children creating a mural
children creating a mural

The Reggio Approach

The Reggio Approach derives its name from its place of origin, Reggio Emilia, a city located in Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy. Shortly after World War II, Loris Malaguzzi, a young teacher and the founder of this unique system, joined forces with the parents of this region to provide childcare for young children. Inspired by the need for women to return to the workforce, this education system has developed over the last 50 years into a unique program that has caught the attention of early childhood educators worldwide.

Looking at this complex system of education is fascinating and challenging. It invites us, as teachers, to see the possibilities of what can be, if we are willing to take risks and let go of our traditional roles.

The Reggio Approach is a complex system that respects and puts into practice many of the fundamental aspects of the work of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and many others. It is a system that lends itself to: the role of collaboration among children, teachers and parents; the co-construction of knowledge; the interdependence of individual and social learning; and the role of culture in understanding this interdependence. (Baji Rankin, 2004)

At the heart of this system is the powerful image of the child. Reggio educators do not see children as empty vessels that require filling with facts. Rather they see children as full of potential, competent and capable of building their own theories. The Rights of Children as written by Loris Malaguzzi best describes how children are viewed.

Children have the right to be recognized as subjects of individual, legal, civil, and social rights; as both source and constructors of their own experience, and thus active participants in the organization of their identities, abilities, and autonomy, through relationships and interaction with their peers, with adults, with ideas, with objects, and with real and imaginary events of intercommunicating worlds. All this while establishing the fundamental premises for creating “better citizens of the world” and improving the quality of human interaction, also credits children, and each individual child, with an extraordinary wealth of inborn abilities and potential, strength and creativity. Irreversible suffering and impoverishment of the child is caused when this fact is not acknowledged.

Starting from this point of reference, we recognize the right of children to realize and expand their potential, placing great value on their ability to socialize, receiving their affection and trust, and satisfying their needs and desires to learn. And this is so much truer when children are reassured by an effective alliance between the adults in their lives, adults who are always ready to help, who place higher value on the search for constructive strategies of thoughts and action than on the direct transmission of knowledge and skills. These constructive strategies contribute the formation of creative intelligence, free thought, and the individuality that is sensitive and aware, through an ongoing process of differentiation and integration with other people and other experiences. The fact that rights of children are recognized as the rights of all children is the sign of a more accomplished humanity.

Project work is a large component of the Reggio Approach, but there is much more to this complex system. Each day, the teachers reflect on the experiences of the children, always mindful to watch for “the ants instead of always waiting for the elephants”. (Amelia Gambetti, Reggio Children)

Fundamentals of the Reggio Approach

Education based on Interrelationships
A network of communication exists between the children, parents and teachers of Reggio. These three protagonists work together to create the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and co-construction of knowledge. They work together, interacting toward a common purpose: the building of a culture which respects childhood as a time to explore, create and be joyful. Each of these three protagonists has rights within the school; those of the children were highlighted earlier.

Lori Malaguzzi defines the rights of parents: It is the right of parents to participate actively and with voluntary adherence to the basic principles in the growth, care, and development of their children who were entrusted to the public institution. This means no delegating and no alienation. Instead, it confirms the importance of the presence and the role of the parents, who have always been highly valued in our institutional tradition. First, we have the school, which makes strong and concerted efforts to involve the parents in the awareness of how much can be gained from close collaboration with the families for the greater security and well-being of the children. Parent participation enables a communication network that leads to fuller and more reciprocal knowledge, as well as to a more effective, shared search for the best educational methods, content, and values. (Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio Emilia, 1993)

The Reggio Teacher
The Reggio teacher is unique because she offers herself to the process of co-construction of knowledge, releasing the traditional roles of a teacher and opening doors to new possibilities. She starts with the use of the child’s own theories, promotes disequilibrium, and helps the child to think about their thinking to facilitate new learning. (Seong Bock Hong, 1998)

