Approaches to Early Learning: Reggio Emilia

Early learning strategies are as varied as they are innovative. Over the course of several posts, we’re going to take a step back to examine the core characteristics of the many pedagogical approaches to early childhood education and examine their impact and reliance on space. While this series won’t provide a comprehensive examination of the history and evolution of early learning strategies, it will provide high-level insights that allow for the appreciation of the varied learning approaches.

In the aftermath of World War II, there emerged in the Italian province of Reggio Emilia, a movement to rebuild their community by starting with the education of the youngest children. Spearheaded by mothers in the village of Villa Cella, a school was built out of the rubble and it caught the eye of a young teacher/psychologist named Loris Malaguzzi, who came to see the activity and wound up staying.

Malaguzzi’s central premise was that children are inherently entitled to rights, just as adults are:

“Children have the right to be recognized as the bearers of important rights: individual, social and legal. They both carry and construct their own culture and are therefore active participants in the organization of their identity, their autonomy and their capabilities.” (Malaguzzi 1994)

Furthermore, he felt that it was the responsibility of the child (and the natural desire) to collaborate with the teacher in his or her learning, rather than to have it doled out to them from on high.

He believed that play is the natural method of learning for children, and that it was critical that it be afforded a level of respect commensurate with its importance.

He felt that children are born with a wealth of “languages” in which to express themselves and that learning should empower all of them as opposed to eliminating them in favor of verbal speech.

He acknowledged that the parent is the first and, as such, the most influential teacher but that the learning environment also exerts considerable influence, calling it the “third teacher.”

“Children have the right to be recognized as the bearers of important rights: individual, social and legal. They both carry and construct their own culture and are therefore active participants in the organization of their identity, their autonomy and their capabilities.”
– Malaguzzi

Three Physical Focal Points

The resulting school requires an environment that allows for tremendous flexibility within a spatial structural system containing three main spaces, the piazza, the atelier and the cucina. These spaces would be supplemented by a variety of other types and shapes of space to accommodate the breadth of activities that emerge.

The Reggio Emilia Piazza

The heart of a Reggio-inspired school is the piazza. In Italian, “piazza” translates to “square,” and in a Reggio Emilia school you can certainly see it as analogous to a town square. It’s a central, open space in which the entire school can gather but which can also be reconfigured to accommodate a wide variety of learning activities and groupings, from individual projects to small group experiments to larger group presentations and activities.

There is a rhythm to the day in a Reggio school, not unlike a square dance, with students coming together for a time, then moving apart and breaking into different groups, only to return to the center.

The Reggio Emilia Atelier

If play is the child’s scientific method (I drop this, it falls, so I drop it again) then art is the natural method of documentation and the Atelier is the hub of artistic endeavor. In many Reggio inspired schools there is a full-time atelierista whose job is to coordinate with the teachers and facilitate the creation of the children’s works. The results are typically spectacularly beautiful, but they are only the first step as the Reggio method places a high priority on re-presenting the work—to the parents, the community, but most importantly, back to the students themselves.

The Reggio Emilia Cucina

Practical living skills are also woven into the dance of a typical day and the cucina (kitchen) is pivotal. It’s not just a place to simply consume a quick midday meal, and care is taken to make the kitchen accessible for the young learners it serves. Counters and tables are low so that children can participate in the creation of food as well serving and clean-up so that the entire process of a meal can serve as nourishment for the body and mind.

Children-driven Learning

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the pedagogy is the way in which curriculum derives from the interests and experiences of the children themselves, expanding in open-ended ways to follow where ever it takes them. An example might be the creation of custom colors at a paint table. As the children develop more and more interesting colors, they run out of language with which to name them, so the teacher gently suggests that they invent names rather than saying “that one” or “this one.”

Naming turns to cataloging for some while others are more interested in formulas for duplication, tracking how many spoons of each base color go into a particularly brilliant mixture. Still others pay no attention to the words and concentrate on portraits of butterflies. The skill of the teacher completes the circle for all, encouraging them to learn from what each other has done in a way that nurtures the spirit of discovery without freighting it with a heavy sense of obligation.

What is key to this relationship—teacher and child—is that it is a two-way street: the child looks to the teacher to help them learn but the teacher looks to the child for new ideas and ways of thinking, doing and seeing. There is an inherent expectation that the child’s ideas, thoughts and contributions are worthy of respect and not only should not be dismissed but should form the foundation for future learning.

Interested in learning more about unique early learning strategies and their impact on space? Explore the other entries in our “Approaches to Early Learning” series with overviews on Montessori and High/Scope.