Imagine a puddle in the courtyard of your school.

Then imagine the ways in which it could inspire learning.

That is the premise of a pair of short essays found in “The Hundred Languages of Children” (the catalog to an exhibit on Reggio Emilia’s educational philosophy). These essays came to my mind after reading several recent articles discussing the merits of “academic” vs. “play-based” learning in early childhood schools. (*Links to these articles can be found at the end of this post.)

While everybody knows that controversy sells, and nothing is more controversial than dueling strategies for “what’s best for our children,” I think this is a false argument, and I wondered if it might be useful to dig into these two essays a little bit as a way to unpack what really matters.

In one of the essays, Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, wrote:

“For children, there is rain and rain.

There is the rain that amazes and amuses them, and the rain that tires and distresses them.

But when the rain leaves behind a puddle, thanks to a lucky hole in the ground and a little sunshine, children are perfectly happy. Their happiness can become a veritable celebration when adults, instead of imposing prohibitions, join in the game too.

Now the puddle of rainwater can become like Leonardo da Vinci’s old, damp, flaking wall if you observe it well, you can see in it the “infinite species of man.”

The children’s excitement when they dip their feet and shoes into the water and sink their hands into the slimy mud at the bottom, make splashes by throwing stones into the water and attempt ford crossings with make-believe daring, becomes astonished and vociferous when they notice the play of light, of colors, of transparencies in the puddle, and the reflection of their images and that immediate part of the world around them which the puddle mirrors back at them. From that moment on, the game opens up and expands, changes level, and draws in all the children’s intelligence. And this intelligence stimulates observations, thoughts, and intuitions, and leads the children closer and closer to convincing laws of physics and perception, even when and perhaps above all they use their intelligence playfully to contemplate situations and even worlds that are turned upside down, with everything this implies. The result is an exceptionally penetrating and linear phenomenological exercise.”

In a follow-up essay, educator Egle Becchi offers a minute-by-minute commentary on exactly what is happening in the midst of this puddle exploration:

In and around a puddle, a group of children play, and among them “a series of rules hover and impend which are practical obligations – norms of behavior or convention (don’t get wet, don’t look at your reflection in the puddle in such a way that everyone can see your underwear), which come close to being totally disregarded (the children are putting their hands and feet into the puddle) physical laws (objects are identical when mirrored in the water) which seem somehow distorted ( the colors of reality take on different shades when reflected in the puddle, the panorama is turned upside-down)…

The mini-situation draws out new words (the “turned upside –down” theme that appears throughout the verbal part of the episode), graphic images (the cartoons drawn by the individual children) and splendid plays of multi-dimensional collage. This close attention better highlights the limits (the surface of the water only collects images within a limited range), but also and above all the possibilities of a slice of reality (the puddle functions as a mirror and can show things turned upside-down). In this way, the puddle opens a breach in the solidity of law and conventions; it leads to material transfiguration (with pencils, fingers, paper, colors) as well as mental transfigurations (the measurement of distance, the assumption of a non-human individuality in order to see your reflection)…

The game of mirroring acts as a go-between from reality to fantasy. The whole city of Reggio becomes a huge puddle which engulfs and upsets people and things, which obstructs daily life and forces a whole mode of existence that overturns the material dimension of life (“we are living upside-down”; ”all the blood’s going to our head”), as well as the immaterial dimension (“words are upside-down”) and the logical dimension (in this great universal upside-downness, “if you want to laugh, you start crying and when you try to cry your laugh”; “if you what to whisper a secret, you have to shout it out loud”)…

The point here is that the activity itself originates in play ⎯ in the pure sensory abandon of splashing about in a puddle together. But seamlessly, invisibly, through their active participation and gentle guidance, the teachers are able to help it transform from a simple, visceral game to a deep and resonant exploration of how the world is, and further, into how the world might be if one were to alter just one or two of the basic rules of reality.

Puddle-jumping becomes both play and academics. And the insights that emerge through the play generate enthusiasm that then fuels further explorations, with mirrors and drawings and clay models, into how reflections work, both physically and intellectually; what an upside-down world might be and how a group can share in a collective thought experiment.

In the course of these activities, the children develop fine motor skills through drawing and modeling, build vocabulary, explore narrative, logic and imaginative creation. They begin to understand the value of documentation and presentation to the group, to outsiders, but perhaps most importantly, back to themselves, in early experiments with self-critique and iterative exploration.

The key to all of this is the source of the energy that fuels all of these activities. The children are committed, 100%, to what they are doing because it engages them on their own terms, allowing them to choose how to work and what to work on. It is rigorous, but it is first playful, and that is what keeps them on task.

As a corollary, and ultimately what each of the writers of the articles we link to below concludes, the most wonderful and critical element in the success of the endeavor is the deft skill and total commitment of the teachers, their incredible ability to simultaneously facilitate incredibly sophisticated acts of learning while preserving the unabashed joy of play.

“Free Play or Flashcards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools”

“How to Build the Best Preschools”

“Preschools Duel Over Best Strategy”