Every Child a Champion

by Lynne S. Dumas
Originally posted at https://www.sesameworkshop.org/parents/advice/article.php?contentId=63940&

Recently some teachers at a preschool in Knoxville, Tennessee, overheard a group of 4-year-olds discussing how to get from one part of their city to another. This led the teachers and students to talk about all the rivers in the city, which led to talking about bridges, which prompted building a model of Knoxville from boxes, tubing, aluminum foil, and other materials. As their creation took shape, the excited kids wondered how tall some of their model buildings should be, so the teachers took them to the top of the Sunsphere at the 1982 World’s Fair site to see the city from above. For months the children crafted their model, honing math skills through measuring, literacy skills through labeling buildings and bridges, and motor skills through cutting and pasting.

It’s pretty amazing to think that 4-year-olds could be persistent and capable enough to pull off a project of such complexity. But that’s the kind of response the Reggio Emilia approach to learning draws from kids. No wonder educators the world over are buzzing with excitement about Reggio’s unique philosophy, one that profoundly respects children’s interest in the world around them and honors their innate ability and creativity. The Reggio result: a preschool- education method with a flexible curriculum, teachers who shape their work around children’s ideas, and kids who are caught up in a constant state of enthusiasm about learning because their curiosity gets such a workout.

The Roots of Reggio Emilia

Ironically, this lively method of learning literally arose from the rubble of World War II. Sick of war, the citizens of the town of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy used the money from the sale of old tanks to invest in their future by building quality preschools. A young educator named Loris Malaguzzi was impressed by the community’s commitment to its children and worked with the people to develop this child-honoring approach. Although global recognition was in no way part of the plan, Reggio Emilia’s preschools eventually gained a reputation for being among the best in the world.

One of the first American educators to observe and bring back the nurturing ideas of Reggio Emilia was Louise Boyd Cadwell, Ph.D., a teacher at the College School in St. Louis and the author of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home (Teachers College Press). She was impressed by what she saw in 1991: young Italian children working together, carefully observing their environment and discovering things for themselves, with gentle guidance from their teachers. As more and more American educators heard the buzz and traveled to the Italian town, pockets of Reggio-inspired preschools popped up around the United States. And the movement is still gaining momentum. Teachers in Belgium, Canada, Iceland, and other countries are also embracing the Reggio style.

This is no surprise to Lilian Katz, Ph.D., who directs early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a consultant to TV’s Sesame Street. “I see the Reggio philosophy as the cutting edge of early childhood education,” she says. “Its teachers are very successful at taking children seriously. The approach engages kids’ minds and helps develop their innate capacities to observe, theorize, and analyze. And it shows children that their work has value.”

Some of Reggio’s roots lie in child-centered preschool concepts that have been long-practiced in this country. But its approach is uniquely its own. With no prescribed curriculum, children are encouraged to pursue their interests, and teachers are trained to listen to, observe, question, and support them—to let things evolve rather than to make things happen. Reggio classrooms bustle with children working in groups and exploring ideas through a range of creative materials, including paint, clay, puppets, blocks, string, and found objects. In this stimulating, supportive environment, children as young as 3 or 4 often manage long-term projects of surprising complexity, such as the one that engaged the kids in Knoxville. But don’t think the ABCs and 123s are slighted: Learning such fundamentals evolves naturally during the course of Reggio’s child-driven explorations.

Dr. Katz believes that Americans are now learning how to apply the Reggio Emilia philosophy to early childhood education. Not that it all happens at once. Often teachers and parents find it difficult to shift the emphasis from teaching predetermined skills to facilitating a child’s unique learning pace and potential. But when moms and dads tune in to their preschooler’s interests and curiosity, they discover an adventure in learning for the whole family. Here, then, are some basic ideas of Reggio Emilia, along with simple ways you can bring these delightful lessons home and use them with your child.

All children are champions.

Reggio followers believe that children are strong, capable, creative thinkers. “In many U.S. classrooms, teachers are the givers of all knowledge, and kids are taught to look to them for answers,” says Pam Oken-Wright, coordinator of teaching pre-K through grade five at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia. “In our Reggio-inspired classrooms, children learn that they have their own voice, are capable of constructing their own theories about how and why things work, and can come up with their own answers to problems.” Reggio teachers feel there are no wrong answers, only good questions; mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning. Dr. Cadwell adds: “Because these children realize that the adults around them expect them to have strong minds, they grow confident in their abilities, intelligence, and creative selves.”
To nurture your little champion: Wonder together, instead of feeling you must supply all the answers. For example, Dr. Cadwell says, “If your child asks, ‘Why is there a moon?’ you might respond with, ‘Why do you think there’s a moon?’ ” Or if you’re walking in the park and your child appears interested in all the different kinds of trees, you might ask, “Why do you think we like trees so much?” Open-ended questions such as these lead your child to make her own discoveries and let her know that you value her thoughts.

Wonder, yes. And then embrace creative answers. Suppose your child asks where the rain comes from, and you say, “Where do you think it comes from?” If your child responds with, “The water comes from a big truck in the sky,” don’t jump in and correct him, suggests George Forman, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “Instead, use the opportunity to ask a question that extends his theory, like, ‘OK, but where does the truck get the water?’ ” You might also suggest that he paint or act out his thoughts. The point is to guide children to think their answers through. Remember, says Dr. Forman, “Mistakes are simply points in the continuum of learning.”

