Encounters with Ideas in Reggio Emilia, Pt 1: The Importance of Context
Since its founding, The Nest has been a participant in Project Infinity, an educational project composed of 7 schools in Atlanta and Greenville, SC who have chosen to study together with depth the experiences of Reggio Emilia.
In May 2016, seven educators from The Nest (Caroline Berney, Leah Cabrera, Kristi Cameron, Kalei Fowkes, Mandy Palmer, Jess Reilly, and Trisha Ward) attended a study tour in Reggio alongside 57 of their Project Infinity colleagues.
Reggio Emilia is a town of 170,000 inhabitants located in northern Italy. In 1991, Newsweek named Reggio Emilia’s municipally-operated infant/toddler centers and preschools among the 10 best educational programs in the world.
Since that time, worldwide interest in the unique and provocative experiences of children, families and teachers who live a daily life in these schools has exploded. People from many countries have visited Reggio Emilia to study how they design schools to be places where learning, teaching, childhood, community, and family participation are celebrated.
Children as Citizens
When you visit Reggio Emilia, it becomes clear that children are almost always present in the public sphere. Babies in arms at public meetings, children biking through piazzas, teenagers sitting in groups in the park.
The belief that children have a right to be seen and heard is reflected in the overall feel of the city. Hard to know which came first, but you might imagine that as a generation of individuals, who were once children that attended Reggio’s world-renowned infant/toddler centers and preschools, became parents themselves, they held without question the expectation of high-quality, joyful, exciting, loving, thoughtful, provocative, curiosity-stimulating, socially dynamic early education environments. In this way, parents are a sort of guarantor of high quality in their children’s education and care.
Caroline (toddler teacher): I noticed that the teachers in Reggio often asked the children questions beginning with the specific phrase of “In your opinion, ….” To me, that distinctly displays a respectfulness toward the children and lets the children know that their ideas matter. I would like to experiment with this specific phrasing of our language toward the children. I feel as though we could always improve upon how we speak to the children and how we encourage ideas from the children through our questions.
Jess (toddler teacher): To promote a sense of identity within the school requires an environment where a child is respected by his/her surroundings and can form a mutual respect for his/her surroundings.
The Piazza as a Metaphor within the Schools
The piazzas that are scattered around the City Center are gathering places. On weekends, a market operates in some of them, and most nights of the week (but not on Mondays, as we discovered!) the outdoor cafes are humming with activity. Young and old, people gather in these public spaces daily.
Public areas for gathering are an important part of the architecture of the city and the values inherent to the piazzas are echoed in the design of the schools.
Within the schools in Reggio, common areas called piazzas are located in the center of the school, serving as the “heart” of the environment literally and metaphorically. The piazza is a place for gathering, for exchanging pleasant moments together, for relaxing and enjoying being together.
The Changing City
In recent years, there have been several societal changes occurring in Reggio.
Immigration to Reggio is a relatively recent phenomenon, but the high quality of life in Reggio makes it an attractive place for people to settle. In recent years, most immigrants have come from North and Central Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Far East (including China, Pakistan, and India).
The impact of American popular culture is evident in the city, too.
Rather than resist these and other cultural trends, the schools have embraced them.
The influence of current thinking about science, sociology, architecture, art, technology, and other disciplines is evident as teachers talk about the preparation they do to meet children around a specific experience or encounter.
The teacher has a responsibility to activate learning processes that naturally exist within the child while simultaneously activating their own new understandings as educators about what the processes of learning can look like.
The Rights of Children, Teachers, Parents, and the Community
The schools are built on a strong image of children, families and teachers. This image sees each individual as strong and capable, competent and powerful, and deserving of all sorts of rights, from birth.
In Reggio Emilia, adults explore topics like human rights alongside the youngest of children who, when seen and heard as fellow citizens, offer provocative and fresh ideas about ideas that grown-ups sometimes mistakenly imagine they have already figured out.
This respect for human rights seems woven into the fabric of the city. It is a community that has welcomed immigrants, granting them the same rights to early education that all the citizens of Reggio have traditionally been privileged to enjoy for decades. And when funding was allocated to the refurbishing of neighborhood parks, the mayor specifically advocated for a funds to be used on a park closest to the neighborhood where many of the recent immigrants had settled.
