Early Childhood Education
Early Childhood Education in Italy
In this profile we begin by describing Italy in demographic terms, from an early childhood perspective. Attention then shifts to the historical and cultural underpinnings of Italian early care and education. This is followed by introductory discussions on pedagogy, curriculum, and the staffing of early childhood education (ECE) settings, all topics addressed in greater detail in later entries. We conclude with an overview of several topics currently challenging the ECE field in the Italian context.
In 2005, fifty-seven and a half million people lived in Italy. The birth rate in 2004 was about 1.22 children per woman of childbearing age, well below replacement. The employment rate for women with children under 6 years was 50 percent, ranging from 67 percent for high-qualified women to 12 percent for those with low qualifications.
Italy, though small, is a very diverse country in geography, from the Alps and the influence of France on the western border, Switzerland and Austria to the northeast, to the Mediterranean and insular Sicily and Sardegna, including the full range from small rural traditional areas to metropolitan and industrial settings like Milano, Torino, and Genova. Lombardia, the region in the north with Milano as its capital city, is the most populated area of Italy (about 10 million inhabitants). This is the region with the highest per capita income in Europe and one of the highest rankings on school results by international comparison, whereas other regions are at very low levels of employment, income, and school results. Regions like Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna (where the municipal tradition of average sized cities like Reggio Emilia, Modena, Parma, Pistoia, Florence, and Bologna is strongest) have invested highly in early childhood education in the past thirty years and can offer full time, full coverage for children from 3 to 6 (scuole dell’infanzia, formerly called scuole materne: i.e., “maternal” schools) and places for over 30 percent of children under the age of 3 (asili nido or nidi, “nido” meaning “nest”). Some cities and regions of the south, although they are now reaching 80 percent of full-time coverage for children between three and six, can offer little more than 1 percent of their resident children a place in nidi. Overall averages in Italy are, therefore, highly misleading and analyses should be made at the regional or even municipal level.
Today (2006) over 90 percent of children between 3 and 6 attend schools (over 95% of five-year-olds), including children with special needs. City and state schools are free of charge and the time schedule varies between twenty-seven and forty hours per week. Only 10 percent of the children between three months and three years attend nidi, but figures range from 40 percent in some cities of Emilia Romagna to 1 percent in some areas of the south. Nidi are not considered a fully public service, but rather a so-called “service at individual demand,” and families pay according to income ranging from a symbolic fee to full cost. Nidi are also in general full time (eight to nine hours per day, five days a week), meals are provided to the children and the menu is set by health authorities, with special diets for health or religious reasons in general guaranteed.
The Culture and Tradition of Early Childhood Educational Services
Italy has only been a nation since 1861. Since the Middle Ages the city-states (municipalities or Comuni) have been the level of government with which Italians identify. Civic traditions, the influence of the church, and the socialist movement are the three major factors that have determined the development of early childhood educational services and are necessarily the cultural lens through which the existing panorama of policies should be examined.
Traditionally preschool services have been promoted by city governments (primarily in traditionally socialist ruled cities like Reggio Emilia, Bologna, or Florence but also in other big cities like Milano, Torino, Genova, Rome, and Palermo) or by parishes of the Catholic Church. There is also a tradition of mutual help among women in the North, where women’s leagues in rural areas have organized shared care since the beginning of the twentieth century. State involvement came much later—in the late 1970s. The first kindergartens or scuole materne date back to the end of the eighteenth century, established in the large cities of the North following the influence of enlightened thinkers like Ferrante Aporti and inspired by Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi. In the first two decades of the twentieth century most average and big municipalities of the North and the Center had developed their own systems of schools for children between 3 and 6, along with network of social services for children aged 0-3 directed to mothers in need (ONMI—Opera Nazionale Maternita e Infanzia'). In that same period, the first Montessori schools opened in public housing sites in Rome, promoted by the municipality. Not long after that the sisters Agazzi opened their first school in Mompiano, where some decades later the Centro Nazionale per la Scuola Materna (National Center for Maternal Schools) was founded, supported by the northern city of Brescia, the national government, and the church.
After World War II, most cities of the Center and the North invested in scuole dell’infanzia. Reggio Emilia was an example, with the women physically building schools for their children. When the State became involved in 1968, by passing Law 444 stating that state schools for young children would be built where they did not already exist, over 50 percent of the Italian children between 3 and 6 were already regularly attending a full-time service. This service was generally free, with only the meals to be paid for on a sliding scale based on income. Just three years later, in 1971, national Law 1044 was passed that promoted nidi, which were to be planned at a regional level and run by municipalities. It is within this tension among strong civic tradition, impulses from the state, and interaction with the church that the development of the Italian early childhood education systems can be understood. The tensions and coexistence of these three main actors accounts for the continuous growth of early educational services across years of continuous political change. It appears evident that only a common feeling and a widespread consensus about public funding of early childhood education, about sharing responsibilities for raising children, and about education as a community endeavor could account for the expansion of educational services for children even in years of economic stagnation and decline.
The ideas of children as an important investment, of shared responsibilities in education, and of the tradition of civic engagement metaphorically visible in the piazza (“public squares”)—the central gathering place in every scuola dell’infanzia or nidi—is widely shared across the country. But it coexists with a strong feeling of the importance and role of the family. This is expressed both in the legislation that guarantees maternal leave (five compulsory full-paid months to be used before or after childbirth, three more months without pay, the possibility of staying home longer without losing the job in public employment), and in the legal right to stay home without salary if the child is ill up to the age of 6. It is interesting to note that the first bill introducing maternity leave was issued contemporaneously with the nidi law. At that time, in the early 1970s, the Catholic culture advocated for longer maternity leaves, and the socialist Unions for more nidi. Today all parties promise more services for all children, and the differences are in the forms of education and care for the very young (municipal care versus company creches or family networks). We can say that over the last decades, issues associated with the education and care of young children have been increasingly seen as public concerns rather than as exclusively women’s issues or family problems.
The following three dimensions mark the development of scuole dell’infanzia and nidi:
• the progressive inclusion of these settings within the educational system (nidi were previously conceived as social services) and the development of their own pedagogy, which is considered to be rooted in a developing “culture of childhood” rather than in a standard curriculum;
• the inclusive character of the educational services, conceived potentially for all children as an expression of a subjective right of the child herself;
• the tradition ofpartecipazione, a concept that encompasses both civic engagement and its expression in organized form of participation and control—the so called gestione sociale of the 1970s. This tradition was later sustained by a Law that regulates families’ representation and responsibilities in schools. In reality this links the daily life of children, family, and school together through practices such as gradual transition from home to school, parental engagement in school activities and planning, projects expanding the school life by bringing children out into the community and community members into the school.
Pedagogy and Curriculum
Nidi have, over the years, gained an educational and pedagogical quality highly concerned with the emotional well-being of the children, marked by strong links between family and center, with attention focused on organizing spaces, groups, and activities in order to foster a strong relationship with one or two significant caregivers, child-child interaction, progressive autonomy, and general well-being in an appropriate and warm environment. The approach is holistic and there is no such concept as a zero-to-three curriculum, although symbolic play, manipulative and expressive activities and storytelling, and documentation are common features. The emphasis is definitely on relationships and on creating a “good,” “pleasant,” aesthetically and convivially attentive context through spaces, materials, carefully thought out routines, and social activities. The pedagogy of early childhood, or rather the “culture of childhood,” has developed in cities and across cities through a constant networking (especially through the Gruppo Nazionale Nidi-Infanzia and two professional magazines, Bambini e Infanzia'). It has been strongly influenced not only by Piagetian (see Jean Piaget) and Vygotskian (see Lev Vygotsky) thought (Vygotski had been translated from Russian into Italian since the early 1960s, long before his writings were known in the Anglo American context), but also by Maria Montessori, authors like Henri Wallon and Irene Lezine, by psychoanalysis and attachment theory and by the Hungarian experience of Loczy. Since the responsibility of nidi at the national level is not yet in the Ministry of Education, whereas at the local level in most cases nidi are run from educational authorities in continuity with the scuole dell’infanzia, there are no common National Guidelines. Regions and cities, however, have developed standards and instruments to assess quality and guidelines.
Scuole dell’infanzia had developed rich and significant experiences long before the State came onto the scene in 1968. They now follow National Guidelines called Orientamenti, Nuovi Orientamenti, and Indicazioni because the term “program” or “curriculum” is not considered appropriate to describe the pedagogy that informs the school system. These guidelines have traditionally been drawn through a wide national consultation with researchers, administrators, and practitioners. Even the new Indicazioni included in the 2004 reform bill do not radically reconceptualize the early childhood pedagogy established over the past thirty years. This reform reconfirms the achievement of a sense of identity, of autonomy, and of competence as main educational goals left to each school, with substantial freedom to schools to interpret the guidelines and to design their own curriculum. Project work, emphasis on children’s multiple symbolic languages, documentation, and a holistic approach are still dominant features in most Italian scuole dell’infanzia; but a stronger pressure toward a more structured curriculum and measurable performance outcomes has been emerging recently.
Although Reggio Emilia scuole and nidi are the most striking and widely known, many other towns deserve attention not only because they share some of the characteristics of Reggio schools that are widely recognizable as a general Italian frame, but also because they have developed their own original systems, deeply rooted in the tradition of the community. Middle-sized cities like Pistoia, Modena, Parma, and Trento provide good examples, as do small municipalities like San Miniato in Tuscany and big cities like Milano, Torino, Genova, Bologna, and Ancona.
The staff of nidi and scuola dell’infanzia are called educatrici or educatori, words different from caregiver and teacher, which convey a meaning of educationally oriented care. The minimum required training for nidi staff is a diploma obtained from a teacher-training-oriented secondary school (Istituto Magistrale). Regular in-service training that can range between 100 and 150 hours per year, along with thirty to forty hours for group work and meetings and interviews with parents, is built into the contract as paid time. Nowadays a widely shared opinion is that basic training should be raised to a three-year postsecondary (university) degree in educational sciences or psychology, and many educatrici are already so qualified. Since 1998 the requirement for scuole dell’infanzia has been a four-year university course, and this will be raised to five years. Nidi and scuole dell’infanzia are coordinated by professionals called coordinatori orped- agogisti, who combine administrative and management responsibility with the task of pedagogical supervision and implementation of the educational offering and of teacher development.
The recent 2003 Law allows families to enrol their children in scuole dell’infanzia at age 2l/2 and also to anticipate primary school at age 5*/2. This puts scuole dell’infanzia under pressure because of the growing demand of care for under threes, and challenges a long established system that has always resisted acceleration and insisted on respecting the child’s pace. Teachers share what has been for many years a common feeling—namely, that early childhood years are precious and should not be quickly “consumed.” The conviction is that the experience in settings especially designed for children, rich and free of pressure, is by no means a waste of time. It is rather an important training ground for consolidation of the sense of self, of social competence, of exploration and of research attitudes. Many families, nevertheless, ask for more and want it faster. This pressure forces nidi and scuole to rethink, redefine, and renegotiate shared ideas about children with families, their common responsibilities, and the schools’ mission. It does not necessarily mean that the pedagogy of early childhood education will have to yield to the acceleration pressure, but that it is necessary, at the beginning of a new millennium, to rethink, redefine, and retune fundamental educational goals.
A second emerging issue is intercultural education. Italy, for decades a country of migrants, is now a host country. Over 25 percent of the children who attend early childhood services are born in families of non-European origin. If, on the one hand, the traditional inclusiveness of the early childhood education system accounts for a generic welcoming attitude, on the other hand the idealization of the child, the scarce knowledge of different cultures, and the resistance to activating special activities for any child (the compensatory model has always been rejected as stigmatizing) may prevent early childhood education services from fully exploiting the opportunity provided by the preschool years to foster active integration and prevent later exclusion and school failure.
Further Readings: Gandini, L., and C. Pope Edwards (2001). Bambini: The Italian approach to infant/toddler care. New York and London: Teachers College Press; OECD (2001). Starting strong, early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Web Sites: www.istruzione.it; www.cede.it.
Pedagogy is the general framework within which we think about education; it is the science, the epistemology where we reflect about education, its means, methodologies, and goals. The objects of pedagogy are educational relationships, situations where the educational processes occur, and educational practices and how the subjects involved experience them. Pedagogy is reflection about educational experiences that are characterized by values, goals, intentionality, intrinsically relational (or intersubjective), situated in culture and in time, and asymmetric. Pedagogy is at the same time a theory (of education) and a practical science, and is therefore both philosophical and political. It is a social science, one of the “human sciences” because the educational process can only take place in situations where human beings interact within specific and evolving cultural and political contexts. In order to be regarded as a science, pedagogy needs to be intentional, to make the ideas that it produces explicit, and to orient and give meaning and significance to the educational events and processes with which it deals. Educational events, experiences, and processes, as oriented around, studied, and interpreted by pedagogy, are social, socializing and inclusive, marked by different forms of cooperation and participation, constructivistic, and culturally situated.
