Early Childhood Education

Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education


Reggio Emilia is a city in northern Italy where a volunteer group of educators, parents, and children came together after World War II with a shared vision for a new kind of school for young children. North Italy has a long history of civic engagement, trade guilds, and associations, and political activism and resistance to authoritarian government. At the war’s conclusion, mindful of the devastation and suffering they had endured, they came together to try to improve the future for working families and their children. They did not want ordinary schools but ones where children could begin to acquire skills of critical thinking and cooperation essential to rebuilding and ensuring a democratic society. Under the leadership of its charismatic founding director, Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), the small network of parent-run schools in Reggio Emilia evolved first into a city-run system of preprimary schools (in the 1960s), and then added infant-toddler centers (in the 1970s). Even today the educators are evolving yet new forms of parent-professional and public-private partnerships to expand services to serve the whole city. Reggio Emilia educators have exercised a leadership role in educational innovation in Italy and Europe, and now increasingly the world. Their goal is for children to learn to engage in discussions and constructive play with others in a constructive and nonviolent way. Children (and families) are encouraged to express and discuss ideas in open meetings and to form close, long-term relationships with others in the school community. The Reggio Emilia preschools and infant-toddler centers are publicly supported and inclusive, giving first priority to children with disabilities and/or social service needs, such as low-income or immigrant status.

The Reggio Emilia approach is not an educational model in the formal sense, with defined methods, teacher certification standards, and accreditation processes. Instead, educators speak of their “experience” and how it can be a source of reflection or inspiration to others. Loris Malaguzzi was an integrative thinker, inspired by the great European progressive education tradition and by constructivist psychologists such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. He drew a powerful image of the child who comes into the world social from birth, intelligent, curious, and competent. Malaguzzi’s vision of “education based on relationships” focuses on children in relation to people, things, and ideas. The goal is to activate and support children’s rich network of associations and their participation in a world of family members, peers, community members, and the physical environment. Children, teachers, parents, and other citizens all have their respective rights to participate in such a system, to contribute to it, and to grow and learn within it. In fact, children are expected to be active and resourceful and to generate innovation and change in the systems in which they are involved. Teachers seek to hold before them this powerful image of the child as they support children in exploring and investigating. Children grow in competence to represent their ideas and feelings and to investigate concepts through many avenues/formats/media of expressive, communicative, and cognitive representation. Their “100 languages” may include speaking, writing, gesturing, drawing, painting, building, sculpting, collage, wire-work, shadow play, dramatic/role play, music, dance, puppetry, photography, and computers, to name a few symbolic languages that they may systemically explore and combine. Adults follow children’s interests, and at teachable moments, they provide appropriate instruction in skills of reading and writing. They continually and indirectly foster language and literacy, counting, measuring, and problem-solving as children record and manipulate their concepts and communicate with others (including “writing” notes and letters). Teachers try to understand as fully as possible the children’s viewpoints and abilities, seeing each child as full of strengths rather than full of needs.

Teaching and learning are negotiated, emergent processes between adults and children, involving generous time and in-depth revisiting and reviewing. These processes depend on the knowledge that teachers and children have of each other according to the school-level organization for continuity that keeps them together for two or three years. Parents and teachers also become closely acquainted, and this forms strong links between home and school. In such a context, long-term projects [progettazione] become important vehicles for open-ended investigations of subject matter, and these become longer and more elaborate as children grow older and more experienced in this way of learning. The classroom environment and arrangement of materials are carefully prepared to offer a sense of organization, comfort, and beauty and at the same time complexity and stimulation. The educators in Reggio Emilia believe the physical space should support children’s communication and exchange of ideas; it has the features of a literacy-rich environment. It should also have emotional and aesthetic quality and use color, texture, and light to create values of transparency, reflectiveness, openness, harmony, balance, and softness. The environment makes a tangible statement to children, parents, and teachers that they are valued and respected. These are serious intentions, of course, yet the classroom atmosphere should be anything but sober and sedate. Rather, a classroom atmosphere of playfulness and joy should prevail in this kind of environment.

Time, too, is treated with special care. Children’s own sense of time and their personal rhythm are considered in planning and carrying out activities and projects. When teachers lead activities, they provide enough time for spontaneous ideas to pop up and be discussed or explored. Children are given time to explore their ideas and hypotheses fully and in-depth. Projects and themes follow the children’s ideas and development of concepts. Projects, activities and experiences such as field trips and celebrations build upon one another over time. Children review and revise their original work and ideas, refining them as they have further experiences, consider further questions, notice more details, make more connections, and acquire improved skills. Learning and development advance at their own pace, in widening and deepening cycles of understanding, not in prescribed, rigid sequences.

Teaching strategies are flexible and allow for input and decision making on the part of all participants. The Reggio Emilia approach is not a manual of strategies but instead a generalized way of working that must be adapted for each context and situation, because each one has its own unique history, constraints and problems, cast of characters, and assets and resources. For example, the format of parent-teacher partnership will vary from place to place, depending on the possibilities, negotiations, and preferences of the people involved. The most important principle is that teaching should be based on careful listening to and observation of children (and parents). Teachers begin by actively soliciting children’s ideas and thoughts, considering what knowledge, questions, and preferences the children have before formulating plans and projects. Teachers usually work two to a classroom, and teamwork/mentoring is strongly promoted. A pedagogista (pedagogical specialist or education coordinator) works with several schools to guarantee high quality services. In addition, each school usually has a visual arts specialist (atelierista, or studio teacher) to work with teachers and children in classrooms as well as the atelier or studio to encourage expression through different media and symbol systems. Cooperation is encouraged among children through the use of small groups working together in common pursuit of an investigation or project. These can last for a couple of days, weeks, or months depending on the age and interest level of the children.

