Reggio Emilia: An innovative approach to nursery school education

Written by julie christensen
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Learning through collaboration, creativity and problem solving

Reggio Emilia: An innovative approach to nursery school education
Children can benefit from an education at a Reggio Emilia school. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Our paradigm of education is that we are not so worried about preparing for future learning. We are learning right now.

— Patricia Hunter McGrath, director of Branches Atelier

At Branches Atelier, a private nursery school in Santa Monica, California, several children are surveying the area under the trees on the playground. The trees are dry, and the children worry that they aren’t receiving enough water. The children have decided to build an underground irrigation system. Inside the school, children are measuring and labeling various pieces of pipe and making notes of the materials they’ll need to complete the irrigation system. The walls are lined with photos and charts detailing the children’s work, which is extraordinarily sophisticated and detailed. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the children are only 4 and 5 years old. Branches Atelier uses a project-based approach inspired by the Reggio Emilia schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Key components of this philosophy include collaboration, creativity and problem solving. In 1991, "Newsweek" magazine chose the Reggio Emilia schools as an example of the best nursery schools in the world.

Simple beginnings

Only a few days after the end of World War II, the people of Villa Cella, a borough of Reggio Emilia, an industrial town in northern Italy, began building a school from the bricks taken from bombed-out buildings.

The school, named April 25 School to commemorate the day Allied troops liberated Italy from the Fascist regime, bears a plaque that reads: “Men and women working together, we built the walls of this school because we wanted a new and different place for our children. May 1945.”

From that one school blossomed the educational movement known as the Reggio Emilia approach. The community opened schools throughout Reggio Emilia that provided care for infants through preschoolers, and teachers continued to fine-tune the philosophy over the next 50 years.

Patricia Hunter McGrath, director of Branches Atelier, was inspired, prompting her to design the school and its curriculum. “Instead of asking ourselves what kind of school we need, we should be asking what kind of children we need in our society,” she said.

She believes the Reggio approach develops creativity, empathy and a disposition for learning and solving problems.

Novel Approach

While each school is different, reflecting the culture of the community, some common themes are apparent in schools inspired by the Reggio approach.

First is the confidence teachers place in children, who are viewed as capable and competent. Teachers take on the role of facilitator rather than boss of the classroom, says Hunter McGrath. They learn along with students, asking questions and facilitating discussion.

Teachers spend time observing each child to understand the child’s interests, strengths and needs, and then offer support to help the child move to the next level of learning. The curriculum is driven primarily by the interests of the students and evolves in natural, organic ways.

Martha Christenson Lees, director of the Smith College Centre for Early Childhood Education at Fort Hill, a campus-based preschool in Northampton, Massachusetts, recalls how a recent project emerged.

“A smoking toaster set off the fire alarm at our school, prompting the firefighters to come," she said. "The children were fascinated and decided to do a project on fire trucks. We visited the firehouse, where the children explored the fire trucks up close.”

One group of children carried clipboards to write down the words appearing on the fire truck, while other children drew detailed pictures. Some children measured the fire truck and counted the hoses.

Over the next month, the children built a fire truck out of cardboard boxes and recycled materials. The completed truck was displayed at the firehouse for several months.

Values and beliefs

Collaboration among teachers, students and the community is a hallmark of the Reggio Emilia approach; lively debate is allowed and even encouraged. Children participate in individual or group projects that extend for a few days or even many weeks or months, like Smith College Centre's fire truck project.

Teachers observe the work carefully and intervene when interest wanes. They provide extra support or introduce new materials as well.

Parents and community members are encouraged to participate in the projects, offering their expertise and learning alongside the children. A focus on joyful discovery is apparent.

“Our paradigm of education is that we are not so worried about preparing for future learning," Hunter McGrath said. "We are learning right now.”

Many parents wonder how academics are addressed. Hunter McGrath says literacy, math and science are woven throughout the day in meaningful, contextual ways. “When there is a reason for it, children learn in a very powerful way.”

Art is used as a tool for communication and learning, according to Karen Giuffre, founder and director of Voyagers' Community School in Farmingdale, New Jersey. Most schools have a studio, or atelier, located centrally within the school or in each classroom. Visitors to Reggio-inspired schools are often awed by the beauty and sophistication of children’s artwork.

Children who have attended Reggio Emilia-inspired schools perform well academically when placed in traditional settings, Giuffre says. But the most valued benefit of the approach is the sense of community children develop.

“They’re listened to and feel attended,” Christenson Lees said. “The children are always thinking, collaborating and problem solving with each other and with teachers.”

Tips and warnings

  • Most U.S. schools inspired by the Reggio Emilia model are preschools, though the movement is spreading to include elementary, middle and high schools. To find a school in your area, contact the early-childhood education department of local colleges or visit the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance.

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