Mama Mia!

By Edgar Allen Beem — November 01, 2002 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
As educators rave about an Italian preschool system, some ask if its kid-led aspects work in America.

Today is Pajama Day at the University of New Hampshire’s Child Study and Development Center. Some 20 kindergartners are decked out in sleepwear that ranges from military camouflage to floral nighties. Already, the kids and their teacher, Nicole Cavicchi, are looking forward to an afternoon of popcorn and the film version of Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

First, though, there are choices to be made and work to be done. The youngsters gather together, plopping onto a green, braided rug for their morning meeting. The two-hour block from 9:30 to 11:30 is known as “center time,” and the kids need to make their center choices.

So many decisions, so early in the day. Among the options are tinkering with computers, working with clay, and adding to the seven-foot-long, green dinosaur they’ve been creating from cardboard boxes. As they work, the bright May sun shines through sliding glass doors, and a faint, sweet smell wafts in from Durham’s surrounding fields.

Student artwork is in evidence everywhere. Mobiles—made of shells, feathers, and electronic parts—dangle from the ceiling, bottles of colored water glisten on a windowsill, and glass mosaics adorn the walls.

A few kids opting for the dinosaur project start cutting out spikes and scales for the cardboard kentrosaurus. They also debate how to bridge the gaps between the boxes that form the creature’s long tail: Duct tape seems to be the best option. After several minutes, Cavicchi stops by to consult and offer assistance. “Nikki,” as the kids call her, is a lovely 28-year-old, with pale skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. In talking with her “friends,” as she calls the kids, she is businesslike— there isn’t a hint of indulgence or condescension in her voice.

Cavicchi’s manner is well-suited to the approach at UNH’s Child Study and Development Center, where kids lead the way. Modeled on Reggio Emilia, an Italian method of early childhood education, the center focuses on respecting children’s intelligence, interests, and curiosity. Unlike more traditional preschools and kindergartens, in which the educators set the class agenda—perhaps a unit on the seasons or planets and some free-play time, for example—here the kids determine what to study, how, and for how long.

Of course, the class can’t pursue every child’s interests, but generally, after one youngster’s idea intrigues his peers, a consensus develops. Then, kids pick from a couple of ongoing projects created in groups, including, today, the construction of wooden board games. As they settle into their work, Naomi, Sarah, and Kelsey discuss the best way to proceed with the games they’ve designed. So far, they’re satisfied with their concepts—one version, modeled on Chutes and Ladders, is a race to be the first to arrive at “school"—and they like the rules they’ve devised. Next, they’ll begin to work out the kinks of assembling the actual boards from wood, paint, and other arts supplies.

Although the center’s kid-led, or “emergent,” curriculum might not be obvious in a quick visit, a second Reggio component surely is: From time to time, Cavicchi picks up a camera and snaps photos of the youngsters at work. Photo documentation—as well as videotaping and note-taking—plays a major role in helping teachers analyze how their students learn. Educators also share their research with the kids to revisit aspects of classroom work, including the step-by-step unfolding of projects and the group dynamics involved. Cavicchi, who has hung photos of previous efforts on the walls, is a big fan of documentation. "[It] helps me reflect on who I am as a teacher. Am I helping the children move from point A to point B?” she says.

Like Cavicchi, a growing number of teachers across the country applaud the Reggio approach. Other educators, though, are uncomfortable with its emphasis on kids’ collaborating in groups instead of doing individual work and on creating projects instead of simply playing. What’s more, Reggio’s progressive side can be a hard sell in an era of standards and high-stakes tests. Still, CSDC Director Beth Hogan has confidence in the Reggio approach. “You have to trust that children are going to take you to a good place if you let them,” she insists.

The Child Study and Development Center is located between the university’s horticultural farm and its dairy center, in a red, corrugated- metal building reminiscent of a tractor barn. The center, which also functions as a teaching lab for education majors, serves 128 day-care and preschool kids and kindergartners, all of whom are the children of UNH faculty, staff, and students. For years, the center relied on a curriculum with monthly themes, such as the weather.

But five years ago, then- director Mary Jane Moran decided to switch to the increasingly popular Reggio method, whichin addition to its student-led aspectsemphasizes family involvement and naturally lit, inspiring classrooms.

New Hampshire teacher Nicole Cavicchi follows the Reggio Emilia approach, which includes lots of hands-on projects.

The Reggio Emilia approach was developed in the northern Italian city of the same name in the wake of World War II. As the community began its postwar recovery, a number of parents resolved to create an education system founded on respect for children and the collaborative spirit vital to a democratic society. They sold some of their possessions, including horses, and donated their labor to build the school. Loris Malaguzzi, an innovative Italian educator, heard of the effort and visited. After being asked to stay, he ultimately headed the school until his retirement in 1985. Today, the nearly three dozen city-run infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia make it an international mecca for educators. Thousands of U.S. teachers and researchers have traveled there to study the system.

