The Reggio Emilia Study Tour
By Chia-wa Yeh, Research Coordinator and Teacher
An ancient Roman road runs through the center of Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy. The municipal preschools and infant-toddler centers in this formerly little-known city have created a phenomenon that continues to amaze the early childhood community worldwide. One of its preschools, the Diana School, was named the best preschool in the world by Newsweek magazine in 1991. Several times a year, hundreds of eager educators and administrators journey to this now affluent city to immerse themselves in its culture and to witness firsthand its innovative city-run preschool and infant-toddler centers.
Bing teachers Mary Munday, Parul Roy, Nancy Verdtzabella and I attended a 10-day study tour in Reggio Emilia in October 2003. We joined 230 other educators from nine countries in an inspiring educational experience, which included thought-provoking workshops, school visits and dialogues with colleagues from around the world.
The historical and socio-political context from which the Reggio Emilia municipal preschools emerged is crucial in understanding its collaborative and progressive roots. After World War II, a group of parents decided to build a school for young children. They raised funds by selling an army tank, a few trucks and some horses. In the ’60s, the parents and teachers in Reggio Emilia strongly advocated publicly supported preschools. Later, this assertion coincided with the women’s movement with mothers demanding their right to work and their children’s right to quality education. Its first city-run preschool, named Robinson after Daniel Defoe’s hero Robinson Crusoe, came to life in 1963. In 1967, all of the parent-run preschools came under the administration of the municipality as a result of the people’s continuous efforts.
Under the leadership (1964-94) of the visionary founder Loris Malaguzzi, a team of teachers worked closely with children and parents to explore theories through experimentation and thereby developed a practice that is firmly based on the belief of children’s right to excellent education. The Reggio Emilia municipal preschools and infant-toddler centers gained international acclaim for their innovations in quality education during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The Reggio approach continues to inspire early childhood educators in Europe and the United States and increasingly in other countries. Reggio’s traveling exhibition, “The Hundred Languages of Children,” provides a window into the long-term projects and inquiry-based teaching that took place in its schools. One central theory of Malaguzzi, who died a decade ago, holds that children possess a hundred languages, that is, a myriad of ways to express themselves creatively and symbolically in addition to the conventional spoken language. The hundred languages exhibit is a stunning visual documentation consisting of photographs, children’s drawings and words, sculptures, and teachers’ interpretations. The exhibit is astounding to the early childhood community for the amazing depth of the children’s thinking and their capabilities in communicating their thoughts through the many languages/media made available to them, e.g., clay, drama, drawing, light, music, painting and shadow play to name a few.
Reggio staff comprises two teachers for 25 children in each of the classrooms, with some auxiliary staff (including a cook who prepares lunch) and an “atelierista” (art teacher). Team-teaching is highly valued to foster different perspectives. The art teacher is an integral part of the team, working with all the children in a preschool and contributing a unique viewpoint. Besides the regular school staff, a “pedagogista” (pedagogy coordinator) works with a few schools as a mentor, providing professional development and ongoing in-service training.
A remarkable feature of the Reggio schools is the “atelier” (art studio) in the preschools and the “mini-ateliers” inside the classrooms. The art studio serves a variety of functions. In the well-equipped space, children can learn and work on techniques in various art media and engage in group research projects while staff can work on assembling documen-tation.
Additionally, each school has a “piazza.” Like a typical Italian town square, it is a place for encounters, a place for people to relate to one another. The area is also set up with two semi-circular enclosures for “dress-up” clothes. Children can go to the piazza and engage in dramatic play for extended periods of time. In some schools, a small pyramid-like structure lined with mirrors is available in the piazza as well. Children can play inside and get a look at themselves and others simultaneously from different angles.
Careful attention to detail and organization is noticeable in the Reggio school environment. Like teachers at Bing, the Reggio educators view the environment as a vital component for conveying information and meaning. Carefully selected objects of beauty enhance the school atmosphere and natural materials such as driftwood, leaves, rocks and shells adorn a mini art studio. A sense of wonder imbues a classroom loft where children’s building-block constructions are projected onto a screen, creating a large-scale outline of a city.
The intent of the Reggio study tour was not so much to instruct as to provoke. Reggio educators describe their teaching as an approach, rather than as a model with formulas. They see theory and practice as equal in importance. Central to the Reggio philosophy is the image of the child as a protagonist with potential. The school is seen as a dynamic place where children and teachers and parents are participants.
“Reggio is a place where value is transmitted, discussed and created. School is a place where culture is created and democracy lived,” says Carla Rinaldi, a pedagogista and pedagogical consultant for Reggio Children. The educators prefer inquiries over statements. Their strong desire to learn propels them toward a continuing pursuit of knowledge and better practices with children, teachers and families as collaborative partners. School is not merely an institution but a place for all to “find a sense of the meaning of life.”
Given that the Reggio Emilia approach is a dynamic process without pre-set standards, what are some of its fundamental aspects? Sergio Spaggiari, director of the Istituzione Nidi e Scuole Infanzia — Municipality of Reggio Emilia, outlined the following essential educational values:
• The importance of parent and family participation
• The pedagogy of relationships
• The 100 languages of children
• The pedagogy of listening
• The value of documentation
• The rediscovery of creativity
• The value of differences
• The importance of aesthetics and beauty
• The value of organization
• The role of the teacher and her education.
The plurality of languages for symbolic expression, the practice of listening to children and the value of documentation were evidenced during one school visit where children were present. Seeing themselves as researchers and learners, their teachers listened carefully to the children and attended to their interests.
At the La Villeta School, some of the children had gone to the beach during their summer vacation. This day, small groups of children worked together with teachers to study waves as a result of their interest. Another group used clay to explore the shape of waves while other children employed light to study movement. The sinks in the classroom were appealingly filled with blue water and miniature sea creatures.
Elsewhere, children engaged in activities of their choice such as block building and dramatic play. In another classroom, children used shadow screens to develop ideas and stories about sunsets as others used a light table to produce one. Mean-while, the teachers took notes and/or drew diagrams to help reflect and understand how children learn. This documentation also served as a springboard to further exploration by allowing the teachers to revisit the children’s ideas.
Throughout the study tour, the Reggio Emilia educators passionately articulated their philosophy and eagerly invited the participants to share their own ideas. Rebecca New, a Tufts University professor who has conducted studies in Reggio Emilia, stated well: “Perhaps what the Reggio educators do best is taking on the role of ‘provocateur’ — one who gets others to think about something in a new and compelling way.” Similar to their approach with children, the speakers intended to compel attendees to ask questions and re-examine their own beliefs and preconceptions. They emphasized the importance of dialoguing with one another; they welcomed different opinions. The willingness to discuss and suspend one’s own beliefs was seen as instrumental to allowing and encouraging multiple points of view.
I’m interested, in particular, in the research and documentation aspect of the Reggio Emilia approach and I hope to continue experimentation with video as a tool for teachers and children to reflect upon their experience. In Spaggiari’s words, documentation encompasses: “The ability to narrate the story unfolding inside the schools. The ability to re-interpret and re-elaborate all the processes of learning that take place inside the school.”
The study tour brought to life for me what I had previously learned from conferences on the Reggio Emilia approach and visits to “The Hundred Languages of Children” exhibition. Ultimately, I came away from the awesome educational tour feeling deeply invigorated by the Reggio educators’ exceptional practice and their intellectual provocation.