Traditional classrooms usually operate as a hierarchy, with teachers at the top and children a step below. However, some early childhood education programs shift from this system and practice educational philosophies where children have as much say in their learning experiences as the teachers. In these instances, educators are taking inspiration from the Reggio Emilia approach to build a collaborative classroom where children are encouraged to take control of their education with the support and guidance of teachers and families.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about implementing the Reggio Emilia approach—what it is, why it’s effective, and how to integrate it into your preschool design.
What is the Reggio Emilia approach?
The Reggio Emilia approach is a flexible, hands-on educational philosophy where children are encouraged to express themselves and their interests in various ways while developing their personalities through a self-guided curriculum. This type of preschool curriculum was developed in post-World War II Italy, where the citizens of Reggio Emilia decided to use the materials from destroyed buildings to build a school focused on early childhood education. Loris Malaguzzi, a local educator, created the Reggio Emilia approach within its walls.
The Reggio Emilia approach is founded on:
- Collegial and relations-based work for all staff members: Teachers work in pairs and maintain strong, collaborative relationships with all other teachers and staff.
- The daily presence of a plurality of educators with children: A child’s education and development are enhanced through interactions with educators.
- The atelier and the person of the atelierista: The classroom is designed to support the use of materials and media as means of learning and expression while the atelierista, or teacher, using visual arts, works collaboratively with other teachers to further the educational objectives.
- In-school kitchens: By having and keeping kitchens as part of Reggio Emilia-designed preschools, it creates an opportunity for children to interact and encounter others and the world through food.
- The environment as an educator: The learning environment is viewed as a third teacher meant to provoke curiosity and encourage interaction.
- Documentation for making creative knowledge processes visible: Teachers are responsible for documenting the learning process with photos, videos, and more to better understand children and evaluate their work.
- The pedagogical and educational practice of coordinating groups: By establishing and maintaining conversation and interaction between children and adults, they can build learning experiences together.
- The participation of families: Families are encouraged to participate in as many ways as possible in Reggio Emilia preschools, from making decisions on center policies to working on projects for the learning environment.
Malaguzzi founded the Reggio Emilia approach based on his belief that children are capable members of the classroom and should have control over how they learn as they explore, question, and make sense of the world. Instead of the traditional hierarchy present in many classrooms, this co-learning environment establishes a partnership between children, teachers, and families. Children shape their learning experiences with active support and participation from educators and their families.
The goal of the Reggio Emilia approach is to guide children through early childhood education and development by creating opportunities for them to express and evolve their thinking through diverse experiences. Children are encouraged to express their ideas and understanding in multiple “languages” that are considered part of learning and communicating. These languages can include drawing, dance, painting, music, and dramatic play.
For over 70 years, the Reggio Emilia approach has evolved into a community-constructed system that supports the independence of young learners through collaboration with teachers and parents.
Why Reggio Emilia works
There are advantages and disadvantages to any type of preschool curriculum; however, there’s a reason why the Reggio Emilia approach has been in practice for over 70 years.
Reggio Emilia's curriculum is flexible, hands-on, and engaging. It allows children to initiate and guide their learning experiences. The approach aims to empower children to take pride in their learning. Because their education and development are self-directed and based on their interests, ideas, and thoughts, it helps create positive classroom experiences and excites them about learning. The focus on hands-on activities encourages problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and more.
It’s necessary to note that the Reggio Emilia curriculum may not be a perfect fit for children who benefit from a more structured classroom where the curriculum is set and guided by teachers. However, the approach is effective in shaping independent learners who have the opportunity to explore and satisfy their diverse curiosities.
In the Reggio Emilia approach, there is the concept of 100 languages. In a poem written by Malaguzzi, he writes that children have a hundred languages, thoughts, and ways of thinking, playing, speaking, listening, understanding, and more. In the classroom, children can explore their 100 languages as each child speaks a series of languages that are unique to them. Reggio Emilia classrooms can push individualized learning that creates experiences for each child. By exposing children to various activities or “languages,” Reggio Emilia classrooms create an environment that makes children empathetic and adaptable critical thinkers.
One of the founding principles of Reggio Emilia is that the environment functions as an educator. The curriculum works because it’s physically designed to work. The environment is designed to support flexible, hands-on learning with resources and materials that give children the tools to control their learning.
Reggio Emilia works because it puts children at the center of their education and allows them to actively learn, explore, and question while shaping them into life-long learners.