Early childhood is a crucial focus for pedagogy because it is the period of life where the underlying assumptions related to the processes and the experience of growing, interacting, learning, being taken care of, and being educated can be observed at their origins; within the family and in other educational contexts less formalized and defined than school or other instructional settings. This includes the ideas of educating and caring adults within the family and in other contexts intentionally prepared for young children, and the social policies toward children, families, and working mothers. It also involves as one of it core interests participation; that is, how the persons involved in the educational process interact, share and take responsibilities, and the places (loci) where child development and education occur: family/home, neighborhoods, early childhood services, day care, preschools, and so forth.
Early childhood pedagogy is founded on perspectives, approaches, and general categories rather than by specific frameworks and processes of teaching and learning activities (curricula). Curricula are the hic et nunc translation of broader theories and ideas about education. Actually the word curriculum does not appear in official Italian documents concerning preschool. At present we can, therefore, try to sketch a pedagogy of early childhood where on the one hand a few general ideas are widely debated and shared across many cultures, and on the other hand some specific approaches, rooted in specific communities (local communities or communities of researchers and decision makers) flourish, interact with other approaches, and eventually contaminate them.
Early childhood pedagogy is, in fact, both a very vivid expression of cultural niches and local particularities and the continuous contamination or metissage or cross-fertilization of paradigms and practices. It is, therefore, a good example of the tension and dialectics between cultural identity and universal goals that characterize the contemporary world: thinking about children, their families, and the practices and goals of their education emphasizes both the personal and local and the general and universal values and choices.
Early childhood pedagogy is not a specific theory (and even less one theory); it reflects critically on the educational processes that take place locally and on the theories developed to interpret and orient them. This pedagogy operates in two directions. One is the “bottom up” direction. This involves the discussion and interpretation of already existing educational experiments, policies, and practices, when community or local experiences meet theories. The other, more traditional, and less active, constructive, and culturally conscious direction is where pedagogy inspires and directs the planning and conduction of policies, practices, and local experiments. This is the “top down” direction, where a community or a group of educators or researchers is “doing” or experimenting (e.g., a Vygotskian or constructivistic or Reggio Emilia or Head Start approach, or in earlier times when they were “doing” Montessori, etc.).
The pedagogy of early childhood education in Italy is currently oriented around the following:
• A broad and holistic approach, and more specifically the idea of an active, constructive, competent, and social child, interacting in culturally situated environments with adult, peers, and cultural artifacts, learning through a “guided participation in social activities.”
• The idea of multiple intelligences and languages (Gardner, Jerome Bruner, Reggio Emilia) and therefore of a necessary integration of languages, art, science, social interaction, etc.
• The consideration of the importance of the situations and environments in which the educational process takes place (physical environment i.e., the location of institutions and the significances conveyed by the organization of space, safety, and aesthetics of the environment).
• Attention to participatory processes (at a socioemotional, community and political level) in the definition of institutions and services in the engagement of families, decision makers, and citizens.
• Inclusion and therefore attention to diversity as a challenge and effort to develop respectful and deep transactions between all individuals, groups, and educational approaches.
• A striving for universal access to educational and care services as an opportunity to experience diversity, to negotiate meanings, and to develop a broader self.
The following are some key words connected with the term “pedagogy” often found in Italian literature on early childhood education:
• “la pedagogia del benessere''—a pedagogy of well-being or well feeling, indicating the need to connect educational opportunities with a deep sensitiveness to the child’s personal needs (bodily well-being, conviviality, links between family and school, times and spaces to play, rest, and share pleasure) and to the attention to the well-being of adults as well as children.
• “la pedagogia del gusto''—a pedagogy where the aesthetics, the quality of the materials, the environment of the objects, and images the child encounters are considered crucial for the forming of a full personality and identity and of a young citizen that learns to like, love, and respect the environment. Space and materials made available to children are considered “the third educator” as well as the first form of documentation that gives a message to the community about the value of childhood.
• “la pedagogia delle relazioni”—a pedagogy where interpersonal and social relationships are seen as a fundamental means for sustaining autonomy, enhancing the development of a strong sense of self, eliciting curiosity, and sustaining attention though dialogue, discussion, fun, and stability in partnership.
• “ la pedagogia della continuita”—the very high degree of continuity that characterizes the Italian school system. Children stay with the same group of children and team of teachers for three years. This organizational and cultural choice explains the developing of long-lasting projects and the strict link between peers, their families, and teachers.
• “la pedagogia della partecipazione”—this concept, which is difficult to capture within the framework of home-school relationships, describes the community character of schools for children and the consciousness that for parents and children the school of the early years is often the first experience of getting in touch as citizens or future citizens with the communities, its rules and its opportunities. It encompasses both the ideas of control and cooperation of citizens of the community in establishing and running the early childhood education system and the daily practices connecting school with family and with the outside community, such as transition practices, meetings with group of parents, and common initiatives.
• “ la pedagogia della documentazione”—documenting what children are and do through observation, listening, recording, and organizing with them and among teachers the projects in their doing, allowing children and adults to reread the past experiences, to renew memories and to rethink. This is both a form of evaluation and a way to illustrate and extend the culture of childhood that is developing in the educational context. This process has a long tradition and has been enriched and diffused in cities like Reggio Emilia, Pistoia, and Milano. It has strongly influenced the new form of evaluation (portfolio of competences) recently proposed by the new guidelines for nursery school.
• “la pedagogia culturale”—the consciousness of the cultural nature of ideas and practices concerning children and education, which is becoming more acute today now that Italy is faced for the first time with a relevant immigration wave and needs to develop ways to reorganize, redefine, and expand the boundaries of the pedagogy of childhood without disregarding traditions and roots in the community. The need is to incorporate practices where the recognition of other identities and stories and the dialogue between children and adults coming from different backgrounds can become a first opportunity for new forms of socialization in the community.
All these ideas point to a way of considering the education of children as a shared social responsibility and the early childhood years as a very precious time in one’s life, a time that should be tasted, explored, and experienced without haste. “Where is the hurry?” is a question posed in early childhood pedagogy in Italy today. This orientation is strongly challenged by the urges and trends of globalization, and by an imported trend based on a so-called “scientific” way to look at learning and curriculum, which is preoccupied with anticipating and accelerating the acquisition of specific knowledges and skills rather than supporting and protecting children’s interest in researching, exploring, and playing around with new ideas and curious problems. This trend emerges with some contradictions in the National Guidelines (Indicazioni Nazionali, 2004). It will be interesting, over the next years and decades, to see how the Italian early childhood pedagogy will react or adapt to these trends.
Further Readings: Bertolini, P. (1988). L’esistere pedagogico. Firenze: La Nuova Italia; Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Dewey, J. (1972 ). Le fonti di una scienza dell’educazione. Firenze: La Nuova Italia; OECD (2001). Starting strong, early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Ministero Istruzione Universita e Ricerca (MIUR), (2004). Indicazioni Nazionali per i Piani Personalizzati delle Attivita Educative nelle Scuole dell’Infanzia (2004) Rome: Miur; Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press; Zimmer, J. (2000). Das Kleine Handbuch Zum Situationsansatz. Berlin: Broschiert.
Play is a multifaceted phenomenon that eludes clear-cut definitions. However, theorists who studied play agree on the fact that it is an aimless, freely chosen, pleasant, and “uncertain” activity. Play has no other goal than the pleasure that it offers. It is voluntary and freely initiated and its outcomes are unpredictable. Furthermore, play is a human activity whose value and function depends strictly on the social and cultural context in which it takes place. Different cultures attribute different social meanings to play and offer different sets of traditional play settings and forms (games) to players.
As Jean Piaget underlined and as broadly recognized, play is considered typically—if not exclusively—a behavior of children, characterized by pleasure, positive affection, and emotional engagement. It develops during infancy and takes different forms: from sensory motor activities such as running, jumping, object manipulation, rough and tumble play to games with rules (hide and seek, football and so on) passing through “pretend” play, a form of play in which objects, people, and spaces assume meanings different from those assigned in ordinary life. Initiated by the adult (especially by the mother in some typical forms as peekaboo play), who acts as the first play trainer and partner for the child, play is one of the most important interactive and social behaviors of young children; it is a way to dialogue and share positive emotions with caregivers and peers. It also represents a way to approach the world that minimizes the consequences of one’s action, allows learning in a less-risky situation, and provides a place where it is possible to express emotions and feelings freely (particularly in symbolic and sociodramatic play).
For these reasons play is considered an essential part of every child’s life and vital to the process of human development. In order to play, children must be able to express themselves and use their best capabilities. Play contributes to elaborating identity, exercising abilities, reinforcing development, and enhancing learning.
How Does Play Relate to Children’s Learning and Development?
From a psychodynamic point of view play, especially “pretend play,” is seen as an arena of children’s self-expression; a context in which it is possible to experiment with different identities and relationships, to develop a broad range of feelings and emotions, and to explore social meanings and roles. By representing affects and feelings in play, children can satisfy inner desires, experiment with different solutions to relational problems in a simulated way, and come to master anxiety and aggressive drives. From a cognitive point of view, play is seen as a primitive form of world representation that marks the distinction between objects and their meanings. It is characterized by combinatory freedom and prompts the process of finding new relationships and arrangements. But most of all, play in its social forms definitely promotes social learning. When playing together, children learn to take into account other people’s points of view, to negotiate and respect rules, and to cooperate in order to create a shared setting. In its sociodramatic form, play also helps to test social and imaginative roles, particularly related to family and gender. Language development is also fostered by play, especially when play assumes a narrative character as in telling a story and if children, playing together and negotiating roles and plots, develop some form of metacommunication.
Thus play per se is neither synonymous with learning nor has it learning aims. But it can contribute to the fostering of what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” if it stimulates and exercises emerging capacities. For these reasons all children should have access to good quality, safe, and affordable play opportunities, with supervision provided where appropriate, in accordance with age and need.
In Italy, play is recognized as a right for all children, which has to be sustained by opportune policy interventions. The educational settings of the best Italian day-care centers and nursery schools give broad space to play in daily activities. They support play mainly by offering toys and furniture ad hoc (blocks, “pretend” play furniture, dolls, dresses to disguise, toy cars and trucks, etc.) organized in centers of interest where little groups of children can interact together. It is in fact also recognized that the social context of play is crucial because of its implications for children’s development and that to play with a small group of close friends is an important opportunity for social learning.
The Role of Adults in Play
The role of adults in fostering children’s play, mostly with children from three to six years of age, is less emphasized in Italy. Caregivers and teachers give more relevance to peer interaction in play than to adult-child interaction. Adults offer material and toys, propose or suggest activities and then take mainly the role of supervisors without playing with children. There is, however, solid research evidence and a theoretical basis in support of the idea that, in order to foster children’s development, teachers should promote children’s abilities by actively and playfully interacting with them. Particularly an intervention based on tutorial strategies could offer a scaffold for promoting more developed forms of play and correlated abilities.
Play and Work
Another popular idea is that play is the opposite of work; that is, in educational contexts, the opposite of didactic activities. So in many Italian educational settings—although more in nursery schools than in day-care centers—the time span daily dedicated to play is called “free play” to distinguish it from that dedicated to didactic activities, which take place mainly in the central part of the morning. The practice of separating play from “work” has negative consequences: play is considered nonacademic, nonlearning time, and only valued as leisure activity. Didactic activity, on the contrary, aimed at fostering capacities and the acquisition of learning, is seen as an assigned, obligatory (versus voluntary) situation that cannot last beyond the limited span of attention of children.
Play is sometimes considered as a pleasurable way of learning and working. Such an idea, which is also present in official documents such as Orientamenti issued by the Ministry of Education as a guideline for nursery school education and curriculum, is often misinterpreted by teachers, who tend to present imposed didactic activities as playful and pleasant ones. Play can instead be really integrated with learning activities by orienting it toward socioemotional developmental goals. In this case great importance is often given to peer interaction and to sociodramatic play, which can be facilitated by offering opportune play spaces, time, and props, and by arranging children in small playgroups. Alternatively it can incorporate cognitive goals. In such cases (e.g., Pistoia and Modena nursery schools) spontaneous children’s activities, such as exploratory and symbolic play, are fostered and oriented toward more developed and culturally valued activities by offering ad hoc material (books, images, scientific props) and through an adult-child interaction aimed at coordinating and expanding children’s proposals and ideas.
Italian preschool caregivers and teachers have different understandings of how to incorporate play and work in early education: whether as peripheral to learning or as disguised academic work, whether as integrated with socioemotional development or as integrated also with intellectual developmental goals.
The importance of play for physical development is also recognized in Italian day-care centers and nursery schools, where there is almost always an indoor large space arranged with equipment for gross-motor activities and an outdoor garden furnished with a sandbox and props for physical activities. Due to parents’ and teachers’ preoccupations, outdoor play is limited by weather conditions and takes place mainly in the warm season (late Spring, beginning of Summer, and early Autumn).
