The Reggio Emilia approach to education

We take an in-depth look at a progressive approach to early-childhood education developed in Italy that’s now cropping up in preschools around the U.S.

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Child-centered educational approaches have been gaining a lot of traction in the U.S. in recent years as a growing number of parents seek alternatives to the traditional education system. We recently investigated the Montessori Method, which encourages children to use their natural curiosity and choose activities they’re interested in to discover the answers to their own questions.

The Reggio Emilia approach also places the child squarely at the center of their own learning and development. But as we’ll see, there are a few fundamental differences with the Montessori Method.

What is the Reggio Emilia approach?

In post-World War II Italy, teacher and educational psychologist Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994) teamed with a group of local parents and children to build an innovative network of municipal infant-toddler centers (ages 0 to 3) and preschools (ages 3 to 6) in and around the city of Reggio Emilia. Legend has it that the first school was financed by selling an abandoned German tank, as well as a bunch of horses and two military trucks. Malaguzzi credited the women of the area for building that first school through sheer will and determination.

At the center of the Reggio Emilia approach is Malaguzzi’s belief that “the child has a hundred languages”. Young children have a hundred different ways of thinking, learning and expressing themselves – and each one of these “languages” should be celebrated, nurtured and developed.

What are the core values of the Reggio Emilia approach?

Unlike Montessori, the Reggio Emilia approach isn’t an educational method that you can train and receive a diploma in (although some schools do offer unofficial certificates in the Reggio approach). Each Reggio-inspired preschool and early learning center applies the five following guiding principles in their own unique way.

  1. A strong and optimistic image of the child

Malaguzzi painted a powerful portrait of the child as a strong and capable being born with extraordinary resources and potentials. Because children are endowed with a natural curiosity and a sense of wonder that feed their desire to discover and understand the world, they can easily become the architects of their own learning… if we let them. The role of the Reggio educator is to support children’s learning rather than direct it. And the classroom, referred to as the “third teacher”, is set up to inspire children’s imaginations with carefully thought-out materials and workspaces.

  1. The child has a hundred languages

The 100 languages are a metaphor for the extraordinary potential of children. They have countless ways of exploring, discovering, thinking, examining, investigating and studying. And they also have countless ways of expressing themselves and the concepts they’ve learned. The Reggio approach seeks to support these 100 languages by presenting children with various forms of expression, including words, imaginative play, movement, music, dancing, drama, drawing, painting, sculpting, building and so much more.

  1. Participation and collaboration to foster a sense of community

Children are encouraged to work in groups of various sizes to solve problems through investigation, dialogue and negotiation. Each child’s thoughts and opinions are heard and valued in order to foster a strong sense of self as well as a sense of belonging and community. Teachers work alongside the children, exploring and investigating with them rather than providing focused instruction.

  1. Project work to build knowledge

One of the main ways in which children are encouraged to collaborate is by participating in open-ended projects that can last anywhere from a couple of days to the whole year. Based on interests the children have expressed – for example, growing food from seeds or building a house for the birds who visit the school – they’re asked to decide what materials should be used and how the project should be executed. The teachers act as advisors, providing the children with opportunities to explore various questions and expand their knowledge.

  1. An emphasis on documenting children’s learning

In Reggio-inspired preschools and early learning centers, learning is thoroughly documented with photos of children engaged in various projects, transcripts of their thoughts and feelings about them, and teachers’ descriptions of children’s participation and engagement. The documentation is often on display for teachers, parents and children to easily see the progress that’s been made throughout the year.

How do I know if the Reggio Emilia approach is right for my child?

The best way to find out is to book a tour at one (or several) Reggio-inspired preschools or early learning centers in your area. Some offer group tours or open houses, while others allow you to have a private visit and meet the director. You’ll be able to see the teachers and children in action and ask any questions you might have. If you bring your child along, you’ll also be able to observe how they react to the environment and the people there. If you’re still unsure after your visit, check out other preschools near you to help you make an informed decision.