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Introduction to the Reggio Emilia Philosophy in Early Learning Classrooms

Apr 21, 2022    |   ECE Theory & Philosophy
Reggio Emilia classrooms often utilize natural materials such as leaves, rocks, sticks, and pinecones as well as found or recycled items, to inspire creativity, problem-solving, and self-directed learning experiences.

The Reggio Emilia curriculum is a popular teaching style that is implemented in many early learning programs. The approach, which originated in Italy, emphasizes child-directed, open-ended experiences in a thoughtfully curated learning environment. In this article, we provide a brief overview of the Reggio Emilia approach: where it came from, what it looks like, and how you might incorporate it into your classroom. Even if your program does not currently use Reggio principles in its curriculum, some of the information might inspire new ideas to try with the children in your care.

Where Did the Reggio Emilia Approach Come From?

The Reggio Emilia approach originated in 1945 in a town called Villa Cella, which is located just outside of the town of Reggio Emilia. In collaboration with the local community, a psychologist named Loris Malaguzzi started a network of schools for infants and toddlers that emphasized children’s natural capacity for learning.

Today the approach retains many of its original values, including an underlying belief in the ability of children to take ownership of their growth processes. The North American Reggio Alliance lists additional central values, such as:

  • Learning occurs within a process of individual and group construction.

  • Each child is born with many resources and extraordinary potential. Each child’s unique identity is welcomed and celebrated.

  • Participation of adults and children, together, fosters dialogue and a sense of belonging to a community.

  • Each child has “a hundred languages,” which is a metaphor for the numerous ways that young children think, express, and understand the world around them in order to construct knowledge.

  • Regular communication and information-sharing, via documentation and conversation, engages parents and connects them with their children’s learning.

What Does a Reggio Classroom Look Like?

An intentional, well-designed, and ever-changing learning environment is a critical piece of the Reggio Emilia approach. Classrooms are designed to help children feel at home, safe, and represented, because when children feel a sense of belonging, they are inspired to learn.

The Environment as the Third Teacher

A typical Reggio Emilia classroom includes “three teachers:” the child, the teacher, and the classroom. In an article for NAEYC, Mary Ann Biermeier, MEd, director of professional development at Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool, explains:

“The first teacher—the parent—takes on the role of active partner and guide in the education of the child. The second is the classroom teacher. Often working in pairs, the classroom teacher assumes the role of researcher and intentionally engages children in meaningful work and conversation. The third teacher is the environment—a setting designed to be not only functional but also beautiful and reflective of the child’s learning. It is the child’s relationship with parent, teacher, and environment that ignites learning.” 

This means that the set-up of the classroom is especially important, as it should encourage engagement and exploration. Reggio Emilia classrooms often utilize natural materials, such as leaves, rocks, sticks, and pinecones as well as found or recycled items, such as corks, empty boxes, and pieces of cardboard. These materials are open-ended, inspiring creativity, problem-solving, and self-directed learning experiences.

Making Learning Visible Through Documentation

A key component of a Reggio Emilia classroom is documentation, which refers to displays of young children’s projects, artwork, and play. When children’s work is displayed, it helps make the learning process visible, encouraging for educators, parents, and children to reflect and see where growth has occurred. To learn more about documentation, you might enjoy this G2K article from the archives: The Power of Documentation During COVID-19 and Beyond, which takes a deeper look at what documentation looks like and how it can inspire connection.

How Can I Incorporate Reggio Emilia Ideas?

Even if you are not working in a Reggio Emilia program, you can still incorporate some of the values and principles into your work with young children. Here are a few ideas…

  • Let children lead the way! Take some time observing children in their play, without instructing or directing them. See what ideas they come up with, what questions they have, and how they are learning to collaborate with each other. Then, see what kinds of new materials you might add to your classroom to support their exploration. For example, if you notice children are particularly interested in construction, you might bring in more materials for building, such as more blocks of different shapes and sizes to add to their design. Or, you might introduce hard hats and safety vests to your dramatic play area so that children can pretend to be construction workers.

  • Set up a simple documentation display. Have you recently done an art project with the children in your care? Display the art in your classroom along with a written description and explanation of what the children were working on. If you have a camera, you might even consider taking photos of the children doing their project to hang with the finished pieces! This display helps children to reflect on their experiences, while also letting parents know what you have been working on in your classroom.

  • Make your space cozy. Reggio Emilia classrooms emphasize the aesthetic of the space to help children feel safe, comfortable, and supportive of their emotional wellbeing. Think about some ways you could add more comfort to your environment to help children feel relaxed and inspired. You might add family photos, create “cozy corners” with blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals, or bring in lamps to dim the lighting and create a more comfortable atmosphere.

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