Children’s interests should drive the learning.

Most schools present a curriculum, based on state and local guidelines, that spells out how, when, and what kids will learn throughout the year. Reggio-inspired programs strive to allow the curriculum to emerge from children’s and teachers’ interests. Dr. Cadwell explains this approach with a charming anecdote about a small group of 3-year-olds and their Reggio Emilia teacher, Laura, as they set out on a special adventure: to take a walk outside and collect their experiences in a transparent jar. The eager children first decide to put their excited yells into the container, so they open the lid and shout into the jar, quickly shutting it to keep their sounds inside. As they scamper about, noting the various sights around them, they add some earth and fresh air, then reach up and capture a piece of the sky. Finally they inhale some outdoor smells and exhale them into the jar. Back inside, the kids explain their outing to the rest of their classmates.

Reggio advocates see learning as a journey of discovery. Their extraordinary respect for children’s creative ideas and ability to self-direct learning experiences is a significant goal of Reggio Emilia educators and has garnered high praise from America’s early childhood education community.

To follow your child’s fascination: Tune in carefully to her interests, even if they’re very different from yours. Suppose, for instance, you are visiting the Grand Canyon and, despite the grandeur around her, your child has eyes only for a caterpillar she spots crawling on the ground. Instead of insisting she pay attention to the surrounding beauty and not a silly bug, go with your child’s passion and talk about the caterpillar. “Why does it have so many legs? How do you think it feels to have a fuzzy body? What happens when you touch it?” Reading a book on caterpillars or inviting your child to draw a caterpillar are other ways to play off her interest.

Also, observe your child at a children’s museum. Museums for kids are often set up in a Reggio-compatible way; that is, “they see children as curious researchers,” says Sharon Palsha, Ph.D., an investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the museum, follow your child’s lead and support her interest. “If, for example, my 3-year-old daughter wants to spend an hour exploring the room filled with small creatures like salamanders and turtles, that’s fine with me,” says Dr. Palsha. “Later on we might get some books about salamanders or visit our local creek to search for them.” Make a habit of honoring your child’s interests, and you’ll help spur in her a lifelong passion for learning.
Children need many ways to express themselves.

Given the opportunity, kids can and will communicate their ideas through what Reggio educators call the hundred languages, which include drawing, painting, sculpting, puppetry, dramatic play, dance, and other forms of expression. As children move from one mode to another to express an idea, their understanding grows deeper and more complex.
To inspire your child: Offer a rich home environment, “a place where your child has the opportunity to explore a lot of creative materials,” suggests Deborah Tegano, Ph.D., a teacher- educator at the University of Tennessee Child Development Laboratory School in Knoxville. Invite him to use colorful markers, watercolors, pastels, and paint. Give him clay to sculpt, blocks to build with, puppets to act out his thoughts. The sky’s the limit, says Dr. Tegano, if you can go beyond thinking, ” ‘Oh, he’s only 4; he can’t work with delicate watercolors,’ and start believing, ‘I bet he can. Let’s try.’ ”

In addition, be on the lookout for creative experimentation. What looks like disobedience or bad behavior may really be a display of powerful curiosity, as one Reggio-inspired mom learned after she found that her 5-year-old daughter had plastered her hair with Vicks
VapoRub. “Rather than saying, ‘Why were you so naughty?’ I calmly asked her, ‘What were you thinking when you decided to do this?’ ” Her child said she was trying to make her hair smooth. With no time to wash out the ointment, the mother brought her child to school and explained to the teacher what had happened. “That’s very interesting,” the teacher said. “She was mixing soap with clay the other day because she wanted to get it smooth.” The mom realized, “She wasn’t being bad; she was trying to understand the concept of smoothness.” This way of viewing kids’ behavior can help you see your child’s actions as steps in her unique investigations, rather than as mischief making.

Collaboration expands the learning.

While encouraging individualism and independence, the Reggio philosophy also encourages children to work in small groups and learn from one another. “Education is based on relationships,” says Dr. Tegano. “We don’t learn by ourselves, but in partnership with teachers, parents, children, and the learning environment, all in an interconnected web.”
To cultivate creative interaction: Join playgroups and encourage child-driven team projects. Playgroups are a perfect place to put Reggio’s strong emphasis on interaction to work. Lynn Hill, curriculum coordinator for Virginia Tech Child Development Lab School in Blacksburg, Virginia, was with 3- and 4-year-olds who were climbing on a playground gym when a Lego man fell between two areas of the structure. Rescuing the out-of-reach figure became a group project. First the children tried catching him with some clay on the end of a stick; then they tried a plunger. Still no luck. But to Hill, what mattered was the children’s collaboration, thinking, and persistence. (At press time, the Lego man was still at large).

A telling sign hangs over La Villetta preschool in Reggio Emilia. It reads, “Nothing without joy.” What could be more natural than to tuck this lovely tenet into your heart as you honor and nurture your child’s passionate interests. Joy, absolutely!

If we’ve whet your appetite for the Reggio approach, here’s more information to tap into: