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Introduction to the Fundamental Values
of the Education of Young Children in Reggio Emilia *

© Lella Gandini (revision October 2008)


Young children, their care and their education have long been a public
concern at various levels of Italian society. What families have obtained
was not easy to achieve; it came from a great deal of effort and political
involvement. Workers, educators, and especially women were active and
effective advocates of the legislation that established public preschools in
1968 and infant-toddler centers in 1971. The results of the effort by all these
determined people are publicly-funded municipal as well as national
programs for young children that combine the concept of social services
with education. Both education and care are considered necessary to
provide high quality, full-day experiences for young children.

In Italy now, preschools, whether municipal, national or private, serve
about 95% of the children between 3 and 6. Infant-toddler programs have
developed much less in quantity but the quality of these services in those
municipalities that have invested seriously in them has been generally
outstanding.

What, then, is so special about Reggio Emilia, a city of 160,000 inhabitants
in northern Italy?

First of all, the city-run educational system for young children originated
there in schools started by parents; literally groups of parents built them
with their own hands at the end of World War II. The first school was built
with proceeds from the sale of a tank, some trucks, and a few horses left
behind by the retreating German army. Such participation by parents has
all along remained an essential part of the way of working on education in
that city.

Secondly, right from the start Loris Malaguzzi, then a young teacher,
guided and directed the energies of those parents, later preparing teachers
and becoming an educational leader not just in his hometown but also on
the national scene.

Thirdly, the tradition of cooperative work is firmly rooted in the Emilia
Romagna region and is based on a sense of community and of solidarity.
Through a strong sense of solidarity, people there are accustomed to
construct and maintain the connections with the community. They
typically respond to immediate, usually material needs, by forming
cooperatives. Yet the spirit of cooperation that they engendered in such
endeavors tends to transcend those needs to leave enduring marks upon
the culture of their region.

What are the distinguishing features of the education of young children
with regard to theory and practice that have made the Reggio Emilia
approach so notable?

An examination of the features of this philosophy soon reveals that the
educators have been serious readers of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev
Vygotsky, David Hawkins, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner and other
world renowned scientists and philosophers. In fact, Reggio Emilia
educators have continued to keep abreast of the latest research in child
development and education in other countries. At the same time, though,
they continue to formulate new interpretations and new hypotheses and
ideas about learning and teaching through their daily observations and
practice of learning along with the children.

The image of the child. All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity;
they have interest in relationship, in constructing their own learning, and
in negotiating with everything the environment brings to them. Children
should be considered as active citizens with rights, as contributing
members, with their families, of their local community. Children with
special rights (rather than using the term special needs) have precedence in
becoming part of an infant/toddler center or a preschool.

Children's relationships and interactions within a system. Education has to
focus on each child, not considered in isolation, but seen in relation with
the family, with other children, with the teachers, with the environment of
the school, with the community, and with the wider society. Each school is
viewed as a system in which all these relationships, which are all
interconnected and reciprocal, are activated and supported.

The role of parents. Parents are an essential component of the program; a
competent and active part of their children's learning experience. They are
not considered consumers but co-responsible partners. Their right to
participation is expected and supported; it takes many forms, and can help
ensure the welfare of all children in the program.

The role of space: amiable schools. The infant-toddler centers and preschools
convey many messages, of which the most immediate is: this is a place
where adults have thought about the quality and the instructive power of
space. The lay-out of physical space fosters encounters, communication,
and relationships. Children learn a great deal in exchanges and
negotiations with their peers; therefore teachers organize spaces that
support the engagement of small groups.

Teachers and children as partners in learning. A strong image of the child has
to correspond to a strong image of the teacher. Teachers are not considered
protective baby-sitters, teaching basic skills to children but rather they are
seen as learners along with the children. They are supported, valued for
their experience and their ideas, and seen as researchers. Cooperation at all
levels in the schools is the powerful mode of working that makes possible
the achievement of the complex goals that Reggio educators have set for
themselves

Not a pre-set curriculum but a process of inviting and sustaining learning. Once
teachers have prepared an environment rich in materials and possibilities,
they observe and listen to the children in order to know how to proceed
with their work. Teachers use the understanding they gain thereby to act as
a resource for them. They ask questions and thus discover the children's
ideas, hypotheses, and theories. They see learning not as a linear process
but as a spiral progression and consider themselves to be partners in this
process of learning. After observing children in action, they compare,
discuss, and interpret together with other teachers their observations,
recorded in different ways, to leave traces of what has been observed. They
use their interpretations and discussions to make choices that they share
with the children.

The power of documentation. Transcriptions of children's remarks and
discussions, photographs of their activity, and representations of their
thinking and learning are traces that are carefully studied. These
documents have several functions. The most important among them is to
be tools for making hypotheses (to project) about the direction in which the
work and experiences with the children will go. Once these documents are
organized and displayed they help to make parents aware of their
children's experience and maintain their involvement. They make it
possible for teachers to understand the children better and to evaluate the
teachers' own work, thus promoting their professional growth; they make
children aware that their effort is valued; and furthermore, they create an
archive that traces the history of the school.

The many languages of children. Atelierista and atelier. A teacher who is
usually prepared in the visual arts (but also in other expressive arts) works
closely with the other teachers and the children in every preprimary school
and visits the infant-toddler centers. This teacher, who works in a special
workshop or studio known as an "atelier", is called an "atelierista". The
atelier contains a great variety of tools and resource materials, along with
records of past projects and experiences. What is done with materials and
media is not regarded as art per se, because in the view of Reggio
educators the children's use of many media is not a separate part of the
curriculum but an inseparable, integral part of the whole
cognitive/symbolic expression involved in the process of learning.
Through time the materials and work of the “atelier” has entered into all
the classrooms through the setting up of “mini-ateliers” and through the
learning on the part of teachers and atelierista to work in very connected
ways.

Projects. Projects provide the narrative and structure to the children's and
teachers' learning experiences. They are based on the strong conviction that
learning by doing is of great importance and that to discuss in groups and
to revisit ideas and experiences is essential to gain better understanding
and to learn. Projects may start either from a chance event, an idea or a
problem posed by one or more children, or an experience initiated directly
by teachers. They can last from a few days to several months.

Educators in Reggio Emilia have no intention of suggesting that their
program should be looked at as a model to be copied in other countries;
rather, they consider their work as an educational experience that consists
of reflection on theory, practice, and further careful reflection in a program
that is continuously renewed and re-adjusted. Considering the enormous
interest that educators show in the work done in the Reggio schools, they
suggest that teachers and parents in each school, any school, anywhere,
could in their own context reflect on these ideas, keeping in focus always
the relationships and learning that are in process locally to examine needs
and strengths, thus finding possible ways to construct change.

* *Earlier versions of this article appeared in L.Gandini (1993),
Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education,
Young Children,49(1), 4-8, and L.Gandini(1997), The Story and Foundations of
the Reggio Emilia Approach in Teaching and Learning: Collaborative
Exploration of the Reggio Emilia Approach, edited by V.R.Fu, A.J.Stremmel and
L.T.Hill.(Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Merrill/Prentice Hall)



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