More than 30 years ago, through the efforts of women advocating for children, a law established free education for children ages 3 to 6 (later adding infant/toddler centers) in Italy. The legislated free programs emphasized quality in both education and care. In Reggio Emilia, a small northern town, the programs were literally built by parents with proceeds from the sale of military equipment after the end of World War II. Professor Loris Malaguzzi guided those beginning efforts and continues to provide insightful leadership to the educational program at Reggio Emilia.
Development of the Reggio Emilia Approach
With thinking similar to that of the Bank Street approach, the Reggio educators consider their work "an educational experience that consists of practice and careful reflection that is continuously readjusted" (Gandini, 1993, p. 13). Like so many ECE professionals, the Reggio educators have been influenced by the ideas of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and the latest research in child development. A look at how the Reggio educators describe children will tell you much about their approach. "All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity and interest in constructing their learning, in engaging in social interaction, and in negotiating with everything the environment brings to them". With that image of children, it is not surprising that the Reggio approach studies children as individuals and responds to them appropriately.
Curriculum at Reggio is the emergent approach. The educators develop general goals and predict children's responses to activities and projects so that they can prepare the environment. Then the children take over and the curriculum emerges. Much of the curriculum at Reggio takes the form of projects, and those projects may come from children or teachers. Sometimes, an event or a problem may result in a project, such as a study of shoes that occurred when a child came to school with a new pair of shoes. The children were curious about how shoes were made and wanted to investigate the materials of shoes. Projects are actually intensive constructions of knowledge—studies conducted by children guided by adults or with adult resources. Projects can vary in length from a few days to several months. To get a sense of the richness of the Reggio emergent curriculum and the project approach, listen to Carlina Rinaldi, a pedagogista (educational advisor) at the school:
Reggio Emilia Approach
This project begins at the end of a school year for 4- and 5-year-olds. The teachers talked with the children about remembering their vacation and holiday experiences. The children and parents agreed to take along on their vacations a box with small compartments in which a child could save treasures. "Every fragment, every piece collected would become a memento of an experience imbued with a sense of discovery and emotion" (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1995, p. 108).
In the fall, the teachers began with questions about the holidays, much like teachers do in U.S. schools. They asked, "What did your eyes see?" "What did your ears hear?" One child, Gabriele, shared an experience that prompted an adventure for the children and adults alike. He responded to the teachers' questions about his holiday: "We walked through a narrow long street, called `the gut,' where one store is next to another and where in the evening it is full of people. There are people who go up, and people who walk down. You cannot see anything, you can only see a crowd of legs, arms, and heads".
The idea of "crowd" caught the teachers' attention and their questions prompted rich meanings from the children. "The teachers immediately apprehended an unusual excitement and potential in the word". Listen to some of the children's thinking about crowds:
Nicola: It is a bunch of people all attached and close to one another.
Luca: There are people who jump on you and push you.
Ivano: It is a bunch of people all bunched up together just like when they go to pay taxes.
The concept of crowd became the focus of a series of teacher conversations, children's conversations, and then an explosion of activity—drawings, walks in the city, more drawings, and paintings. The curriculum truly emerged from Gabriele and the children's responses to his description of a crowd. From there, the children could decide to study crowds as a project. Toddlers' classrooms are emergent curriculum and kindergarten children engage in the project approach.
Curricular Supports at Reggio
There are several completely unique features of the Reggio Emilia program that deserve description. First, in addition to teachers and many parent participants, there is a teacher trained in visual arts who is called the atelierista. There is also a special space—a studio or workshop—called the atelier. Everyone (adults and children) uses the tools and materials of the atelier.
A second feature is the environment which is often called the "third teacher." Every inch of space is designed and used to respond to the children. The space and furnishings go beyond "child friendly to a living area in which children create their worlds and stories" (Wurm, 2005, p. 35).
The third unique feature of the program is the extensive documentation of children's thinking, discussions, work, and progress that is collected and used. The documentation takes the form of photographs, tape recordings, and other records. The Reggio educators value the documentation as a way to understand the children better and a way to assess their own work as educators. At the same time, the process of collecting documentation communicates to children that their work and their efforts are valued. In addition to curriculum, routines and guidance strategies contribute so much to children's learning. In Reggio, children are quite independent when it comes to following routines such as using the bathroom. Like so many of their learning decisions, it is up to the children to determine whether they need help and whether they want to be alone or have company (Wurm, 2005).
Some of the Reggio Emilia ideas are finding their way into elementary schools in the United States today. One practice that is becoming common is the teacher and group of students staying together for more than one year. In Reggio, a pair of teachers and a group of children stay together for three years. Although their environment changes as their development progresses, the community of learners stays intact. At Reggio, teachers see themselves as researchers, continually documenting their work with children. Many U.S. elementary teachers conduct action research in their classrooms to find answers, to solve problems, and to guide their decision making, just as the Reggio teachers do. Finally, the Reggio approach works with the child in relation to other children, to the family, to the teachers, to the school environment, to the community, and to the wider society—and the interconnections and reciprocity are encouraged and supported. Many programs and schools in the United States have embraced those same important relationships and integrated them into preschool and elementary curriculum.
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