Research on Play
Research on children’s play in Italy shows a prevailing ecological and qualitative approach founded on observations of children in their daily life contexts, especially outside the home. The following aspects of children’s play have been explored over the last decades: parents’ ideas about the importance of play and its effective relevance in children’s life; toddlers’ interactions in exploratory and symbolic play; the role of gender in children’s interactions; developmental stages in symbolic play; the role of the adult in enhancing children’s play; how childhood culture is expressed in play; and how sociodramatic play affects children’s narrative competence.
New challenges to play research come from multicultural experience in daycare centers and nursery schools, where attendance by nonnative children increases every day, and from children’s play experience in educational contexts different from the traditional ones, called “play centers,” whose ecological variables and their effects on children’s play behavior and interactions have not yet been explored.
There are many open questions about how to incorporate play in educational curricula, which will be hopefully answered by further research: the link between play and academic activities (such as narrative, counting, reading, reasoning, etc.); the role of furniture and toys to enhance different kinds of play; and, last but not least, the adults’ strategies to help children share play and become more and more expert players. An ecological approach, which interprets children’s play behaviors as affected by contextual variables, is needed to know which situations better elicit children’s developed forms of play. It would be desirable that teachers as researchers answer these questions by verifying the effects of their play practices and by reflecting on their ideas about play and education.
Further Readings: Bateson, G. (1956). The message “This is Play. In B. Schaffner, ed., Group processes: Transactions of the second conference. New York: Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation; Bondioli, A. (1996). Gioco e educazione. Milano: FrancoAngeli; Bondioli, A., ed. (2004). Ludus in fabula. Per una pedagogia del narrare infantile. Bergamo: Edizioni Junior; Bondioli, A., and D. Savio (1994). SVALSI, Scala di valutazione delle abilita ludico-simboliche infantili Bergamo: Edizioni Junior; Bondioli, A. (2001). The adult as a tutor in fostering children’s symbolic play. In A. Goncu, and E. L. Klein, eds., Children in play, story, and school, pp. 107-131. New York: Guilford Publications; Bruner, J. S. (1972). Nature and uses of immaturity. American Psychologist 27(8); Camaioni, L. (1980). L’interazione tra bambini. Roma: Armando; Corsaro, W. A. (1994). Discussion, debate and friendship: Peer discourse in nursery schools in the US and Italy. Sociology of Education, 61, 1-14; Fein, G., and M. Rivkin, eds. (1986). The young child at play. Washington DC: NAEYC; Garvey C. (1977). Play. London: Fontana/Open Books; Livolsi, M., A. De Lillo, and A. Schizzerotto (1980). Bambini non si nasce. Milano: FrancoAngeli; Musatti, T. (1985). I bambini nel gruppo: in asilo nido. In E. Catarsi (ed.), Il nido competente. Bergamo: Juvenilia; Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton; Vygotsky, L. (1937). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In Bruner, J. S., A. Jolly, and K. Sylva, eds. (1976). Play. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
In Italy during the past two decades the issue of quality has mainly been addressed in connection with the definition and the planning of educational services for children between 0-3. The quality of services for children between 3 and 6 is conceived within the general national Guidelines and within the debate of how to evaluate the school system in general, which is just beginning to work through INVALSI (National Institution for the Evaluation of the School System) according to the 2003 reform bill. In some instances municipalities have developed their own guidelines and taken some initiative to define their local model and to control quality, but the newest and most interesting development of the definition of quality has taken place regarding the services for 0- to 3-year-olds, within a general conceptualization widely shared for all age 0-6 services. Issues like school readiness are not yet on the scene, and have in fact always been strongly resisted by the early childhood education world. But this issue is coming along, will inform future debate and the discussion and conceptualization of quality in ECEC might well become an important contribution for the discussion of quality in general.
The debate in Italy about quality in early childhood education started in the 1980s, and was informed by the following perspectives:
• The cultural organizational projection of a service ultimately conceived as an educational service for young children and their families, implying the idea of care but putting the pedagogical goals front and center.
• A shared understanding of scientific knowledge regarding children’s competences and potentials, as well as of the benefits children could draw from an educational service in the early years of their lives.
• A new social representation of childhood and of the opportunities inherent in educational strategies based on the relationships between families and educational services, rooted and disseminated in those areas of the country where the development of creches has been stronger.
The years during which the discussion and definition of quality was developed are the very same years that marked the beginning of a stagnation phase in national policies aiming at the development of the educational service system for young children. This was undoubtedly a time when, due to research and to practices successfully implemented, Italy was finally in a position to conceptualize quality, using this concept as a “comprehensive semantic container” of the different qualifying aspects of the system, including the following:
• theoretical assumptions,
• the subjects involved,
• relational structures,
• organizational and functional standards,
• strategies for designing and documenting experiences,
• coordination, monitoring and supervision, and
• rules and regulations and related control processes.
These are elements that may tell us how “good” a project or experience is, both from the point of view of the conditions which may determine its quality and from the point of view of evaluating its effectiveness.
Within this framework, when defining the elements that contribute to the quality of an educational service for early childhood, broad consensus seems to emerge in relation to the following areas:
• focusing on children and their competence/experiential construction in the design of the service;
• acknowledging families as having an active role as chief partners in the design of the service;
• building, over time, the relationships among children, educators and parents, with full recognition of identities and of active and constructive contributions from each of the three partners;
• considering the impact of the physical organizational context of the service and the need to determine quantitative and qualitative standards, as well as to identify acceptable adult/child ratios;
• focusing educational planning on the environment and organization of the physical contexts surrounding children, valuing local and original taste and traditions, emphasizing an educational style centred on listening, tutorial support, and respect which may help value individual differences rather than direct intervention deriving from preset goals, using observation, documentation, and evaluation strategies to outline individual profiles, strategies, and personal styles connected to a process- and discourse-oriented representation of children’s experience;
• attaching strong importance to organizational managerial structures and educational coordination structures in order to meet the need to ensure adequate and continuing “caring” management. Coordinators are a key figure to act as an external eye, to share reflections upon the project, to perform a supervising function on the educators’ work in order to guarantee consistency between the educational project, the resources and the organization;
• defining rules and regulations which may give substance to and set limits for the governance of the system, together with the related regulation and control strategies/procedures.
Although the debate around quality and related issues has been inspired initially by contributions and tools previously worked out in non-Italian contexts (see documents by the European Network and tools like the Italian versions and adaptations of Harms, Cryer, and Clifford, 1990; Ferrari and Livraghi, 1992), a number of specific action/research processes has led to the development of evaluation tools constructed locally with coordinators and caregivers and therefore more directly tailored to specific experiences in Italy (see the cases of Toscana, Emilia Romagna, and Umbria, in Cipollone, 1999; Bondioli and Savio, 1994; Bondioli and Ghedini, 2000).
However, the issue of quality—conditions to achieve it and strategies to evaluate it—is strongly linked to a multidimensional approach toward quality in order to protect and value the idea that, within some common standards, quality has to be defined locally; that it is strictly linked to the local culture, traditions, and situations. Within this general frame of reference it can be understood why little attention is devoted to investigating the relationship between quality of educational services for early childhood and subsequent success in learning on the part of children, the so-called longitudinal effects. This is a theme in which Italian preschool and early education services have never shown much interest, because the cultural, political, and educational reasons to invest in early education and to define and evaluate quality are rooted in the correspondence and compatibility of the services with the community, and with the ideas and representations of children, rather than projected in a more “product-” or performance-oriented perspective that gains strength only when the compulsory school years begin. A “good” service is a service open to all children and good for them in the present, rather than a service that produces good students in the future.
Another feature of quality that has received attention is “perceived quality,” a factor that has contributed to but has not determined the definition of instruments and processes of quality control. Even less meaningful has been use of the concept “quality certification” (used in the corporate world), owing to its lack of attention to relationships and processes within educational services.
Some contributions have linked the issues of “quality” and “costs” from two different perspectives.
• to identify “threshold values”—functional and financial at the same time (in terms of number of square metres per child or maximum ratio educators/children) which should be taken as reference in order to make quality possible;
• to understand how, apart from those standards, quality basically depends on the quality of use of available resources;
Some developments within the educational service system over the last two decades have recently drawn attention to the need and potential connection between measuring quality and regulating/controlling a more pluralistic and diversified “market” of educational services for children and families. This has especially been the case with new services (part-time services, mother/toddler groups and company-based creches) and new providers (cooperatives and other nonprofit organizations). These circumstances have alerted municipalities and regions to the need for the following:
• better defining rules and standards of reference;
• developing new tools to evaluate quality; and
• identifying procedures for regulation and control.
In regions of the country where services are widespread, interesting experiences have already been developed which identify the conceptual area of quality as the point of balance between the following:
• the development/evolution of regulation and standards (e.g. regions like Emilia Romagna and Tuscany have developed a system of regulations encompassing types of services, space standards, staff training requirements, adult/child ratio, etc.);
• the development of specific experiences of traditional and new services;
• the increase in the awareness and professional development of the subject (professionals) involved.
On the other hand, at the national level, the high diversity in the diffusion of early childhood services—the national average of infant-toddler services is around 10 percent, but it ranges from 1 percent to 40 percent—does not encourage a consistent effort to link together the extension of services and the conceptualization of quality standards. In other words, where the quantity of services is very low and far from the demand, both the lack of early childhood “culture” and experience and the pressure for quantity slow down the development of a serious conceptualization about quality.
The process of conceptualizing quality practiced within early childhood services has nevertheless become one of the most important dimensions in professional development and can also contribute to stimulate and update the national choices and policies to develop and qualify the ECEC system.
Further Readings: AAVV (2006). La qualita dei servizi educativi per t’infanzia in Toscana. Uno strumento per la valutazione della qualita dei nidi e dei servizi integrative. Firenze: Istituto Degli Innocenti; Bondioli, A., and P. Ghedini, eds. (2000). La qualita negoziata: Gli indicatoriper i nidi della Regione Emilia Romagna. Azzano San Paolo: Edizioni Junior; Bondioli A., D. Savio (1994). SVALSI, Scala di valutazione delle abilita ludico-simboliche infantili. Bergamo: Edizioni Junior; Cipollone, L. (1999). Strumenti e indicatori per valutare il nido. Bergamo: Edizioni Junior; Harms, T., D. Cryer, and R. M. Clifford (1990). Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale. New York: Teachers College Press. (Italian translation and adaptation Ferrari, M., Livraghi, P., Scala per la valutazione dell’asilo, Angeli, Milano, 1992); U.O.C. Infanzia ed Adolescenza, Istituto degli Innocenti, ed. (1998). Manuale per la valutazione della qualita degli asili nido nella regione toscana. Bergamo: Edizioni Junior. [Handbook for assessment of quality of the infant toddler centers in the region of Tuscany.]
Italian nursery schools have accepted the idea of a curricular framework with ambivalence. In fact, the very concept of curriculum has emerged long after establishment of the nursery school system and its basic identity defined and shared at local (municipal) and central (state) levels. In a sense many of those involved as coordinators, administrators, researchers, and theorists consider the Italian experience too important to define its educational significance merely in curricular terms. The development of a strong educational model for nursery schools took place well before the idea of curriculum became widespread in the United States and Europe, and educational experiments were in most cases first practiced, and only then diffused from the “bottom up.” The need for theoretical justification and a systematic formalization developed later, progressively and over decades, following from widespread community experiments.
Two different interpretations of the word “curriculum” coexist within the nursery school world in Italy. The first is an extensive connotation, where curriculum is intended as “fundamental architecture” of the nursery school system. This involves the established principles and the basic philosophy that inspires the educational model, the results of which are the methodological and didactic choices. The second is an intensive interpretation, according to which curriculum means the contents of knowledge and/or experiences and the methodology adopted to put them into practice.
Curriculum in Extensive Terms
The extensive meaning of curriculum can be traced to the original tradition of Italian nursery schools, where attention was focussed on experience and on practice. For a long time a definition of the schools’ pedagogical, methodological, and didactic statutes in formal curricular terms was not deemed necessary or even sought. The nursery schools were established as a local community experience organized around the church or the municipality. The first nursery experiences date back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, and much development took place at the beginning of the twentieth century, sponsored by the large city municipalities in the North and the Center (e.g., Montessori’s Children Houses located in city public houses in Rome started in 1912). State nursery schools were first established much later, in 1968. Only then did it become necessary to define guidelines, called orientations and later indications to emphasize their open and flexible character in contrast with the stronger word programs used for compulsory school levels. We can say that in the Italian tradition, the “doing” and “finding solutions” in relation to concrete problems posed by children and community prevailed for many years over any definition of a preventive theoretical “source.”
