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A Reggio Emilia approach helps early years staff better understand how children learn

Article By: Richard Howard, News Editor

Although the Montessori approach to pre-school learning often receives more attention, another philosophy that more and more nurseries are beginning to favour is that of Reggio Emilia.

Named after an Italian town, the approach was developed by a teacher named Loris Malaguzzi with the help of local parents in the years after World War II, based on the notion that adapting learning potential to our surrounding environments, within a self-guided curriculum, is the best way to develop a child’s creativity. As Vanessa Callan, manager of High House Montessori Nursery Ltd, Bishops Stortford, says, in a Reggio Emilia setting ‘the environment is the third teacher’.

A flexible approach

A key difference in adopting the Reggio Emilia approach is that it favours versatility over any pre-conceived notion of what education should be. Instead, progress and learning activities are subject to community, surroundings and resources, while, perhaps most interestingly, no two Reggio Emilia day nurseries should use the same methods, as they are required to adapt to their many differences.

One nursery to have been influenced and inspired by this approach is that of , in Horsham, West Sussex. Managing director Hayley Peacock describes how learning of this Italian method gave her nursery a new vision for helping children to develop their creative abilities.

She comments: “We have been working with this approach for the past two and a half years to deepen our work with children in a way which them helps develop an enquiring mind and a love for learning and discovery.”

“We have a professional artist on our team, named an Atelierista [translates as studio teacher],” she continues, “and three pedagogical leaders whom work with children on developing long term projects both inside and outside in our farm setting, which enable children to explore, research, articulate and express their ideas, theories and discoveries using a variety of creative languages – such as through drawing, sculpture, dance, music, performance and composition.”

This adheres to one of the key observations of Malaguzzi, being that children are endowed with ‘a hundred languages’ and so we must embrace the many different ways in which they are able to express themselves, to think, discover and to learn.

Research and practice

Also crucial to the Reggio Emilia vision, Little Barn Owls not only appreciates that its surroundings and capabilities are unique, but also the development and interests of each individual child.

Ms Peacock explains: “Our approach is highly reflective and focuses on working with children as equal learning partners to better understand and document their thoughts and actions, in order to better understand how they learn.”

Although Ms Peacock does not advise simply reading about Reggio Emilia and then implementing its methods without any first-hand experience, having visited the town itself to take advantage of the help available there and to better appreciate its potential.

“Members of our team have attended the International Study Tour in Reggio Emilia the past two years,” she says, “which is an enlightening and deeply impacting experience for anyone with a passion for early years.”

This renewed vision for pre-school learning has not only inspired activities within the nursery, but also encouraged those involved to share their growing expertise with the community and perhaps even further. Five new Reggio-inspired settings are scheduled to open as a result and there are even published works.

“This year,” Ms Peacock says, “Little Barn Owls published our first book which documents a creative long term project with children of three and four years old. ‘Cake Book’, named by one of the children involved in the project, is available to buy from Little Barn Owls directly.

She continues, “This year we have also founded a new Professional Network, supported by Sightlines Initiative, which welcomes professionals interested in Enquiry Based Learning. The network is due to start a new cross-setting project on 4th October this year focusing on open ended creative work with children and materials.”

The 'third teacher'

Vanessa Callan of High House Nursery has also found adopting this approach to be a very positive experience and says more on the benefits of Reggio Emilia to any providers who feel it might be preferable to a more ‘traditional’ curriculum.

Ms Callan describes how staff seek to understand children’s developing interests in a Reggio Emilia setting, saying, “Children become immersed and interested in the project work they do. The projects come from the children’s interests or are from an item of interest the teacher has introduced. The teachers are skilful communicators who listen and observe to gauge children’s interests and developmental needs. Teachers are respectful of the environment and the children. They work in partnership with the parents and community as much as possible.”

“The Reggio approach uses open ended materials,” she continues, “so that children can extend their imaginations and develop their creativity.”

“The environment is the ‘third teacher’ – it is inviting, inspiring, provoking and rich with opportunity. The teachers work with the classroom and outdoor environment to ensure the space children use is a source of learning opportunity.”

The approach has also gained the attention of leading academics, with Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Winchester, last year addressing a university conference on how the Reggio Emilia vision is ‘attracting increasing interest and admiration from across the globe.

“Aided by Malaguzzi’s progressive and child-sensitive insights,” he said “we can create early childhood environments that are developmentally appropriate, and empowering for children, practitioners and parents alike.”

Pics courtesy of Little Barn Owls


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Chris Forbes

Chris Forbes

17 Oct 2014 10:19 PM

Great to see this approach is being raised again to its worthy status. West Sussex early years advisors were given the opportunity to visit and observed extremely good practice which was shared with nurseries throughout the county.