Preschools in Italian Town Inspiration to U.S. Educators

By Deborah L. Cohen — November 25, 1992 8 min read

NEW ORLEANS--Forgoing this city’s Creole cafes and Bourbon Street bars on a recent Friday night after several days of back-to-back seminars, some 700 early-childhood educators attending a convention here turned their attention to an even more exotic subject: the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Presentations on Reggio Emilia offered in recent years at conferences of the National Association for the Education of Young Children have drawn standing-room-only attendance. Such turnout is a testament to the increasing interest on the part of American educators in the early-education philosophy that has been practiced in that northern Italian town for 30 years.

Reggio Emilia’s public preschools, which offer an activity-based curriculum designed to foster esthetic awareness, creativity, and collaboration, have long been a magnet for European early-childhood experts. But such interest in the United States has intensified only relatively recently.

Besides a three-hour session by American and Italian educators who have worked in Reggio, this year’s N.A.E.Y.C. conference, held in New Orleans this month, for the first time featured three other sessions, also drawing several hundred participants, that showcased American efforts to the draw on the approach.

Reggio has been the topic of some 20 meetings, institutes, and seminars in the United States in the last four years, according to the first issue of Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange, a newsletter launched this fall by the Merrill-Palmer Institute of Wayne State University in Detroit. During the same period, about 800 American educators in 31 delegations have visited the Italian town and 30 American universities have sponsored exchanges or established other contacts there.

American interest has been piqued in part by “The Hundred Languages of Children,’' an exhibit documenting Reggio methods, through photography and samples of children’s work, that has been shown in 12 U.S. cities since 1987.

Early-childhood experts stress that Reggio’s resource base, social structure, family characteristics, and cultural and community life--all of which help make its preschools work--could not easily be replicated in this country. They also worry that efforts to emulate the model here may be oversimplified.

Still, these educators say, the Reggio philosophy can be a source of inspiration to help restructure the early grades; cultivate problem-solving, creativity, and cognitive skills; and make learning “developmentally appropriate’’ to the rhythms and learning styles of young children.

“We see Reggio not as a prescription, but as a resource,’' said Rebecca Kantor, a professor of family relations and human development at Ohio State University and the director of the A. Sophie Rogers Laboratory School for Child and Family Studies.

‘Detective’ Quality

The preschools of Reggio Emilia, a fertile agricultural community of about 130,000 in a wealthy area between Bologna and Milan, date back to just after World War II, when parents banded together to build a school from the ruins.

In 1963, five years before Italy passed a law establishing public funding of preschools for all 3- to 6-year-olds, the Reggio town council approved municipal sponsorship of its preschools. It now has 20 preschools, serving 49 percent of local children ages 3 to 6, as well as 13 infant-toddler centers--to which parents contribute on a sliding-fee scale--that serve 36 percent of those from birth to age 3.

The Reggio philosophy, according to presentations and articles by Italian and American experts, views children as active, curious, powerful, and competent learners who construct their knowledge through experiences. Teachers are seen as collaborators and guides who take their cues from children’s interests and prod them to ask questions and investigate. The curriculum emerges from children and teachers working together in detective-like fashion to uncover answers; collaboration among teachers, children, and parents is critical.

Two teachers of equal status co-teach 25-pupil classes and stay with the same children for three years.

Art plays a central role in the learning process. Each school has an “atelierista,’' or artist-in-residence, and most activities involve drawing and many other forms of “symbolic representation’’ to visualize ideas.

Visual Documentation

While there are no formal tests or curriculum standards, the learning process is extensively documented by teachers, who compile portfolios of children’s work, records of their discussions, teacher and parent observations, and photographs of lessons in progress. Such items are shared with parents and used as a tool to improve teaching.

Slides of Reggio preschools depict learning spaces artfully arranged with “panels’’ of the children’s work, photographs, and displays of natural and “found’’ materials. Loris Malaguzzi, who founded and directed the preschools until 1985, has described the space as an “aquarium’’ mirroring the values and culture of the community.