Nursery school has always been a full day experience and the need of working families for care has been always considered and strictly linked to the aim of creating an educational environment. Diverse local experiments of education and care, although inspired by some shared ideas and theories, were the basis on which national guidelines were drawn. These guidelines were defined broadly enough to allow established experiments to accept them and new experiments to flourish, guaranteeing both a common ground and the possibility for local community interpretation of the educational offers for children. Specific methods or locally developed outlines continue to coexist within the national framework. The attempt to devise an official national curriculum can therefore be considered the result partly of the merging of different experiences and partly of research in education and development.
Without using the word curriculum, the famous educators who influenced the nursery schools movement traced outlines for environment, organization, methodology, and content on which the educational offerings could be based.
• Rosa Agazzi (1866-1951), one of the educators who most influenced the Italian system after establishing the school in Mompiano (Brescia) with her sister Teresa, wrote many instruction books on how educators in the giardino d’infanzia (kindergarten) should work. Agazzi did her best to achieve an “alive school,” and along the route traced by Friedrich Froebel, anticipated the “competent child” of later research as an active and creative being who has within himself the potential to grow and educate himself in an environment where daily life experiences become organized in a pedagogical perspective. The pedagogical heritage of Agazzi is in fact the awareness that every educational project must be based on children’s real experiences and on their authentic and specific need to grow within their own community. The main task of the kindergarten, therefore, is to promote the child’s educational development through action. From Agazzi’s perspective competence is essentially linked to doing or acting in an organized way, without the need of special materials but rather with well organized material and objects that could be found in the surrounding environment (the so called museum of little things).
• Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was also deeply convinced that each child could command a human potential that only needed an appropriate environment, adequate materials, and respectful and observing teachers to bloom. The environment she proposed was more organized and structured, strewn with stimuli that the child has to find and accommodate to while always following its own rhythm. Montessori assumed that the child already has inside potential and instruments waiting to be practiced and put to good use. Therefore the teacher is not there to “teach” but to allow and promote various intellectual occasions to help the potential to come out, be practiced, and become firmly established. In her words, “... knowledge can be given in the best way when there is a burning desire to learn ... because the mind of the child is like a fertile field, ready to receive what will later sprout in the form of culture. But if the mind of the child ... is neglected, or frustrated in its needs, it becomes artificially dulled and will later oppose the teaching of any notion.”
• Directly and indirectly Agazzi and Montessori inspired innumerable other experiences, especially in the north of Italy. The most famous and original in its reinterpretation of part of their tradition is that of Reggio Emilia, where Loris Malaguzzi, the director and inspirer of the nursery schools that developed from a strong community effort right after the Second World War, turned his attention in particular to the constructive creative child. Children “think,” they have ideas, they construct projects and try to fulfil them. From the beginning Malaguzzi wanted the school to be wide open to the parents and to the city. The school is deeply rooted in the area; it “belongs to” and represents the local community. The teacher must be capable, well qualified, and cultivated, and the children’s competence and creativity become visible through long lasting cooperative projects and art. Malaguzzi, drawing from Agazzi, Montessori, Freinet, and Bruno Ciari, from his own cultural and artistic experiences, and from the numerous experiments that were popping up in many cities in the 1970s, sketches children who are the following:
1. Expressive—endowed with ample creative capacity. It is important to propose expressive activities, such as painting, graphic expression, drama, dressing up, storytelling, etc. With their imagination, and through constant dialogue and interaction with other children and with listening and provoking adults, children focus on their ideas, think them over, elaborate and reformulate them. Children have the right not only to appropriate but also to beautiful environments, painting, music, and everything that is expression at the highest level.
2. Constructive—endowed with minds capable of observing, gathering information, discussing that information and assembling it in original ways, with curiosity and with a strong inclination toward exploration. This can happen when children are placed in conditions encouraging them to be protagonists and active participants.
3. Manual and visual—children’s minds are strongly connected to the body, hands, and eyes, and it is necessary to give precedence to the practical abilities that are both essential for the solving of everyday problems and also useful for checking hypotheses and ideas, choosing and finding solutions etc. The hand guides the mind and is guided by the mind.
4. Social—expression, creativity, and learning happen through interaction, dialogue, and continuous negotiations between children, between children and adults, and between school and community.
Curriculum in Intensive Terms
The intensive meaning of curriculum can be found by following the progressive political engagement at State level, official documents, and scientific literature on early childhood education.
The following three steps mark the national nursery school system:
• The institution of State Nursery Schools in 1968 and the subsequent Orientamenti per la Scuola Materna (1969).
• The revision of these Guidelines, which took place in 1991 rethinking the pedagogical framework (Nuovi Orientamenti per la Scuola Materna). The revised text was widely discussed at the community level and in the academic and professional networks before being issued, and therefore contributed to a considerable cultural relaunching of nursery schools. It is based on three main educational goals or key words: reinforcing the child’s identity, supporting the acquisition of autonomy, and the recognizing and sustaining of the child’s competence.
• The third National document subsequent to the school reform bill issued in 2004 (Indicazioni Nazionali per i Piani Personalizzati nella Scuola dell’Infanzia) does not substantially change the general framework of 1991. The novelty in this document is that the general objectives of the educational process are spelled out in specific objectives of learning and broad areas called campi di esperienza (experience fields): self and others, body, movement and health, message fruition and production, exploration, knowledge, and planning. The criteria for documentation and evaluation (Portfolio of individual competences) are illustrated through many items and examples.
The Indicazioni are a move toward curricular organization in a perspective closer to a great part of the American and European debate. But they are perceived by many teachers and experts in the Italian early education field as a rigidifying and impoverishment of the nursery school experience, in its variety and developing culture. They can be regarded as a compromise (not very good but not too bad) between the “good practices” developed in many communities, the theories currently at hand and the need for specific orientation of schools and areas where the cultura dell’infanzia (the culture of childhood) and the servizi educativiper l’infanzia e la famiglia (educational services for children and families) have not yet developed.
The concept or principle of good practice refers on one hand to a model (a conceptual scheme in which different aspects of educational life can be connected and ordered in relation to a teleological principle that insures organic unity and coherence), and on the other hand to the structure of the experience (all the forms that the model assumes or can assume practically, in relation to possible or historical and social situations). The structure is the visible variable distinguished by the things that are done, by the everyday situations, by the choices made at the moment. The model is the hidden variable that indicates the principles that inspire and infer the structure and are often implicit.
Two different outlooks, holistic or molecular, can be retraced in the different local experiences. They correspond broadly to the extensive and intensive approach to curriculum. The holistic perspective prefers a global form of guidelines in which attention to the overall context of the child’s life prevails. The molecular perspective generally prefers to identify specific steps to reach knowledge and competence. The holistic experiments prefer wide-ranging aims that incorporate daily life, the caring aspects, and social and community experiences into the curriculum. They see the nursery school as a place in life where global experiences such as constructing one’s identity, attaining self-sufficiency, making relationships with peers, interaction with the community culture and the attention to processes are a priority. The molecular perspective pays more attention to problems regarding teaching methodology and the contents of learning, with specific performance goals and a stronger preoccupation with results.
One perspective does not exclude the other. They are trends. In Italy, broadly speaking and with many exceptions, the first dominates in the municipal schools (e.g., Reggio Emilia) and the second in state and private schools. In many schools the two perspectives actually coexist due to the way the system has developed in a single city or school or to the influence of local experts.
The Domestic Child and the Apprentice Child
Finally, two further polarized concepts influence the thought and the practices connected with nursery school curriculum: the idea of the domestic child and that of the apprentice child. The school for the domestic child is the school that places more emphasis on everyday aspects, which recalls the idea of home, proposes global contexts, and focuses primarily on experiences lived by the child. Routines and caring aspects (i.e., common meals) are considered important and built into the curriculum, and when activities are proposed, including cognitive ones, this is done within a global approach. The child’s day is full of activities that have much to do with everyday life, organization, symbolic play, relationships between peers and between children and adults. Evaluation is also a global concept and not a priority in its traditional formulation.
The apprentice child’s school, on the contrary, sees itself as real school, with the main goal to enhance knowledge. It aims at a precise educational and teaching program, and it articulates its activity in more classic curricular terms. It looks at evaluation as a means of keeping a check on the teacher’s work.
The Searching Child
The idea of the domestic child is clearly no longer enough if the apprentice’s complementary dimension is missing. At the same time, the idea of the apprentice child exposes the nursery school to the limits of an institution aimed only at results, which can fail to recognize the intrinsic value of childhood, and which risks transmitting an established body of knowledge while overlooking the importance for the child of gaining confidence and producing knowledge himself. The capacity to progressively discover, face, and solve problems seems linked to being given the possibility and having the time needed to mature internally and to work socially. The searching child, offered an environment rich in social, cognitive, and aesthetic opportunities together with the time to explore, play, discuss, and think at his own pace, expressing himself in a hundred languages and evaluated using practices centered on documentation, seems to be an appropriate synthesis of the two current Italian traditions for looking at curriculum as an evolving concept.
Further Readings: Agazzi, R. C. (1960). Lingua parlata. Brescia: Editrice La Scuola; Bertin, G. M. (1973). Educazione alla ragione. Armando Armando Editore; Battista Borghi, Q. (2001). Coro di bimbi aMompiano. Bergamo: Junior; Edwards, C., L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach-advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Stamford, CT: Ablex; Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione, Servizio per la Scuola Materna (1991). Nuovi orientamentiper la scuola materna. Rome: Ministero della Pubblica Instructione; Montessori, M. (1992 ). Come educare il potenziale umano. Milan: Garzanti.
Battista Quinto Borghi
In Italy, as in many other places, the term “literacy” entails multiple meanings: from a general and vague familiarity with the written language to the ways through which people gain their abilities to read and to write. In English literature we find the terms of “emergent literacy” or “early literacy” related to the initial and noninstitutionalized approaches to written language. The corresponding Italian words “alfabetizzazione” and “alfabetizzazione iniziale” are slightly different from the English terms because they mainly refer to the mastery of the notational system used for writing, that is, the ability to say and write the letters of a word in the correct order. In fact, these terms are actually acquiring a wider meaning concerning both the children’s ideas and hypotheses about the structure and function of their system of writing and the ways cultural, educative, and familiar contexts promote these processes.
As regards the ways that early childhood education addresses literacy practices in Italy, the situation is very variegated: ranging from direct instruction perspectives, which offer scripted, teacher-directed lessons (charts, guides, assessment handbooks), to child-initiated approaches, which view young children as active constructors of knowledge who are not dependent on didactic instructional cues from a teacher. The historical, intellectual, and cultural conditions that formulated our early childhood curriculum guidelines are based on a holistic approach in which children are seen as social beings who acquire a framework for interpreting experiences through social life. In fact, because the tradition of Italian early childhood education considers the sphere of social interaction between children as the basic learning context for the construction of knowledge, the following statements characterize approaches to written language teaching:
• the development of the individual cannot be understood without taking into account his or her interaction with other people, that is, child learns to write by interacting with people in very different situations and contexts;
• the social environment is itself influenced by the wider culture, that is, the nature and uses of written language are related to specific and varied social conditions and practices.
Considering the first statement, early childhood education has emphasized the importance of social interactions within learning to read and write. This approach leads to the following two concerns:
a. Adult-child interaction in the classroom, in particular the support and stimulation that teachers provide to pupils. In fact, throughout different kinds of techniques, as for example, repeating, reformulating, or asking for an explanation, teachers can encourage pupils to specify and evaluate their working hypotheses, as well as to develop their hypotheses and to find counter examples to test their conclusions. Further, teachers can help their students to approach written language by acting as readers and writers themselves. Teachers who do not write or read cannot sensitively help others learn to write and to read. In this sense particular importance is given to story telling during early childhood, since pleasure in reading is built throughout an affective relation with a meaningful adult. Libraries in preschool, reading spaces in nurseries, and reading activities and proposals for young children in town libraries, have therefore increased in the last years. As regards the role of the teacher as a model of writer, some studies show how writing in front of the pupils is useful for them in order to discover some of the writing system proprieties (such as the direction of writing, the segmentation between the words, the punctuation, etc.), and some of the written language aspects (such as the different kinds of genres). Besides, in the dictation situations, according to the type of text the group is producing (narrative, instructional texts, or letters), pupils develop different kinds of interventions, and this confirms children’s textual awareness or sensitiveness.
b. Peer interaction. Several studies report that peer interaction facilitates children’s learning in the classroom by delineating those aspects of cooperative learning that are involved in successful arrangements. In general, research suggests that cooperation is most useful for the kind of learning that involves conceptual change. Because learning to write is considered a conceptual learning, the research in this field has showed how the exchange of ideas among children is particularly effective for planning and writing a text, so as to understand the sense of a text when it’s read. Construction of knowledge is facilitated when a child tries to put his or her knowledge into relationship with ideas that are at a similar level, because children have points of view that are more or less alike.
