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Famed Early-Childhood Philosophy Expands Horizons

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This article was originally published in Education Week.

The preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy—and the particular educational philosophy at work there—have long fascinated early-childhood educators in the United States.

Interest in the approach, which views the teacher as one who explores, learns, and creates along with the child, has grown so much throughout the world that since 1994, more than 18,000 educators from 90 countries have taken study tours in Reggio to see the schools for themselves.

Now, Reggio Emilia, a city of roughly 140,000 in northern Italy, has a new facility—the Loris Malaguzzi International Center—in which to welcome such visitors and display the work of young children.

Teacher Anna Bartholome monitors pupils at MacDonald Montessori School in St. Paul, Minn. The school blends principles of Italy's Reggio Emilia preschools into the curriculum, a task the Minnesota school's founder likens at times to a
Teacher Anna Bartholome monitors pupils at MacDonald Montessori School in St. Paul, Minn. The school blends principles of Italy's Reggio Emilia preschools into the curriculum, a task the Minnesota school's founder likens at times to a "rocky marriage."
—Andy King for Education Week

While parts of the structure—a former cheese factory—are still in development, the center opened about a year ago and has hosted a variety of events, including the first meeting of representatives from Reggio networks throughout the world.

The center is named for the founder of the Reggio approach, and it was Loris Malaguzzi himself, a teacher, psychologist, and consultant to the Italian Ministry of Education, who first suggested the creation of such a place in the early 1990s. He saw it as a way to exhibit children’s work and ideas and to allow for ongoing research and discussion about the education of the very young.

His proposal came not long after Newsweek magazine, in a special issue on excellent schools, named a Reggio Emilia preschool as the best early-childhood program in the world.

Although Mr. Malaguzzi died in 1994, growing interest in his work and in the schools led to specific plans for the center, and by 1998, the city government, which finances all but a small portion of the schools, had purchased the buildings. Renovation began in 2002.

Inspiring Educators

Part interactive museum and part conference facility, the center serves multiple purposes, according to Beth MacDonald, a co-chairwoman of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, a group of educators, parents, and others influenced by the Reggio educational philosophy.

“It’s really a beautiful center,” said Ms. MacDonald, who has visited Reggio three times, twice since the center opened. It also houses Reggio Children, a public-private partnership with the city that manages the continuing exchange between the schools and the international community.

Plans for the center also include a preschool site, a restaurant, and a bookstore.

While the center gives early-childhood educators a place to learn about the Reggio philosophy—known for its emphasis on observing and documenting children’s work and involving youngsters in cooperative projects—the purpose of the facility is not to replicate Reggio schools worldwide.

Tenets of Reggio Emilia

• The environment is considered the “third teacher.” The classroom is made into a beautiful space by using natural light, plants, large windows, and the children’s own artwork. No commercial posters are displayed.

• Classrooms have dramatic play, or dress-up, areas, but early reading and math skills are not specifically taught. Instead, the teacher follows the children’s own interests. Graphic arts are heavily integrated into the program to demonstrate cognitive, social, and language development. Concepts are presented to children via multiple approaches, including print, music, drama, puppetry, and even shadow play.

• Long-term projects are common, and cooperative learning is encouraged. Teachers observe and document what children are learning.

• Preschools also feature an atelier, or studio, where children use different materials for expression. Atelieristas, or studio teachers, are trained artists who work with other educators to give children additional ways to display what they’re learning.

In fact, city officials maintain that the only true Reggio Emilia schools are in Reggio Emilia, where they were founded in the 1940s after the Second World War and involved parents who wanted critical thinking and democracy emphasized.

City leaders “do not believe that their experience can be transplanted to another cultural context. Rather, they are happy to inspire educators to reflect on and understand the reasons behind their work with children and families,” explained Judith Allen Kaminsky, the editor of Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange, a quarterly magazine published by the Merrill-Palmer Institute, a research and professional-development center at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Ms. MacDonald, for example, is the founder and director of MacDonald Montessori School in St. Paul, Minn., a 185-student private preschool that also offers before- and after-school programs for elementary-age students.

Her school adheres to Maria Montessori’s philosophy, which, like Reggio, emphasizes self-direction and moving at your own pace. But Montessori also depends on the use of its own specific materials. Like schools in Reggio, Ms. MacDonald offers children a rich arts program, with music, drama, and dance—something she feels was confirmed by her visits to the Italian city. Educators there believe it is important for children to learn in an “aesthetically beautiful environment.”

At times, Ms. MacDonald said, her effort to blend Montessori and Reggio principles into one curriculum has been like a “rocky marriage.” But in both educational philosophies, she sees a common and overriding belief in seeing children as “resourceful, competent, and powerful” learners.

‘A Place of Innovation’

Many teachers, parents, and others interested in preschool education first caught a glimpse of the Reggio style of teaching through “The Hundred Languages of Children,” an exhibit that has toured the world for more than 20 years and was first conceived by Mr. Malaguzzi as a way to show how children and adults work together in Reggio schools.

In 2001, the display was shown in the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Chile, and Luxembourg.

The North American alliance is looking for financial support to keep a version in the United States. The alliance, which has more than 1,000 members and is based in Roswell, Ga., is also proposing new ways of working with the international center.

One idea is to organize study tours for a specific purpose and audience, such as administrators or professors. Another is for networks around the world to create exhibits that show how the Reggio approach is being used in public and private schools.

As more early-childhood educators discover benefits of the approach for children in their own schools, the program in Reggio Emilia itself continues to expand. The number of infant/toddler centers and preschools has grown to more than 50, serving almost 3,200 children.

And the international center, officials say, is in some ways evidence of that growth.

In last fall’s issue of Innovations, Angela Ferrario, a liaison to the United States for study groups to Reggio, gave a report on that first meeting of the network representatives.

She quoted a variety of people affiliated with the Reggio schools and the international center, including Carlina Rinaldi, a former director of the municipal schools, who described the new center as “continuity to our common past, but also a place of innovation and research.”

There are hopes among Reggio’s educational leaders that the center will also revitalize the community where it is located.

Santa Croce was an industrial area in the beginning of the 20th century. Now, it is home to a high percentage of immigrants, and like the center itself, old buildings are being renovated and used for other purposes.

“This changing neighborhood is in the process of finding a new identity,” Sandra Piccinini, the president of a municipal organization in Reggio in charge of the schools, wrote in the fall 2005 issue of the Innovations magazine. “The new International Center will be a place of identity for this neighborhood and for the city of Reggio Emilia.”

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