Parents are active in the life of the schools, and each school has a board made up of elected representatives of staff members, parents, and citizens.

While the teachers need only a high school diploma, five to six hours of their 36-hour workweek are reserved for ongoing training, planning, discussion, and parent meetings. The atelierista, the cook, and other support-staff members also participate. “Pedagogistas’’ employed in the school system help facilitate training and communication.

Open-Ended Projects

A focus of the curriculum--and the part drawing most attention in the United States--is “projects.’'

These projects, which can take days or months, are open-ended explorations generated by the questions or experiences of children, provoked by natural phenomena or events, or conceived by teachers to address specific cognitive or social needs.

At an N.A.E.Y.C. session this month, Amelia Gambetti, a Reggio teacher now working with a lab school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, described a project in Reggio in which children designed an amusement park for birds.

To fashion their own fountains and water wheels, the children discussed these features, visited real examples, sketched them, studied slides and photographs, redrew their plans, and created their works in clay and other materials. That effort prompted more inquiry into the relationship between water, pipes, aqueducts, and drinking water.

Another conference session highlighted an American adaptation of the approach at the A. Sopie Rogers Laboratory School at Ohio State.

Elizabeth Ice, a graduate student and lab-school teacher, described, for example, how toddlers’ interest in sticking pens into mounds of clay evolved into a seven-month project in which they experimented with many different probes in different bases and created elaborate collages individually and as a group.

Projects involve “the capacity to recognize the most important points and problems that children have to solve’’ and help them maintain the momentum to do so, Ms. Gambetti said. She also stressed the importance of an unhurried approach to test theories.

Complementary Approach

One reason for the increased interest in the Reggio Emilia approach in the United States, said Baji Margaret Rankin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University who spent nine months in Reggio doing research for her dissertation, is that it incorporates themes highlighted in American efforts to restructure public schools and promote more developmentally appropriate learning.

Rebecca New, an assistant professor of education at the University of New Hampshire who also studied in Reggio and has been taking Americans there since 1986, added: “People in Reggio are putting into practice some things we have talked about for a long time, and managing to do it in an absolutely compelling way.’'

And while U.S. schools are “under siege from parents, administrators, and school boards to come up with proof’’ that such methods work, Ms. New said, Reggio’s intensive documentation makes it “hard for anyone to say these kids are not learning.’'

Louise Cadwell, a teacher and consultant who is studying ways to tap the approach in this country and is helping five schools in St. Louis do so under a Danforth Foundation grant, said Reggio methods can also “complement and enrich’’ efforts to integrate art into the curriculum.

While some educators at the N.A.E.Y.C. conference questioned how they can foster an emphasis on esthetics in an era of art-education cutbacks, Ms. Cadwell argued that the approach “involves more than anything a shift in the way teachers think about materials.’' She and others also said they often use recycled or salvaged materials.

“Reggio has given us a number of alternatives’’ to print media in gauging children’s learning, said George Forman, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts who has collaborated with Italian educators on video projects of work done in the Reggio schools.

Not a ‘Recipe’

The approach, he said, also complements the researcher Howard Gardner’s theories on children’s need for many kinds of outlets to express their “multiple intelligences.’' The Reggio principles, Mr. Forman added, also mesh with efforts to make early-years programs more than “custodial’’ or remedial.

Experts emphasize, however, that U.S. educators should creatively adapt the approach to the cultures of their schools and communities, rather than use it as a “recipe.’'

Not all communities are like Reggio, acknowledged Lella Gandini, an adjunct professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the U.S. liaison for the Reggio Emilia Department of Education.

But the concept of “looking at children in their own environment and seeing what they need and what they are interested in,’' Ms. Gandini said, “is something that can be applied anywhere.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Preschools in Italian Town Inspiration to U.S. Educators