Regarding the idea that the social environment is itself influenced by the wider culture, most of the Italian studies conclude that literacy practices should be proposed within authentic communication situations and through the use of real texts. The first point is based on the importance that is assigned to the fact that children should discover the utility, the power, and the pleasure that reading and writing give them. In other words, school should contribute to the development of adults who are linguistically competent, in order to be able to produce an adequate and effective text according to the communication context, that is, citizens of the written culture. Therefore, in classroom approaches the emphasis is put in writing and reading text with clear proposals and real addressees, rather than writing exercises and skills that are usually not contextualized. The second point is based on the importance that is assigned to exposing children to different genres and types of text and text containers, to encourage them to discover their proprieties and characteristics.
In summary, literacy in Italian preschools is mainly connected with activities related to children’s knowledge construction processes, to invented or spontaneous spelling and to spontaneous reading throughout the exchange of ideas among peers and the adults. In these contexts teachers have a significant role because they have to encourage children to exchange points of view among themselves, in order to promote either the revision, the consolidation, or the transformation of their hypothesis without imposing the adult vision of the writing system. At the same time, teachers have to represent the written culture throughout, offering a variety of genres and types of texts, encouraging authentic reading and writing practices and acting as an expert in the written language.
Regarding the research about how children move toward literacy prior to any schooling, most of the Italian studies have looked at how children construct the principles of their writing system within educational contexts. This linked relationship between research and school contexts has provided teachers and curriculum planners with the voice of children, which helps them to understand the possible reasons underlying a particular difficulty in order to clarify the role of errors in the learning processes. The research findings in this field have important educational implications, not only for the design of activities but also for evaluating children’s linguistic knowledge.
It was considered central to study the interplay between children’s hypotheses about the writing system and the conventional rules of correspondence between phonemes and graphemes or between oral, signed, and written forms in the Italian language. Other studies have noted that young children are content-sensitive, that is, they do not write all the words when they are asked to write down sentences dictated to them. In fact, most young children do not write marks for articles, qualifiers, or even verbs when asked to write full sentences, nor do they “read” or anticipate these categories of words separately when they are asked to “read” a written sentence. They only consider the full nouns, a fact that indicates that children in some moments of early literacy develop sensitivity to the referential meaning of what they represent through writing. In the same direction, a sort of “semantic phase” was demonstrated in response to the request that they write some words and their diminutives (in Italian they are formed by using suffixes that generate words that are always longer compared to the base word although the object referred to is smaller) and plurals (that, although representing a more numerous set, only require a change in the final vowel in spoken and written Italian). The researchers found out that about one-third of the children tried to keep in their writings the similarities of the semantic field of the base word in diminutives and plurals, while changing the dimensions or the order of the marks used in the first case or repeating marks for the plural.
Another dimension studied concerns the children’s awareness of or sensitivity to the type or genre of texts they were asked to write down or to read. Two main methodologies have been used within this approach: either the child is asked to dictate his/her text to the researcher, or after the child has written his/her text, the researcher, hearing what the child verbalizes, rewrites it in conventional writing. The textual awareness was shown in the former approach throughout the content of the text they had just dictated and in the latter approach throughout the differences in the graphic layout children produced as well as in the content of the oral text they elaborated when reading what they had written. These studies have demonstrated that long before children read and write in a conventional way, they are sensitive to certain grammatical, rhetorical, and lexical devices for written language and distinguish between different genres.
These findings suggest that the distinction between the knowledge of the writing system and the knowledge of written language cannot be strictly maintained from the point of view of the child writer. They encourage future approaches that are undertaken within a more integrated vision about both types of knowledge and a more integrated vision about the ways in which genre and writing conventions interplay not only in writing but also in reading.
Further Readings: Ferreiro, E. (2003). Teoria e pratica dell’alfabetizzazione. Milano: Raffaello Cortina Editore; Pascucci, M. (2005). Come scrivono i bambini. Roma: Carocci; Pontecorvo, C. (1995). Iconicity in children’s first written text. In R. Simone, ed., Iconic- ity and language, pp. 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins; Pontecorvo, C., ed. (1997). Writing development. Amsterdam: John Benjamins; Pontecorvo, C., ed. (1999). Manuale dipsicologia dell’educazione. Bologna: Il Mulino; Pontecorvo, C. and C. Zucchermaglio (1988). Modes of differentiation in children’s writing construction. European Journal of Psychology of Education 3(4), 371-384; Pontecorvo, C. and R. M. Morani (1996). Looking for stylistic features in children’s composing stories: Products and processes. In C. Pontecorvo, M. Orsolini, M. Bruge, and L. Resnik, eds., (1996). Children’s early text construction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 229-259; Pontecorvo, C., M. Orsolini, M. Bruge, and L. Resnik, eds. (1996). Children’s early Text Construction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Simone, R., ed. (1995). Iconicity and language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins; Tolchinsky, L., ed. (2001). Development Aspects in learning to write. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers; Zucchermaglio, C., and N. Scheuer (1996). Children dictating a story: Is together better? In C. Pontecorvo, M. Orsolini, M. Bruge, and L. Resnik, eds., Children’s early text construction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 83-99; Zucchermaglio, C. (1991). Gli apprendisti della lingua scritta. Bologna: Il Mulino.
In Italy, the socioemotional aspects of children’s experiences in early childhood educational settings are considered an important educational dimension. This attention is due partly to the cultural context within which the early childhood educational services were expanded in the 1960s and 1970s.
First the expansion of the scuole dell’infanzia and then the establishment of the nidi later was achieved under pressure from the trade union and women’s movement, aimed at reconciling child care with women’s participation in the labor market. This historical process has left important traces in the organization of the services managed by the local authorities—and later also by the national authorities—in which different forms of parent participation in the services were introduced, such as their involvement in management aspects (gestione sociale) and other social events, such as parties, outings, or discussions regarding educational topics. This historical origin of these educational services also contributed to stimulating discussion of their significance in the life of families and on their impact on the development of the child-mother relationship. In opposition to a psychoanalytical approach, which predicted negative consequences on the establishment of an attachment bond deriving from early separation of the child from the mother, early childhood educational practices stressed the importance of guaranteeing significant relationships between teachers and each child and children’s early social experiences with their peers. These goals translated into some good quality educational practices that spread widely throughout the country and were aimed at sustaining children’s socioemotional development. These practices contributed to characterizing the new services in an innovative perspective compared with previous forms of child care, and to giving them a different educational identity from that of the primary school, which aimed essentially at knowledge acquisition.
The Child-Teacher Relationship
Early childhood pedagogy has had to match itself with two different existing models of the relationship between teachers and children. One model repeats at an early age a type of relationship designed to have the child acquire the social norms or cognitive behavior and motor abilities required for later formal learning. This model has long predominanted in the scuole dell’infanzia. According to the other model, more widespread in the nidi, adults were given a function essentially involving the control and promotion of the physical well-being of the children and substituting for their mothers’ care. In actual educational practice, within both types of service a conception of the adult’s role different from either of these models emerged, according to which the teacher aims at encouraging the children’s process of discovery of the physical and social environment and at supporting them on both the affective and the cognitive levels. Within this perspective, the educational context has to be set up to allow teachers to intervene in the children’s activities in a nondirective way—with concern to communicative style and content. The teacher’s intervention aims to enter the children’s ongoing social and cognitive processes without disrupting them, as well as to guarantee that each child will benefit from her exclusive attention, particularly during physical care. The importance of constructing significant stable relations between children and teachers was also stressed. Both in the nidi and in the scuole dell’infanzia, the teachers themselves accompany the same group of children throughout the years of their attendance. In the nidi, which have a larger teacher’s team, there is a widespread practice of identifying a specific teacher for each child as a reference person for both the child and her/his parents. Discussions and practices involving the relations between children and teachers have contributed to showing that in the educational settings the children have to cope with a complex social context, which differs from that experienced at home and involves a plurality of adults and children.
Social Contacts with Peers
The attention focused on social contacts with peers received strong support from studies carried out in Italy and other countries in the 1970s and 1980s on children’s competence in interacting with peers at an early age. These studies showed that as early as the middle of the first year of life, if children are seated near each other on the rug, they succeed in soliciting reciprocal attention and then in exchanging objects. In the nidi it became common practice to place the younger children on a rug with their toys in a position that would favor visual and physical contact among them. Research also showed that toddlers are able to direct social behaviors toward their peers (glances, smiles, motor acts, and utterances), to respond to behavior directed toward them, and to produce relatively long interactive sequences. However, such phenomena can vary greatly according to the quality of the relations between the children and the organization of the context.
Social familiarity, defined as the mutual knowledge of the children based on their repeated meeting, was found to be a basic factor in determining the quantity and quality of children’s interactions. In the nidi educational practice, this involved providing the children with opportunities to gain knowledge of their reciprocal identities, characteristics, and preferences. Care is taken that, at the time of their first entry to the nido, newcomers are introduced to children already attending, and that each child will learn the names of all the other children (e.g., by means of various forms of daily roll call, during which they repeat the names of all the other children, showing interest in the reasons for the absence of certain children, involving telephone calls to the latter’s home). When talking to children, the teachers take care to call out the name of each child, to speak of a specific emotional mood or the preferences or requests of an individual child and to make their reasons explicit also to the other children. This support given to mutual knowledge of the peer’s identity and emotions has positive effects on the socioemotional climate in the educational context. Even in nidi it is frequently possible to observe the development of significant relations among children.
The Importance of Context
Research has also indicated that the frequency and quality of the interaction among children vary as a function of contextual variables such as the number of children present, the number of toys available, the activities prompted by these objects. These findings, together with Montessori-based educational suggestions, are strongly echoed in educational practice of both Italian nidi and scuole dell’infanzia. Two procedures in particular are widespread. The first is that of the arrangement of play areas characterized by a specific theme. These areas are spatially limited and contain materials suitable for performing specific exploration and play activities. They have a two-fold function: of encouraging the gathering of a small number of children, and of orienting their activities on the same topic, thus favoring sharing among the children. The second procedure, partially related to the first, is to arrange the educational contexts in such a way that the children may often find themselves in small groups during the play and exploration activities. This educational goal affects the service organization at various levels. It is necessary, for instance, to arrange teachers’ work schedules so that a greater number of them will be present during the hours of play activity, to organize the environments and play materials to allow and/or favor the division of the children into small groups. A large variety of solutions have been found according to the type of service—nido or scuola dell’infanzia, its architectural structure, and the number of children attending. It must be stressed that all the solutions are based on the idea that the ratio between the number of teachers and number of children must be evaluated with reference to the quality of the social contexts set up for children. In some cases, as in the educational practice of Pistoia and Reggio Emilia services, teachers aim also to support children’s shared activities over time, encouraging their repetition, and the maintenance of their products or other outcomes.
Parent Interests and Attitudes
Parents have also paid increasing attention to the socioemotional aspects of the children’s experience in the educational services. Surveys conducted over the past decades in different sites concerning parents’ satisfaction with nido experience have always shown that they pay particular attention to the relations between teachers and the children. However, providing the children with social experiences with peers has been found to increasingly motivate parents’ demand for educational services for toddlers. This demand also includes services that offer only social experiences with peers for just a few hours per day and in the company of the parents. It has been argued that this demand stems from both the large number of only children in Italian families and the positive social experience gained by a growing number of children in the educational services.
Further Readings: Mantovani, S., and T Musatti, eds. (1983). Adulti e bambini: educare e comunicare. La ricerca in asilo nido 1. Bergamo: Juvenilia; Musatti, T. (1986). Early peer relations: The perspectives of Piaget and Vygotsky. In E. Mueller and C. Cooper, eds., Process and outcome in peer relationships. New York: Academic Press, pp. 2553; Musatti, T., and M. Picchio (2005). Un luogo per bambini e genitori nella citta. Trasformazioni sociali e innovazione nei serviziper l’infanzia e le famiglie. Bologna: Il Mulino; Rullo, G., and T. Musatti (2005). Mothering young children: Child care, stress and social life. European Journal of Psychology of Education XX (2), 107-119; Stambak, M., M. Barriere, L. Bonica, R. Maisonnet, T. Musatti, S. Rayna, and M. Verba (1983). Les bebes entre eux: inventer, decouvrir etjouer ensemble. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France; Verba, M, and T. Musatti (1989). Minor phenomena and major processes of interaction with objects and peers in day-care center. European Journal of Psychology of Education IV, 215-227.
Infant/toddler care is provided in Italy mainly by asili nido, also called nidi d’infanzia (nido in Italian means nest). These are educational services for children between the ages of 3 months (when compulsory maternity leave for working mothers generally ends) and 3 years, when nursery school starts. Since 1971 asili nido have been run at the city level and planned on a regional basis. They offer a full-time service. The normal school day ranges from 8:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. Some children attend only part time and leave after lunch, and extended hours are usually provided at family request between 7:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. In the public settings families pay according to income on a sliding scale.
Italian asili nido should not be considered either a “program” for infants and toddlers or mere “day care,” but rather as educational services for children and families, where education and care are built into a full daily experience for children that includes routines (meals, sleep, toilet), extended social experiences with peers and adults, and educational opportunities for the development of a child with a strong sense of identity, a progressive autonomy and articulated social and expressive skills.
In recent years many cooperatives, other nonprofit organizations and profit- oriented companies have entered the infant/toddler care scene as a consequence of a steadily growing demand among middle-class families (who were traditionally organizing early childhood care within their homes), the increasing number of working mothers, and the growing number of immigrant families with young children (who are currently about 25 percent of the users of these services in big cities).
Demand for Infant-Toddler Services
National data indicate a figure of 10 percent of children attending this type of care, but the percentage rises to 20-25 percent in the cities of the North and the Center of the country and reaches 30-40 percent in some regions. Demand usually greatly exceeds supply, and therefore in the past five years a growing number of companies has opened asili nido for their employees, encouraged by tax cuts and some direct state funding, and many private for-profit settings are popping up. It is generally agreed, however, that public asili nido set the quality standards, offering more than the minimum standards required by regional regulations concerning staff qualification, adult/child ratio, space, health, and safety requirements. Adult/child ratio is in general 1/5-1/6 for children between 3 and 12 months and 1/8-1/9 for children between 12 and 36 months. Six/eight square meters are at an average required for each enrolled child as well as special bathrooms, sleep spaces reserved for children, and open playgrounds. Only centers serving less than twelve children are allowed, in some regions, to meet more flexible standards. Centers are usually organized in two or three age groups unless they are very small. Children with special needs and disabilities have priority and their access as well as some regulated forms of parent participation are requirements for public recognition and funding. Centers that obtain public funding cannot deny access to any child because of family background, ethnicity, religion, or special needs. In the case of special needs the city usually supports the center with extra staff. Asili nido are, therefore, conceived as potentially for all children whose families wish or need them.
At present (2006), staff is not required to have a postsecondary (college or university) degree. They have either to have attended a high school oriented toward the education and child-care professions or to have an undergraduate degree in education, but the number of well-qualified caregivers is steadily growing and it is likely that the three-year postsecondary degree will soon become compulsory. In-service training is provided on a regular basis—in general 150-200 paid hours per year are foreseen for further training, team meetings, and work with parents. This probably accounts for the widely recognized quality level many city systems of infant/toddler care have attained. At this time infant/toddler centers are usually included in the education department of the municipality and are run in continuity with the municipal nursery schools. In most cities the direction, professional development, and educational planning is under the responsibility of a coordinator pedagogico or pedagogista, an expert in education with a postgraduate degree who is generally in charge of a number of centers in the area. These coordinators act as a team in the city or inter-city area, and also supervise private settings that receive public funding, creating a so-called integrated system.
Other Types of Services
Since the mid-1980s other forms of infant/toddler care have been first tested and then widely established (law 285, 1998), including mother/toddler centers, part time services, play libraries, family centers with some day-care provision attached to other health or social services, centers especially focussed on immigrant mothers, “bridge” classes for 2-year-olds located in nursery school annexes, etc. The first of these “new” services was Tempo per le Famiglie (Time for Families) established in Milan in 1985, then rapidly followed by a number of other experiments in Pistoia, Modena, Rome, etc. A peculiar feature of these flexible services, created to meet a wider range of families with young children and to support early education and parenting in various ways, is that they have appeared and grown as a development of city public services. This has often involved the experienced staff of traditional infant/toddler centers, and thus has contributed to the development and enrichment of the educational network for children and families.
Changing Attitudes Toward Infant/Toddler Care
As in many other countries, ambivalent attitudes greeted the development of full-time educational services for the very young. The question of possible negative effects of attending out-of-home care was raised in the 1970s when infant/toddler centers were still meant only for working mothers or mothers in need. Gradually, however, the trust of families in the choice of sharing the rearing and education of infants with professionals grew, influenced by the development of an educational concept for early childhood education and expansion of the nursery school experience, by clinical psychology and ecological approaches, and by emerging practices of constant connection between centers and home (the attention given to transition processes and in general to the emotional benessere (well-being and well feeling) of children and adults). The increasing attention to the child’s emotional and social needs as well as to the parents’ needs, doubts and anxieties was a stimulus to the testing and establishment of a very particular set of practices for encouraging and ritualizing a gradual transition into the care setting called inserimento or ambientamento. Transition lasts in general two weeks, based on the needs of the child and his /her parents, and is officially specified as a routine practice in all municipal guidelines for infant/toddler services.
Whether or not infant/toddler care is good for children is no longer a debate in contemporary Italy, and the extensive research carried out in the United States and in other countries on the topic is viewed with scepticism. First, “effects” seem correlated in many studies with day-care variables not well defined in terms of the quality of the care itself. Which day-care centers produce such effects? How are their transition practices and parent involvement practices designed to build participation and relationships? What is the quality of peer interaction, significant relationships between infants and caregivers, daily routines, space and environment? Scores obtained with different assessment instruments (e.g., Harms, Cryer, Clifford, 1990-tr.it. 1992), although interesting as an analysis and training tool for staff, do not seem to be sensitive enough to account for crucial variables in quality. Second, there is a widespread mistrust for research paradigms which emphasize the interest in the longitudinal effects of an experience as complex as daily life in an infant/toddler center ahead of the analysis of the quality and value of childhood hic et nunc; that is, which do not take into account context variables such as the alternative choices available to families, the link between centers and community, and the attitudes of parents toward this educational choice. It is felt that these studies are biased and not likely to have a constructive impact on policies.
Demand for early education and care is growing together with the trust toward existing municipal services. Infant/toddler centers are now considered to be well- balanced “daily life contexts” where the children can find a more extended social experience than within the family. The Italian birthrate, at 1.2 children per woman of childbearing age, is one of the lowest in the world, and “only children” are in the majority. With the potential to facilitate development, to foster autonomy and to encourage parents to find advice and support from peers and professionals, infant/toddler centers are increasingly considered the best solution for the care of children under the age of 3. Even middle-class parents declare that they prefer this setting to other forms of private care because it enhances social development and because they trust good professionals. They are prepared to pay rather high fees even in public centers, which can become much higher in the case of private provision even when time schedules are not fully compatible with their working hours. Leaving children in centers for more than eight to nine hours is in fact strongly discouraged. Parents feel secure about leaving their children in well-supervised, healthy, and safe environments where professional adults have as their specific focus enhancing the well-being of the child, supporting and involving parents, and offering and documenting rich, social, and educational experiences.
Changed and positive attitudes of families and experts toward infant/toddler care outside the family are the result of many factors, including the following:
• the development of the caregiver into a professional and educator and a support and consultant for parents;
• the attention to routines as fundamental opportunities for relationships, sense and control of the bodily functions and opportunity for progressive autonomy;
• the increased knowledge and sensitivity toward the emotional and intellectual needs of young children, the importance of peer relationships and of educational opportunities where exploration and long-lasting cooperative projects are made possible and can be carried out;
• the continuity of care that allows caregiver, children, and parents to invest in relationships that can extend over three years;
• the encouragement and possibility of parent involvement;
• the refinement and flexibility of transition practices;
• the attention to the safety, richness, and aesthetics of the environment;
• the accurate choice and development of diverse materials;
• the importance given to symbolic play and storytelling and the first approaches to art through manipulation of different materials, music and rhythm, and movement;
• documentation as a tool for tracking progress, supporting memory, and making visible children’s culture and potential.
Each setting develops its own identity, projects, and materials, but practices, processes, materials, and documentation are widely shared through the contacts within and across the city systems of services. The main network systems are two magazines for professionals (Bambini, Infanzia, etc.) and the Gruppo Nazionale Nidi Infanzia, an association which had Loris Malaguzzi as first president, which networks through conferences, seminars, publications, and researches but has also developed in an advocacy agency recognized at a national level.
In the past decade the debate over quality and about how to define, assess, and guarantee has stirred the system of early childhood education, and several regions and cities have activated processes of discussion, analysis, and development of instruments and criteria (see the Quality entry, below). National Guidelines setting standards exist only at a local level, accounting in part for the diversity found across settings and municipalities.
The current challenges for the system of asili nido are numerous. The most critical is pressure for expansion and the high costs push local authorities toward outsourcing and “buying” places from cooperatives or profit centers. Therefore the coordination, control, and guarantee of the same levels of quality is at risk. The development of competent staff requires time and higher qualifications at a time when a strong generational change and turnover is expected. The increasing number of immigrant children challenges the capacity of the system to face this new form of inclusion and emphasize the crucial role of early childhood services in supporting them as they first approach the community and become active within it. New parents are in a good position for reciprocal recognition, interaction, and the overcoming of prejudice and mistrust if they share with their children a good educational and care experience and are supported by open and experienced staff. This opportunity should not be missed. Italian infant/toddler centers have grown in thirty-five years to be looked at as “good places” potentially for all children. It will be interesting to see whether they can keep the pace with the demands, conflict, and changes of contemporary times.
Further Readings: Harms, T., D. Cryer, R. M. Clifford (1990/tr. 1992). La Svani: Scale per la valutazione dell’ asilo nido. Milan: Franco Angeli. Mantovani, S., L. R. Saitta, and C. Bove (2000). Attaccamento e inserimento. Stili e storie delle relazioni al nido. Milano: Franco Angeli; Mantovani, S. (2001). Infant toddler centers in Italy today: Tradition and innovation. In L. P. Gandini, and C. P. Edwards, eds., Bambini. The Italian approach to infant toddler care. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 23-38; Musatti, T. (1992). La giornata del mio bambino. Bologna: Il Mulino, Bologna; OECD (2001). Starting strong, early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Web Sites: www.minori,it www.istitutodeglinnocenti.it
History and Changes Over Time
Home-school relations and parental involvement have been conceptualized in Italian early childhood education as partecipazione—a term that implies parents, teachers, children and other members of the community take an active part in the life, culture, and decisions concerning children and the educational services created for them. At its origins, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, partecipazione was strictly connected with another termgestione sociale, meaning “community- based management.” Gestione sociale is the practice of sharing responsibilities in managing institutions and services between caregivers, educators, parents, and other community members. Interpreted as a political principle, it was initially aimed at organizing forms of democratic control of public services by their users. Gestione sociale originated in Italy in early childhood services, and then spread and transformed into a more specific but unfortunately an often more bureaucratized form of parent engagement in school life regulated in 1974 by a national law.
Today each infant/toddler center or preschool has a committee or council where families are represented though elections, but the spontaneous participation that was at the origin of many early educational services in the 1960s and 1970s has faded and is only alive in municipal services and in cities where civic and political engagement is strong. Early childhood educational services often emerged from a bottom-up movement. As they became strongly rooted in the community, educators and caregivers began to experiment with various different strategies for involving parents. Partecipazione was transformed into a civic and educational engagement, and involvement of parents in a series of practices that connect home and school and are now a main trait of Italian early childhood education. Originally political, partecipazione is still a community matter. It is often the first step of young families into the public and social life of the community, the first contact with public services and their rules, and a potentially effective “playground” for becoming integrated and active community members.
After some years of disengagement and of a stronger demand for more individualized relationships and support, parents seem today to value the opportunity offered by early childhood educational services to meet and built social and friendship networks and to become active in advocating for quality services for their children. Over the years, after the first decade where engagement was at its strongest and early childhood education a hot political issue, partecipazione has been spelled out in a more personal sense. This has involved developing the transition practices, individual interviews, parent groups, daily encounters, and common initiatives which can be important opportunities for families, often isolated after the birth of their child, for sharing and discussing the educational issues. Today it can be considered both a pedagogical and a social concept, referring to any process designed to construct a web of human relationships between the family and the school and encompassing practices of communication and sharing responsibilities and practices enacted by caregivers and teachers to involve parents and support them.
Early childhood education in Italy is a system with a high degree of continuity in relationships. Children stay in the same preschool with the same care- givers/teachers group for three years, and this encourages a high investment in building and cultivating relationships inside and outside the school (see Infant/Toddler Care entry). When asked, parents and teachers say that the family has the fundamental responsibility for educating children in terms of orienting them to the most important values—moral and/or religious—but school is seen as an important partner and has the fundamental task of creating a context where children can experience and learn sociability and where adults are socialized too and can offer a consistent model. Parents feel that social experience and creative self-expression in play and other languages come first as the most important achievements early educational services should pursue, and cognitive performance ranks only as third priority at this age level. Welcoming children into infant /toddler groups and schools, attuning the transition from home to school, fostering autonomy without interrupting attachment bonds, and creating and supporting a network of relationships among children and parents is therefore considered one of the most important tasks of early childhood educational service, especially for the very young.
The tradition of family participation and involvement which marked the origins of municipal infant-toddler care generated times and spaces and the conceptual basis for developing partnership with parents. Parental involvement is therefore not only one of the major pedagogical axes of the best experiments in early childhood education—in cities like Reggio Emilia, Modena, Pistoia, Parma, Trento, San Miniato, etc.—but also one of the important criteria used today in assessing the quality of early childhood services and in the professional development of teachers. At least four hours are usually devoted by staff per month to meetings and interviews with parents, and it is considered as paid time just as the hours worked with children.