Leah (multiage teacher): I have a better understanding of how much work there is to be done to provide children with the kind of care and learning environment that we want to give and that they deserve. As educators we must be dedicated and diligent in our work, but also flexible and allow ourselves to be present and joyful with the children. In Reggio I really saw how all-encompassing the role of the educator is. We are caretakers and educators, and our “daily life” is full of moments that have potential, even the ones that seem routine. Potential for learning, potential for research, potential for reflection, potential for relationship building.
Trisha (chef): On Friday afternoon, educators explained the importance of paying attention to children with special rights. It starts with the language. Special rights sounds more empathic than special needs. So, again, the community supports these children in a special way, from their earliest days of life.
The Idea of Context: Reggio Is Reggio. Atlanta Is Atlanta.
They speak often of context in Reggio, and the context of place is very important. From their viewpoint, a child is growing up in a specific corner of the world, which is unlike any other corner of the world. Where you are matters. A key early experience of childhood, and an experience that extends throughout the lifespan, is the ongoing effort to create a sense of belonging. This effort has especially strong implications for children’s development, including their sense of identity, their competence as a communicator of ideas, their willing ability to problem solve, and on and on.
The place in which you live can be thought of as a concentric set of circles, and each of these circles contributes a uniqueness to the place. All these various circles (thought of as “contexts”) matter to who people are, how they develop a sense of belonging, and, to some extent, who they become in the future.
In the case of individuals at The Nest, the concentric set of circles/corner of the world/ context is likely described as in the US, in Georgia, in Atlanta, in southeast Atlanta, in East Atlanta or Ormewood Park or Grant Park or another nearby neighborhood, on a street, in a house with a family.
But as a community, The Nest has its own set of concentric circles that exist around the daily life at the school, which comprises many people, each of whom contributes to a unique identity for the school that is, in part, about being in Grant Park, on 1040 Grant Street, in a school in Suite 500, in a specific classroom with specific other people.
Deepening the understanding of context and sense of belonging was a strong moment during the study tour.
Valuing the Family
Of course, the most important context for children is always their family, the people in the world that love them the most and have dreams for them and take ultimate responsibility for their well-being.
In Reggio, families are supported by schools in many ways, not the least of which is the inherent right that families have to participate in all aspects of daily life at the school. Parents are seen as rich resources and knowledgeable simply by virtue of their roles as parents. They are always deserving of respect and always have a place at the school.
Mandy (infant teacher/school co-founder): I noticed that the school environment is more tied to individual and group identities than I thought. In all of the schools I saw a lot of history, (which most always involved parents) on their walls. I am sure this helps families and visitors to feel more of a connection to the school and feel more ownership.
Another influence the community of Reggio Emilia has on the daily life at the school is connected to aesthetics.
Simply put, things are beautiful.
All around, things are well-taken care of, well-organized, well-designed, simple, functional, and pleasing to look at. Furnishings are built to last for years, and design is thoughtful and intended to reflect metaphorically the best aspects of their shared life in the city. From the schools’ piazzas to their kitchens to their outdoor spaces, you can see the influence of the city on the choices made around the function and form of spaces within the infant/toddler centers and preschools.
Mandy (infant teacher/school co-founder): The schools seemed to be set up in a way that is open, welcoming, aesthetically pleasing, and organized which gives a clear path for members of the school community to feel a strong sense of solidarity and ownership.
Kalei (multiage teacher): Our choices come from our deep questions about their ideas, motivations, needs, & desires; from our understanding of what the group & individuals dynamics sourced from the intimate relationships cultivated in the school. Choices, when richly resourced with diverse materials, a sensitivity to manifold languages, a respect for relationships, & a network adult collaboration, are imperative.
The Power of the Experiences of Reggio Emilia
For some educators (and, increasingly, parents), encountering this educational philosophy is almost life-changing. The potential of education is evident in Reggio Emilia, and the values that are living and breathing there refresh teachers who strive to build similar schools in their own communities.
The schools of Reggio Emilia are built on relationships, on respect, on the lifelong desire to learn and an almost worshipful respect for curiosity and beauty and joyful interaction. For some educators, once they “find” Reggio Emilia, it becomes the only way to be a school.
What is the kind of school that we strive to be? What values do we want to see expressed in our choices and our ways of being together? What do we want children to learn from us about learning, and what do we want to learn from them? And how does the context in which we live impact everything we do?