The Reggio approach was first presented formally to U.S. educators in 1987, at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Since then, it has drawn significant attention. For example, in 2001, Project Zero, an arm of the Harvard Graduate School of Education devoted to innovation, published the book Making Learning Visible based on a four-year study of the Italian city’s program. Project Zero educators also have been collaborating with teachers at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school to see how the Reggio approach might work with older kids. At Wayne State University in Detroit, researchers produce a Reggio- based periodical and maintain an Internet clearinghouse on the subject. And last year’s NAEYC conference drew a crowd of admirers. “The Reggio workshops were jam-packed. It was like traveling with the Beatles,” says Ben Mardell, a former Proj-ect Zero researcher. “Reggio teachers are the rock stars of early childhood education.”

But because Reggio Children, the Italian city’s international outreach arm, does not certify schools, it’s hard to quantify the movement’s influence in the United States. “It’s gotten so huge that it would be a real challenge to do that,” says Wayne State researcher Judith Kaminsky. Still, she estimates that more than 30 states now have at least one Reggio school.

It’s the day after Pajama Day, and the CSDC kids are displaying items they’ve accumulated for show and tell. First, they pass around a moose skull and antler that Kellin’s dad found in the woods. But Adam’s contribution draws the most attention: He’s brought in a clear plastic box containing three ticks, two of which are fully engorged with his dog’s blood. The kids are curious because ticks have infested the woods and fields around the center, and they are well-aware that the parasites can carry Lyme disease.

So Cavicchi launches into a mini-lesson. Not all ticks are deer ticks, she explains, and only the deer variety carries Lyme disease. And they’re arachnids, like spiders, she adds, with a head, a body, and eight legs. Meanwhile, the children pass the box around gingerly, their bright faces registering varying degrees of revulsion and fascination. In no time, they’re rattling off questions their teacher cannot answer: “Does every deer tick carry Lyme disease?” “Does everyone who gets bitten by a tick get Lyme disease?” “Can a tick give Lyme disease to more than one person?”

Clearly, more study is in order, and the teacher promises to bring in some bug books next week. Cavicchi, who recently earned her master’s degree at UNH in early childhood education, is inspired by her charges’ enthusiasm. Still, she admits, following their lead isn’t always easy. “The hardest piece is making that shift to a partnership with the children, rather than the hierarchy of teacher and students,” she notes.

Others familiar with the Reggio method point to additional difficulties. For one, there are the cultural differences between Italy and the United States. While Reggio’s group projects instill a collaborative spirit, many American parents and educators argue that it makes more sense for kidsto work independently, as they generally will throughout much of their educational and professional careers. Still, they don’t want kids determining exactly what it is they will study.

In the increasingly popular Reggio Emilia method, photo documentation captures how kids learn.

“If we could accomplish Reggio, it would be spectacular, but we don’t have the family-based, slow-paced appreciation of the strength of children that the Italians have,” says Elizabeth Jones, an education professor atPacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California, and co- author of The Emergent Curriculum. “Reggio’s emphasis on children as strong, competent people is extraordinary, but most Americans don’t believe it.”

The biggest problem, though, is this country’s increasing focus on standards: Some experts, for instance, question whether the Reggio approach will help kids satisfy the requirements many states set for kindergartners and prepare them for the high-stakes tests they’ll have to take in a few years. Linda Bevilacqua, director of early childhood programs at the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, notes that the method’s effectiveness hasn’t been measured. “There is not that kind of data for Reggio Emilia programs,” she explains. “That doesn’t seem to be the particular orientation they take.”

Giordana Rabitti, president of Reggio Children in Italy, acknowledges that this is the case. Although Reggio focuses on documentation to help kids learn, it does not attempt to document long-term results after they leave the city-run early childhood centers and move into state-run elementary and secondary schools. “We do not collect, systematically, data on the future careers of our children,” explains Rabitti. “Life is so complex and children so different that to isolate one single event—even if so rich an experience as our schools—does not seemcorrect.”

But Nicole Cavicchi isn’t troubled by the lack of data. “Our goal is to make sure the children have the skills and strategies they need to be successful,” she says. She notes that she’s focused on questions like, “How do you incorporate math and reading into a dinosaur project?” As youngsters cut out spikes and scales, she explains, they’re doing hands-on math, measuring and counting. The proj-ect also gets kids to read about dinosaurs and write about them in their journals.

And anecdotal evidence suggests that the Reggio Emilia approach is producing inquisitive, independent thinkers.

“We haven’t done any studies or tracking,” says Cavicchi, “but the thing you hear most from elementary school teachers in the area is, ‘Children from that school sure ask a lot of questions.’”


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: June 12, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read