Forms of Parent Involvement
Parental involvement takes the following several forms:
• participation on the elected board (comitato di gestione) which participates in decisions about access, waiting lists, and expenditures;
• daily communication between parents and teachers during drop-off and pick-up time. Most infant/toddler centers have a special place where parents can sit with their children or among themselves when arriving and before leaving;
• practices and rituals for gradually transitioning the child and his /her parents into the center (inserimento);
• regular interviews and group meetings to share ideas on education, life with children, and school projects;
• informal meetings on special occasions (Christmas, Carnival, end of the year, open days, etc).
The relationship with the family begins even before the real entrance of the child into child care. Once the child has been accepted, parents are invited to visit the center in the presence of other children so that they get familiarized with the center’s environment by observing them go through their daily schedule. Meetings with other new and old parents are then organized and this is the first opportunity for interaction among families, children, teachers, and the environment of the center. Before the child enters the center individual interviews with parents are carried out to establish a dialogue between parents and teachers, so that they begin to know each other and set the basis for mutual trust. Parents narrate their child’s daily life and provide the caregiver with basic information regarding the child’s habits. Taking care of a baby or a young child is a very intimate matter. Emotions and ambivalences involved in the first experiences of parting and sharing can be very strong and the parents should feel that teachers are aware of their natural anxiety, accept it, and are at the same time experts and in control. The underlying message is: “This is your child, you know how she/he is, we need your knowledge and experience to understand who he/she is and create for him/her the best opportunities.” Before the beginning of the school year, there might be another meeting to decide the organization and the plan for the gradual transition process, which lasts generally two weeks in infant/toddler centers and one week in schools for children aged 3-6.
Inserimento consists of a set of predictable strategies for getting to know each other that involves teachers, parents, and children. It is a gradual process of becoming familiar with a new community for the child along with his or her accompanying parent, the caregiver, other parents, and their children. It serves two primary goals: facilitating an active adjustment of the child in the new setting and a strong connection or alliance with the families; and fostering parents’ involvement and participation in the early experience of the child in the center as a first important step for further involvement.
Inserimento is aimed at giving children the opportunity to explore the new environment with their parents, to practice brief separations, to get gradually in touch with new adults and to feel secure. Parents, for their part, have a chance to know the environment where their children will spend so much time, its routines, and convivial moments. Teachers have the rare opportunity to observe children in interaction with their parents, discovering the interactional styles of each pair and to getting to know the child without the strong protests of sudden separations. This privilege will not last forever, but it gives young children an initial feeling of familiarity and emotional security that usually carries over when the parent is no longer present. While the caregiver gradually takes over responsibility, the parent is personally involved in facilitating and supporting his/her child and feels active and useful.
Inserimento is a common practice in infant/toddler centers and in municipal preschools and parents are seriously invited to spend as much time as possible in the center on the occasion of the first entrance of their child into the new community. As the child will gradually experiment with an increasing distance (both physical and emotional) from his parents, parents will benefit from the opportunity to observe their child’s exploration of the new setting and they will also take their time to get to know the teacher and other parents.
Daily communication is also considered important and it develops through encounters that occur every day between teachers and parents. Informal communication between parents and teachers takes place daily. Individual interviews and meetings relating to the specific experience of each child can be requested either by the school or by the family. Family members are involved in decisions about their children and are encouraged to be active protagonists of their child’s life at the center. Documentation and display on the walls shows what children can do and elicits more questions and active interest from the parents.
There is no doubt that friendly and balanced relationships between parents and teachers improve the child’s well-being and his or her growth. Teachers are also aware that welcoming a child into the child-care setting also implies an important investment in the relationships with parents and can become a significant way to support parents in their responsibilities and apprenticeship as educators, making them feel active, important, and empowered. This task takes maturity and specific professional development, which is fairly well established in most municipal infant/toddler centers but still not fully developed in preschools, especially where an exclusive focus on curricular matters can hide the strong emotions and the need for support involved in the first sorties of the child out of the family circle.
Continuity of care in educational services and in school and links between school and families are basic assumptions in the Italian interpretation and practices of early childhood education. This idea of continuity works together with the notion of complementarity between the experience of growing and being educated at home and in the out-of-home settings. The interpretation of “good practices” in the education of young children is seen as resulting from dynamic interactions between all the adults involved in this process. Finally, infant tod- dler/centers and preschools are interpreted as relational systems where both children and adults are formally initiated into an organized community and where parents and teachers can practice shared responsibilities in a society that tends to isolate families.
Whether or not involving parents in the child’s growth ensures high quality early childhood or good experiences for children in early childhood settings is not in question. Research and experience give evidence of the importance of these practices and attitudes in working with young children. The fast changing educational models and representations of children, their development in an accelerated and global society, and a growing pressure for early performance are forces that might erode the good, relaxed time to practice and experience new relationships. Intimacy and distance are new challenges threatening a thus far balanced model. It is also a challenge figuring out how best to engage the growing number of families from different cultural and national backgrounds. These families bring with them, within the universal expectations of the best for their youngsters, different ways of understanding and experiencing educational responsibilities, interdependence and autonomy, and community life. Early childhood educational services can thus be a crucial opportunity either for a feeling of belonging or a first experience of exclusion. Cultural understanding, communicational skills, and a strong professional commitment need to be developed in early childhood educators in order that they be able to face these challenges and to conceive, propose, negotiate, and make possible renewed forms ofpartecipazione.
Further Readings: Bove, C. (1999). Linserimento del bambino al nido (Welcoming the child into infant-care): Perspectives from Italy. Young Children 54(2), 32-34.; Bove, C. (2001). Inserimento. A strategy for delicately beginning relationships and communications. In L. Gandini, C. P. Edwards, eds., Bambini: The Italian approach to infant/toddler care. New York: Teachers College, Press, pp. 109-123; Mantovani, S., and N. Terzi (1987). Linserimento. In A. Bondioli, S.Mantovani, eds., Manuale critico dell’asilo nido. 1st ed. Milano: Franco Angeli, pp. 215-130; Mantovani, S., L. R. Saitta, and C. Bove (2000). Attaccamento e inserimento. Stili e storie delle relazioni al nido. Milano: Franco Angeli.; Mantovani, S. (2001). Infant toddler centers in Italy today: Tradition and innovation. In L. Gandini, C. P. Edwards, eds., Bambini: The Italian approach to infant/toddler care. New York and London: Teachers College Press, pp. 23-37; New, R. (1999). Here we call it drop off and pick up’. Transition to child care, American Style. Young Children 54(2), 34-36; New, R. S., B. Mallory, S. Mantovani (2001). Adult relations in Italian early care and education. Innovations 8 (2), 1-13; Spaggiari, S. The community-teacher partnership in the governance of the schools: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. P. Edwards, L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds., The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach-advanced reflections 2nd ed. Stamford, CT: Ablex, pp. 99-112.
In Italian the concept and the word used for teacher’s “training” is formazione. This word conveys a very different meaning from the English word “training.” The concept comes from forma (structure, to shape) and is intended in the sense of taking form rather than being given a form. The concept underlying the word training is better translated with the word addestramento, a series of practices that can be operationalized as used in sports or in training animals, or in the technical part of the preparation of an artist or a professional. Italian teachers would resent the very idea of being “trained” instead of “formed.”
An Evolving System
The qualification of teachers for scuole dell’infanzia (schools for children aged 3-6) and of caregivers for asili nido (infant and toddler centers), both called educatrici (educators) rather than insegnanti (teachers), changed very little until 1998. These students attended special high schools for teachers or, for professionals who intended to work only in the infant and toddler centers, a high school for caregivers (puericultrici) oriented on health and care rather than education.
Beginning in the 1980s many caregivers attended universities after their high school and obtained a four-year degree in Scienze dell’educazione (Educational Sciences), often while working. Although this degree was optional for caregivers, it was required for directors and coordinators of social and educational early childhood services (often called pedagogisti).
Since 1998, the requirement for teachers of scuola dell’infanzia is a four-year degree in Scienze della Formazione Primaria, a course preparing both preschool and primary school teachers with a common curriculum in the first two years and a specific curriculum in the following two years.
In 1999, the University system was reformed in accordance with European agreements, and is now organized in a three-year level (laurea) and a two-year postgraduate level (aurea magistrale). At present (2006), at the national level educatrici for infant and toddler centers are not required to have postsecondary training. But in many cases educators in service have attended a three-year course in educational sciences, which in some cases gives them priority in the “point basis” hiring system common in public services. Coordinators of early childhood services are now always required to have at least a three-year degree (for infant and toddler centers) and a four- or five-year degree for scuola dell’infanzia.
Beginning in 2007 the four-year course for preschool teachers should be extended to five years—the so called 3+2—as will be the case for all teachers at every school level. The trend for educatrici in charge of children under the age of 3 is to require the three-year course that is the basis for the further training of preschool teachers, thereby reestablishing the possibility of continuity and career development. Some cities and regions resist this trend for fear that it will lead to higher salaries and to keep the staff of infant toddler centers at the same level as family day-care staff.
The Professional Profile
The basic ideas underlying the training processes activated by the new courses provide a profile of a professional capable of translating multidisciplinary knowledge (cultura generale) into teaching practices that can be adapted to different environments, changing social features and family patterns, specific attitudes, and the cognitive styles, characteristics and cultural backgrounds of the children. Teachers should aim to make children capable of learning how to learn. The teacher is expected both to integrate within herself/himself and to activate in the children emotional, cognitive and social resources, and curiosity and pleasure in learning. The proposals for the new curriculum emphasize the following five areas of competence:
• Disciplinary: well grounded in general and specific knowledge and the capacity to translate them in inspiring teaching;
• Methodological: the capacity to observe, document, and support the progression of learning through specific teaching strategies;
• Communicational: the capacity to involve children in their work through group work, active participation, mutual help, coconstructed practices including new languages, and the new communication technologies;
• Managerial and organizational: specifically related to the creation of the interpersonal and learning environment;
• Ethical: the capacity to face the many dilemmas of the teaching profession, coconstructing common rules, working to overcome prejudices and discrimination, trying to develop in the school community a sense of responsibility, solidarity, and social justice.
This first experiment at university courses for early childhood professionals is characterized by the following:
• a multidisciplinary approach;
• a curriculum where theory and practice are integrated; and
• a partnership with schools.
The curriculum is multidisciplinary in several different respects. First, the school systems containing preschool and primary school-teachers are in continuity with one another—with an extra year a preschool teacher can also get a degree valid for primary school and vice versa. Second, there is a balance in the teacher preparation program between human sciences (education, psychology, sociology, anthropology) and curricular disciplines (languages, history, geography, mathematics, sciences, art, music, etc.). Third, in scuola dell’infanzia and in primary school the Italian system foresees a teacher that stays with his/her class for several years (three years in scuola dell’infanzia, five years for at least one teacher in primary school) and who can teach all subjects. Even teachers who are going to work with children with special needs first have to go through the basic four-year course.
The curriculum is integrated in the sense that traditional lecturing is combined with laboratories where students are split into small groups (lectures have enrollments ranging from 30 to 200 students). In these smaller groups, starting in the first year, students practice experiential learning and simulations of what they will be doing in the child-care settings and in schools. During the field practice (called tirocinio), which are supervised in small groups, the students observe in a first phase, cooperate with the class teachers in a second phase, and take direct responsibility in the third phase.
The curriculum is carried out in partnership with the schools because each university to which the Ministry of Education assigns teacher training programs—one or two in each region according to resources and number of teachers needed—is supposed to get in touch with schools in the entire area. These universities can count on the fact that some teachers and school principals, temporarily detached in the university and in collaboration with university faculty, will work part time for the program to supervise the laboratory and tirocinio activities.
At the end of the program the students take a final exam where they present and discuss a research paper they have written under the guidance both of their supervising school-teacher and of a member of the faculty in front of a committee appointed by the university and by the Regional Bureau of the ministry of education and this qualifies them to teach in any public or private school. Public schools are required to hire qualified teachers, and private or municipal schools must do so if they want to be considered scuole paritarie, that is, schools recognized by the ministry and thus eligible for financial support.
This experiment is the first ever organized in Italy on a large basis where university and schools are systematically working together. Preliminary findings indicate that it is being received with mutual satisfaction and mutual advantage. There are of course problems. First, many think that a jump from no postsecondary training at all to four and soon five years is too abrupt and maybe even too much. Second, a certain mistrust needs to be overcome on both sides. On the one hand, schools think universities are too distant and too abstract from the daily problems and challenges of real teaching. On the other, universities are not so familiar with working on an equal basis with teachers and getting “hands dirty” in the field beyond “clean” research practices. But the first eight years of the experiment are in general considered satisfactory, and many unexpected practices have come about. These include courses offered by universities for the teachers in the schools agreeing to assist with the tirocinio, themes of interest to the schools proposed for the documentation or research work leading to the final papers by the students, regular meetings to discuss school reform and new programs, and coconstructed in-service training activities. For all these reasons the upcoming change that will transform the now well-established four-year program into the five year—three plus two—curriculum, where the activities in partnership with the schools will be mainly concentrated in the last two years, is looked at with a certain apprehension.
