What is Reggio Emilia?
Broadly speaking, Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood learning named after the town where it originated in Italy. Founder Loris Malaguzzi believed children were in need of a more holistic kind of education after World War II. He began the Reggio Emilia style based on the belief that every child is unique and will express their interests in many different ways.
This belief has practical impact, creating a co-learning environment where teachers learn with the children and work in a lateral relationship as opposed to a hierarchical one. That partnership is also intended to encompass the parents and community of each child.
Reggio Emilia also revolves around the children’s senses, relying on sight, sound, touch and even taste and smell to assist with learning. As a result, Reggio Emilia classrooms tend to look different than your average preschool with large common spaces, natural elements and lots of accessible and curiosity-sparking materials.
“Officially, unlike Montessori, there aren’t organizations or agencies that certify a school as a ‘Reggio school.’ Identifying as Reggio-inspired holds us educators accountable to turn towards our families and children when developing our environments and curriculum.”
The four principles of the Reggio Emilia approach
You could easily make this educational philosophy a lifelong study, but there are four central principles guiding teachers in Reggio Emilia.
This means essentially that the curriculum for the classroom is a mashup of the children’s interests, their families’ communication, and the close observation and notes teachers take on their students’ growth and exploration. Teachers conduct planning sessions to compare their notes and decide on projects and materials.
If you are like many, your early education memories involve trying to sit still in desks facing the front of the room where a teacher presented material. But in Reggio Emilia, the learning is led by each child, and structured around projects. Teachers often call these projects “adventures” to young learners. They might last a week or two—or they might extend the entire school year. Teachers guide the children in choosing an area of research and following it to the project’s conclusion.
What sets Reggio Emilia apart is its emphasis on student projects. When students show interest in a topic, teachers create projects to encourage that interest. They keep documentation in a portfolio for each child throughout the year, allowing them to track individual development.
The Reggio Emilia approach invites children to present their ideas and learning in many forms: print, art, drama, dance, music, puppetry, and so on. The belief that learning and growth can take many forms is also an issue of equity for Meyers. “A child may be more drawn to dancing to tell their stories than drawing, for example, and there is room in a Reggio approach to be excited about that and help them translate that strength into new areas.”
“Children can demonstrate their ideas in many different ways: dance, paint, wire, clay, pencil, nature materials…other than just number and letter,” says Marty Watson, director of the Dodge Nature Center, a Reggio-inspired preschool. Giving the space for all of these efforts to flourish helps each child build confidence and excitement about their learning.
In a Reggio-inspired classroom, teachers encourage groups to work together using dialogue, comparisons, negotiations and respect. Basing the course of study on the children’s interests creates a collaborative environment that can help foster growth. “The children negotiate with the teachers on which interests will be studied,” says Nancy Farber, director of Reggio school Cushman Scott. She explains that asking the children to help direct the course of learning allows them to feel heard and respected, and encourages their sense of self-worth.
Go deeper into early childhood education
While a Reggio Emilia approach does find inspiration in sensory detail and aesthetics, Meyers emphasizes that it does not rely on surface appearances to create community. “If you are valuing a certain pretty outcome over a meaningful exchange between child and a material, then that project isn’t serving your students.”
“A Reggio inspired educator is intentional and responsive so my best advice is to make space for honest reflection and conversation so that you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and you also are ready to be engaged and curious when none of the children approach the material like you thought they would.”
Now you have at least an introductory answer to what is Reggio Emilia, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Reggio Emilia could be the ideal learning approach for your little one—or the ideal working environment for someone like you, someone who believes children really do have a hundred languages.