Early Childhood Education
In French, the word atelier is a common term meaning an artist’s studio or workshop. Within the field of early childhood education, an “atelier” is understood as a physical space within a school dedicated to children’s exploration and use of many materials, tools, symbolic languages, and forms of representation.
Current understanding of the concept of the “atelier” in schools can be traced to the preschools of the municipality in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy. The first ateliers were established in 1963 in the preschools in Reggio Emilia by Loris Malaguzzi and his colleagues. Later, in the 1970s, ateliers were also developed in the city’s infant and toddler centers. The presence of the atelier is one of the fundamental aspects that distinguishes the preschools and infant toddler centers in Reggio Emilia from other schools for young children. Closely linked to the concept of atelier within the context of early education is the role of the “atelierista,” a teacher with a background in the visual arts, who usually works with small groups of children in the atelier. The atelierista forms a close collaborative relationship with the classroom teachers, as well as supports curriculum development, research, and documentation throughout the entire school.
An essential purpose of the atelier is to offer a variety of high-quality materials to all ages of children and to serve as the central place in the school where many collections of materials are located and used. These collections often include traditional art media, such as paint, drawing, or clay, but also may contain nontraditional materials, such as found objects, recycled items, and such natural materials as stones, shells, leaves, dried flowers, and sticks. The many types of rich and interesting materials in the atelier are used to facilitate children’s learning.
The concept of the atelier, as well as learning through materials, is integrated into the entire school. This learning occurs in the physical organization of the space as miniateliers are set up in, or adjacent to, each classroom. The term “miniatelier” refers to a space in the classroom where rich materials are organized for children’s daily interactions with symbolic languages. Miniateliers may contain materials similar to the ones in the larger atelier, or they may be adjusted to the particular needs of the children and the teachers in each classroom. The relationship between the atelier and the classroom and the atelierista and the classroom teacher is one of collaboration, exchange, and reciprocity. The atelierista works closely with the classroom teachers to make flexible plans that are carried out over days, weeks, and months, to accomplish agreed upon goals and intentions.
An atelier is very different from the traditional interpretation of an “art class” or “art center” found in many North American early childhood educational programs. The presence of an atelier usually means that the adults believe that children make sense and create understanding of experience through a network of relationships and meaningful interactions with adults, other children, the environment, and materials. In Reggio Emilia, this point of view about children’s learning has grown from social constructivism and sociocultural theory.
Today, educators in the United States who are exploring implications of Reggio Emilia’s interpretation of early care and education are finding ways to translate characteristics of the atelier into their own school settings. Educators in the United States interested in the concept of the atelier may or may not have a separate space designated for an atelier, or a teacher who is an atelierista. Still, they are able to incorporate many of these ideas into their schools. For example, some teachers may work these ideas into their own classroom by setting up a miniatelier, giving careful attention to the role of materials in children’s projects, documenting their findings, and then sharing them with parents and other teachers. Inspired by the spirit of the atelier, some traditional art teachers are looking for ways to expand their role by collaborating with the classroom teachers on shared goals and projects.
The atelier also plays an active role in developing and supporting research, documentation, and communication within the school community. Adults use the atelier to support pedagogical research through an ongoing cycle of observation, documentation, and interpretation of children’s learning. Because of this, the atelier is the primary location within the school where important tools for documentation, such as written notes, photographs, audiocassette recording, or video, are frequently located. The atelierista often assists the classroom teachers with developing many forms of visual communication to highlight the children’s learning, such as display panels, binders and books, slide shows, or video presentations. These types of documents help to inform others, both in and outside of the school community, about the work of the school and children’s learning experiences.
Further Readings: Cadwell, Louise (1997). Bringing Reggio home: An innovative approach to early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Edwards, C., L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach-advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Ablex; Gandini, L., L. Hill, L. Cadwell, and C. Schwall, eds. (2005). In the spirit of the studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. New York: Teachers College Press.