Training Teachers for Children with Special Needs
Teachers who intend to work as an extra teacher in classes with children with special needs have to complete their four-year course, which includes special education and at least one other course on disabilities, and then take an additional program, lasting from one semester to one year, which qualifies them for this specialized task. The Italian system is inclusive, and all children with special needs, no matter how serious, are included. The special teacher is supposed to be a support to the class, and specific rehabilitation takes place, if necessary, out of school. One drawback is that because positions for teachers trained for special needs are numerous, many students specialize and get into the job primarily as a way of entering the profession rather than as a real choice.
Before the 1998 program started, the main training responsibilities for early childhood educators were carried out by municipalities, and to a lesser extent by the state system (Servizio Nazionale per la Scuola Materna) through in-service training. This accounts for the large amount of time (150 to 200 paid hours per year) that has traditionally been built into the contract for training, teamwork and work with parents. This training has usually been planned on a yearly basis, combining activities and courses offered in response to specific staff requests with other activities planned at city level to foster specific skills, or to give a common foundation to staff, or to pursue special projects. Group work and supervision, action research experiences monitored by researchers, and altogether a strong focus on the context, combined with considerable freedom in choosing courses linked to the specific talents of individual educators (in art, photography, drama, science, etc.) have characterized the best known high-quality experiences like Reggio Emilia.
The new regulations for teachers training encourage the link between universities, local authorities, research and training centers such as INDIRE (Istituto Nazionale per la Documentazione e la Ricerca Educativa) specialized in elearning and e-training, INVALSI (Istituto Nazionale per la Valutazione del Sistema Scolastico Italiano) for evaluation and assessment, and the various regional institutes (Istituti Regionaliper la Ricerca Educativa'). This will be advantageous for cities which did not have the resources or the expertise for organising professional development activities, but it might encourage other municipalities with histories of being strongly engaged in fostering professional development reduce that investment when resources become scarce. The outstanding Italian experiences such as Reggio Emilia, Pistoia, Modena, Parma, Milano, Bologna, and Trento have always been grounded in a strong community-based training, which probably accounts for the richness and creativity of these programs, so it would be a great loss if the local efforts and resources to implement ECEC services should be reduced or totally reshaped.
The past decade has brought about deep changes—not yet well understood and evaluated—in the standards, expectations, and rationale of the training process for teachers and caregivers. If on the one hand they give greater dignity to the preschool teachers, on the other hand they exclude the educators of the very young from the public education school system, contradicting a well-established tradition of continuity and exchange between asili nido and scuola dell’infanzia and exposing asili nido to the risk to be pushed back to mere care.
Even if everybody agrees that the cultural background of the preschool teacher has to be stronger, the risk is that this professional comes to look at the school for the children from 3 to 6 in a more formalized and schoolish way, and in so doing denies the best tradition of the holistic approach that characterizes the Italian tradition (see Pedagogy and Curriculum entries). Having a curriculum in common with primary school-teachers might orient new ECE teachers in a different way and interrupt the continuity and exchange with the professionals working with the 0- to 3-year-olds.
The Italian system for the very young children has grown over the years with a continuous professional development because of the poor basic training of these early childhood professionals. This huge investment by local authorities has brought about habits of group work, active learning processes, action research experiences, contacts and exchanges with universities and research centers, and a constant adjustment of the professional tools to the community and the changing society. It would be a pity and a loss if the new university curriculum (which certainly strengthens the professional self-image and social role) would have as a consequence a strong reduction of time and resources for professional development.
Italy was confronted with the paradox that the level of its school system considered the best in international comparisons—early childhood education—was the one where the teachers had the lowest basic and academic training. We still do not know if the new system will be able to provide the professionals needed for ECEC with the knowledge, the attitudes, and the skills necessary to maintain and extend the good job done so far by dedicated teachers, who are child, family, and community oriented and always ready to learn more and in new ways. A new balance between basic training and professional development is crucial; good educators have to be well formed and cultivated. But they are not specialists or experts on single subjects or problems: rather they are professionals of everyday life, capable of interacting with parents, to support them by sharing the responsibilities of growing and educating their children, to look at the children as whole persons in specific and changing environments or ecological niches, to help them find many ways and languages to express themselves and develop. Early childhood education is a profession too complex and too delicate to be confined within a standardized and centralized curriculum, and too important for establishing a culture of childhood not to deserve a strong societal investment right from the beginning.
Further Readings: Dalle Fratte, G. (1998). La scuola e Vuniversita nella formazione primaria degli insegnanti. Il tirocinio e i laboratory. Milan: Franco Angeli; Galliani, L., and E. Felisatti (2002). Maestri all’universita. Lecce: Pensa Multimedia; Luzzatto, G. (1999). Insegnare a insegnare. Inuovi corsi universitari per la formazione dei docenti. Rome: Carocci; Moscati, R. (2002). Implementation of comprehensive reform in Italy. International Journal of Higher Education 26: 3-5; Nigris, E. (2004). La formazione degli insegnanti. Percorsi, strumenti valutazione. Rome: Carocci; OECD (2001). Teachers for tomorrow’s schools. Analysis of the world education indicators. Paris: OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).
Web Sites: www.indire.it; www.cede.it
Public policies aimed at the development of educational institutions for early childhood were specified for the first time in 1968 for scuole dell’infanzia (3-6) with Act 444, which instituted state schools on a national level where these services were provided by the church, by municipalities and, on a very small scale, by private organizations. The national policies for services to younger children, asili nido (0-3), began with Act N.1044 in 1971; previously the only state intervention was confined to creches for children in need through an organization set up during the fascist years in the 1920s called ONMI (Opera Nazionale Maternita e Infanzia').
Since 1968 scuole dell’infanzia have been progressively expanded and built within the general educational system. Although not compulsory, they are now attended by the large majority of children (over 90% of five-year-olds in 2005). Recent law reforming the school system (Act 23, 2003) states that scuole dell’infanzia will be guaranteed to all children. The 1968 bill ruled that the State should intervene where the municipal or private system was not sufficient, and foresaw state support for municipal and private schools. Since then state direct involvement has grown, especially in the South and in rural areas where the municipal and church traditions were weaker. Today (2006) about 50 percent of all scuole dell’infanzia are state schools. There is little or no discussion about policies to expand and support these schools and it is assumed by all political parties that it is a state responsibility to complete the coverage quickly and to maintain good standards.
Policies Related to Services for 0- to 3-Year-Olds
Public policies for asili nido (0-3) have always been more controversial, and although today there is a strong consensus about the educational character of these services and a general request for more of them, their development is still far from being satisfactory. The 1971 law was mainly conceived to provide women easier access to work within the framework of a broad welfare system where long maternity leaves were also granted. The 1044 law was undoubtedly the first step in orienting public policies toward the development of educational services for young children. These services were identified as social services of public interest, which involved providing for financial support from the state to regional and municipal authorities to cover both investment costs and a large portion of management costs.
The plan, involving the development of a nationwide network of 3,800 asili nido over five years, faced a social context in which sharing educational responsibilities between families and educational services was not yet generally felt as natural and positive. Perhaps chiefly for this reason, the plan met with different levels of acceptance depending on the different local cultures in the country.
Thus, while the development of services in the different areas provided a highly differentiated picture, with a strong concentration in the northern-central parts of the country, two general events took place that were of critical importance in view of further developments in the service system:
• the potential drive to development provided by the national fund set up at the beginning of the 1970s came to an end by statute (Act n. 448) in December, 1988;
• starting at the end of 1983 creches were no longer qualified as “services of public interest,” and instead, they were usually included in the so-called “services on individual demand,” with part of the cost to be charged to users.
Starting in the mid-1980s a long cycle began, which still continues, in which shaping a broad political scheme on a national level for the development of educational services for young children has proven consistently difficult. Over the same period, the efforts of many families and many municipalities toward updating national rules and regulations and reactivating the development of an educational system for children has led to the advancement of a few legal policy proposals originated at the grassroot level (leggi di iniziativa popolare), which have, however, never managed to capture enough attention on the part of the Parliament to be approved.
General Policy Trends
Despite the lack of attention on a national level to the issue of policies for children, the service system has followed a number of recognizable developmental trends in those northern-central areas where higher levels of development have been recorded. These trends are as follows:
• the longer-established experience of creches has generated “new types” of services meant to welcome children or children with parents/with relatives for regular attendance more than once a week (see Infants and Toddlers entry);
• connections and synergies between municipal authorities and cooperatives and other nonprofit organizations have led to a progressive differentiation of the human resources involved in the system as activators and/or managers of educational services.
• the responsibility, and the cost, of development for this growing service system, which has gone from 2000 facilities at the end of the 1980s to the 4000 currently operating, has increased its potential for coverage from 6 percent to about 10 percent of potential users nationwide.
Distinguishing National, Regional, and Municipal Roles
The increase in coverage and quality is largely to be ascribed to the policies developed at a municipal level, partially with the financial support of Regional Authorities and in synergy with the cooperative movement. The very “regional” and “local” character, that had been negatively characterized during the partial and highly differentiated implementation of the National Plan put forward with Law 1044-1971, is pivotal to local and/or regional experiences, which have, over time, reached meaningful quantitative targets (with local peaks of over 40% coverage), getting at the same time very deeply rooted into the public policies of local communities and regional governments.
The very synergy between Municipalities and the cooperative movement in jointly supporting the development of an educational service system—often simplistically interpreted in the past as a mere money-saving device for public authorities—has taken on the connotation of a general strategy, which has further substantiated and strengthened the role of the public player. This has resulted in a fuller recognition of public responsibility for system governance and regulation, and enhanced the value, through adequate orientation and control strategies, of private contributions, which already fall within the framework of public interest, coming as they do from nonprofit organizations pursuing social goals.
Today we are in a position to evaluate how other functions concerning system governance and regulation as well as advanced design and management skills can be—and in fact are—the ground upon which Municipalities and the cooperative movement can meet and jointly lead the development of an integrated service system offering children and families greater access and quality.
At this stage it is worth mentioning that in more recent years there have been a few central measures aimed at the development of service policies:
• Law N. 285 (August, 1997) provided financial support to actions addressed to children and adolescents, limiting its scope to additional services for creches (play areas and centers for children and parents) in the field of educational services for early childhood.
• State Financial Laws for 2002 and 2003 (Law N. 448 of December 21, 2001, and Law 289 of December 2002) provided for financial support “to build and manage creches and micro-creches in working environments.”
These provisions, although they have contributed to a local extension of services, lack a general view of a national integrated system.
The debate on the constitutional organization ofthe State oriented to strengthen federalism and decentralized action defines a new profile for national rules and regulations, which is supposed not to clash with the broader powers ascribed to regional parliaments. Although the emphasis on regional responsibility corresponds to the development of early childhood services, the diversity of the country in terms of resources, municipal traditions, and effectiveness of management experiences worries associations and other parties who advocate for early childhood education, which try to promote a concept of “federalism in solidarity.” The present political scene is confused. It is widely felt that some kind of new balance needs to be pursued among:
• state competences concerning the basic level of services, relating to civil and social rights, which have to be granted in any part of the country;
• adequate measures to ensure that the required resources for achieving and maintaining such “basic levels” are identified;
• the possibility, above those levels, to design implementation based on local and regional needs and experiences.
Recent statements on the part of the Supreme Court (Corte Costituzionale), in highlighting the above perspective, state clearly the educational character of creches and other services for early childhood, and suggest that these should fall within the area of education in terms of government competences (thus confirming the prevailing trends on a regional and local level that emerged in the previous decades).
Major emphasis is being placed on working out an updated framework in terms of rules and regulations—integrated with consistent ongoing development plans supported by adequate funding—which may foster the growth of the service system in the medium/long term. Only by taking this perspective will we be able to consolidate basic service levels in the whole country while confirming and enhancing the relevance ascribed to regional and local levels in planning and implementing educational efforts.
Further Readings: Fortunati, A. (a cura di) I nidi e gli altri servizi educativi e integrative in Italia. Quaderno 36, Centro Nazionale di Documentazione e Analisi per lInfanzia, Istituto degli Innocenti; Law 1044 (1971). Piano quinquennaleper I’istituzione di asilinido comunali con il concorso dello Stato. Rome: Gazzetta Ufficiale. (December 15, n. 316); Law 285 (1997). Disposizioni per la promozione di diritti e di opportunita per l’lnfanzia e l’adolescenza. Rome: Gazzetta Ufficiale. (September 5); OECD (2001). Starting Strong, early childhood education and care. Paris: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.