – North American Reggio Emilia Alliance – has a nice overview of the approach as well as any local resources, exhibits, or conferences you may be interested in.
Playful Learning – her Atelier is inspired by her own study tour Reggio Emilia classrooms in Italy. Her book is one I have heavily bookmarked – it says it’s for children aged 4-8 years, but a few adjustments make several of her suggestions applicable for even littles who are still finding their way. Follow this link to see how a Montessori Mom applied what she learned in the book to their own art studio. Find Playful Learning on Pinterest and Facebook.
Play At Home Mom – these moms have taken the Reggio Emilia principle and applied it to their home settings. Find them on Facebook and Pinterest – even if you’re not having “school” at home – their invitations are inspiring.