The Reggio teacher is a keen observer, documenter, and partner in the learning process who allows the
children to:
  • Ask their own questions and generate and test their own hypotheses
  • Explore and generate many possibilities, both affirming and contradictory. She welcomes contradictions as a venue for exploring, discussing and debating
  • Use symbolic languages to represent thoughts and hypothesis
  • Communicate their ideas to others
  • Through the process of revisiting the opportunity to reorganize concepts, ideas, thoughts and theories, construct new meaning
The teacher, like the parents and children, also has rights within this unique system. It is the right of the teachers and workers of each school to contribute to the study and preparation of the conceptual models that define educational content, objectives, and practices. This takes place through open discussion among the staff, with the pedagogical coordinators and parent advisory committees, in harmony with the right of children and families; through cooperation on the choices of methods, didactics, research and observation projects; and through a definition of the fields of experience, ongoing teacher self-training and general staff development, cultural initiatives and the tasks of community management. This cooperation also extends to the organization of the environment and the daily workings of the school. (Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio Emilia, 1993)

The Environment as the Third Teacher
The educators of Reggio Emilia view the school as a living organism, a place of shared relationships among the children, the teachers, and the parents. The school produces for the adults, but above all, for the children, a feeling of belonging in a world that is alive, welcoming and authentic. (Malaguzzi, 1994, p.58)

The layout of the physical space in the schools encourages encounters, communication, and relationships. The arrangement of structures, objects and activities encourages choices, problem solving, and discoveries in the process of learning. In preparing the space, teachers offer the possibility for children to be with the teachers and many of the other children, or with just a few of the children, or even alone. Teachers are aware, however, that children also learn from their peers, especially when they can interact in small groups. (Gandini, 1993, p.6)

Long-Term Projects as Vehicles of Learning
One of the highlights that often first attracts educators to the Reggio Approach is its complex, long-term exploration of projects. Unlike North American predetermined thematic projects, the projects undertaken by Reggio educators may derive from the children’s and teachers’ ideas and interests, thoughts and theories in things worth knowing about. Teachers often work on projects with a small group of children while the rest of the classroom continues to involve itself in other self-selected activities and explorations.

Importance of Documentation
Documentation is a key element in the Reggio Approach. Documentation serves many purposes, but most of all it is used as a research tool for studying children’s learning processes. Documentation is about what children are doing, learning and grasping, and the product of documentation is a reflection of interactions between teachers and children and among children. Documentation, because it is done on a daily basis, is a medium through which teachers discuss curriculum, keep it fluid and emergent, and develop a rational for its course. It provides a growing theory for daily practice. (Seong Bock Hong, 1998, p.51)

Documenting children’s daily experiences and ongoing projects gives meaning and identity to all that the children do. It is through the documentation that the teachers are able to gain insight into the thoughts of the children, determine further investigation for working on topics, create a history of the work, and generate further interest.

Reggio teachers are skilled observers of children. If a teacher observes closely, she can see the intelligence on a child’s face. On a daily basis, they collect data via notes, recordings of conversations between children, and through videotaping of events and activities whether related to project work or just during classroom time. She watches what children are doing and saying and how materials are being used. The documentation is then used to analyze children’s understanding and thoughts – it is revisited by the teachers and children together. This revisiting process provides children with the opportunity to discover their own questions and problems and to determine, together, what the next steps could be. In the process of revisiting, children’s theories and understanding grows. Also, in the revisiting process, they collect more data and information which enhances the work. Documentation of work in progress is made visible on large panels throughout the classroom, thereby keeping the memory of the work vivid and alive.

Seong Bock Hong (p.50-51) summarizes the purpose of documentation as:
  • The process by which teachers gather information about children’s ideas and their thinking processes
  • Done daily so teachers can discuss their curriculum, keep it fluid and emergent, and develop rationale for its course
  • Data for Study
  • A facilitator of continuity across a given activity, because new activities evolve from earlier experiences
  • Offering a research orientation to instruction
  • Allowing teachers to revisit with children
  • Being concrete, active and reflective
  • Providing the right amount of support to enable children to perform a task
  • The heart of each project or experience
  • To serve as a lesson planner
  • To define the teacher as a facilitator

Real Life Experience

A Trip to Forsythe Farms
Field trips provide children with opportunities to have a firsthand look at their topic of interest. These experiences help the children and teachers to formulate questions and pose hypotheses and develop theories.
Drawing of farm visit
"This is the tractor that the farmer uses. It has big wheels so it doesn’t get stuck in the fields when he goes to get the pumpkins. Sometimes he uses it to pull children in so they can see the whole farm. It even has a big engine and it needs gas to run."
Drawing of farm visit
"You see this is me in the back of the trailer and I am bumping up and down because when the tractor goes over the dirt it’s like a bump. When dirt is piled high it makes a bump."