Teachers seek to be partners and guides to the children as they learn. They carefully prepare the environment to ensure that it provides strong messages about respect for the children and for their learning. In working with children, they play a delicate balancing act between engagement and attentive watching. They ask questions to draw out the children’s ideas, hypotheses, and theories. Then teachers discuss together what they have recorded and make flexible plans and preparations for next steps in learning. They also act as recorders for the children, helping them to trace and revisit their words and actions. Teachers offer new ways of looking at things to children, and provide related experiences and materials. They provide direct instruction in tool and material use when needed, help children to locate materials and resources, and scaffold children’s learning—sometimes coming in close and interacting actively with them, sometimes remaining attentively observing and listening nearby. They also nurture the children’s emotional needs, and support and develop caring, individualized relationships with each family. They act as advocates for high-quality services to the public and the government. Malaguzzi summed up all of this complexity of the teacher’s role in metaphoric language when he said that:

We need a teacher who is sometimes the director, sometimes the set designer, sometimes the curtain and the backdrop, and sometimes the promoter. A teacher who is both sweet and stern, who is the electrician, who dispenses the paints and who is even the audience—the audience who watches, sometimes claps, sometimes remains silent, full of emotion, who sometimes judges with skepticism, and at other times applauds with enthusiasm. (Rinaldi, 2006, p. 73)

Children, clearly, are active participants in their learning. They make many choices throughout the day, including where to go in their classroom and building and on what to work. In addition to ongoing projects, children engage in many other forms of activity and play, including pretend play, singing, group games, storytelling, reading, cooking, outdoor play, rest, and relaxed and sociable meals together. They become part of a close-knit group, with their own unique routines and rituals and ways of expressing friendship and affection for one another.

Children’s progress is observed and studied in nontraditional ways. Documentation is a cooperative practice that helps teachers listen to and see their children, thus guiding curriculum decisions and fostering professional development through collaborative study and reflection. Documentation helps teachers to follow, study, and make visible the ways that the group of children develops ideas, theories, and understandings. In Reggio Emilia classrooms, there are no checklists of skills, tests, or diagnostic evaluations, because the educators there believe that standardized assessments limit teaching too much by focusing on only a narrow range of what children do, not the whole picture of their strengths and potential. The American research community distinguishes between types of research based on the purposes for which it is conducted. The documentation favored by educators in Reggio Emilia promotes reflective practice and program improvement through formative methods that help educators better understand their problems, uncover the processes of teaching and learning, and analyze “what works and what does not” on an ongoing basis. It is intended to assist educators to refine and improve their work in process, not to allow outside audiences to understand outcomes and measure impacts over time. Formats and uses of documentation are continually changing as educators incorporate digital technologies that allow them to edit and combine images and share documentation in new ways.

In sum, the Reggio Emilia approach should be understood in the context of other Italian and European innovations in early care and education, as well as the historical context of progressive, child-centered educational models. Most of all, it offers a compelling example of what a city can accomplish when citizens, educators, and government come together to create what the Italians call a “culture of childhood,” that is, a sustained community disposition to promote the educational rights and needs of children as an intrinsic good. See also Classroom Environments; Development, Language; Reggio Inspired Teacher Education; Standardized Tests and Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: Cadwell, L. (2003). Bringing learning to life: The Reggio approach to early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Ceppi, G., and M. Zini, eds. (1998). Children, spaces, relations: Metaproject for an environment for young children. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children and Domus Academy Research Center; Dahlberg, G., P. Moss, and A. Pence (1999). Beyond quality: Postmodern perspectives on early childhood education. London: Falmer Press; Edwards, C., L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach— Advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Greenwich, CT: Ablex; Fu, V. R., A. J. Stremmel, and L. T. Hill (1992). Teaching and learning: Collaborative exploration of the Reggio Emilia approach. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall; Gandini, L. (1993). Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Young Children 49(1), 4-8; Gandini, L., and C. Edwards, eds. (2001). Bambini: The Italian approach to infant/toddler care. New York: Teachers College Press; Katz, L. G., and B. Cesarone, eds. (1994). Reflections on the Reggio Emilia approach. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education; Milliken, J. (2003). Reflections: Reggio Emilia principles within Australian contexts; Castle Hill, New South Wales: Pademelon Press; New, R. (2000). Reggio Emilia: Catalyst for change and conversation. ERIC Digest EDO-PS-00-15. Available online at http://ericece.org; New, R. (2004). The Reggio Emilia approach: Provocations and partnerships with U.S. early childhood educators. In J. Roopnarine and J. Johnson, eds. Approaches to early childhood education. Ohio: Merrill/Prentice Hall; Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Reggio Children S. r. l. (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children S. r. l; Rinaldi, C. (2006). In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching and learning. London and New York: Routledge.

Carolyn Pope Edwards