Reggio Emilia principles
Early childhood education programs give children the skills and tools they need to become active, engaged learners who are invested in their education and development. Reggio Emilia uses four principles to guide this process.
Reggio Emilia is an emergent curriculum built upon the interests of the children. This way of teaching requires teachers to observe and have discussions with children and their families to discover their abilities, needs, and skills and build them into classroom learning, activities, and play. In implementing an emergent curriculum, Reggio Emilia teachers act as researchers (learning and observing the children), documenters (listening to and recording their actions and behaviors), and managers (guiding, nurturing, and solving problems).
The emergent curriculum of Reggio Emilia bleeds into its emphasis on children-led projects. In this approach, learning is led by the children and structured around projects. These “adventures,” as some teachers call them, can last a week or span the entire school year. When teachers can observe and identify the interests of the children, they create projects to encourage them. Instead of leading the projects, teachers act as guides. They may help children choose their projects and what materials they want to use, but the children control the final decision.
Projects are at the center of many learning experiences in a Reggio Emilia curriculum. It allows teachers to document children’s work and progress and share their observations and assessments with other teachers and families.
Keeping track of several short-term and long-term projects has its challenges, but brightwheel's lesson plan feature comes with an easy-to-implement curriculum system that you can customize to meet your classroom needs and the needs of your children.
Children learn and demonstrate their ideas in many ways. The Reggio Emilia concept of children having 100 languages is similar to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner proposes that people are born with multiple intelligences—linguistic-verbal, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic—and the varying degree of each affects our ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.
In the Reggio Emilia curriculum, children are encouraged to learn and present their ideas in many forms. While one child might prefer using words for expression, another might prefer music or dancing. The principle of representational development means that children can learn and demonstrate their ideas in different ways, creating the space for them to build confidence in their skills and abilities while increasing their excitement about learning. In the classroom, ideas and concepts are introduced in multiple forms to ensure that all children have the opportunity to understand.
Collaboration is a skill that strengthens a child’s cognitive, social-emotional, and language development. Reggio Emilia classrooms prioritize collaborative group work—in small and large groups—where children are encouraged to work together to problem-solve, negotiate, and practice empathy. Children are also called to collaborate with teachers to decide which interests will be explored. The idea of collaboration even expands beyond the classroom as it emphasizes child, staff, and family involvement in the learning experience.
Reggio Emilia curriculum
When creating a Reggio Emilia curriculum for your early childhood program, it’s necessary to incorporate the four principles of the teaching method. It helps ensure a well-rounded educational experience that allows your children to flourish independently as they learn and explore their interests.
Early childhood education is designed to help children develop the skills they need to be successful inside and outside the classroom. While Reggio Emilia calls for children to control their experience, the work you do in building the curriculum and guiding children to explore their interests is what makes it successful. As you build your curriculum, create opportunities for you to listen to their interests and then provide opportunities for them to explore them.
It may not be explicitly obvious, but creating a Reggio Emilia curriculum begins with observation. You'll need to know and understand your children to create an emergent curriculum with projects that cater to and encourage the child’s interests. To help uncover their “100 languages,” ask them about their likes and dislikes. Pay attention to what they talk about. Allow them opportunities for free play to learn what games or toys they play with. Try to uncover what questions or curiosities they have about particular subjects.
Once you create a profile on your children, you can build this information into projects. These projects provide them with opportunities to explore their likes and use materials for hands-on learning to make connections between the classroom and life outside it. Because your children and their interests will vary from year to year, you’ll likely need to modify your curriculum between classes. Fortunately, your curriculum acts as a living, breathing extension of your program that will be able to handle quick change.
Central to creating an effective Reggio Emilia curriculum is your ability to make it cohesive. With collaboration being one of the four principles of the approach, you’ll need to find ways to create opportunities for teamwork and partnership.
Collaboration in the classroom starts with you and the children, but it continues between them and their classmates. Small and large group work is characteristic of a Reggio Emilia curriculum, which is reflected in the classroom layout. As you teach, use the children’s interests to assign their groups. This creates the chance for genuine engagement and lets them learn, question, and explore with their like-minded peers.
While families aren’t in the classroom daily, they’re an essential part of it. This goes back to one of the founding principles of Reggio Emilia that encourages their participation. As you develop your curriculum, talk to parents to learn more about their child. Create projects that require their involvement, whether that means helping the children create or watching them present a completed assignment. Figure out how you plan to contact them and share their child’s progress and work.
Creating a Reggio Emilia curriculum means ensuring the children are connected to their interests, classmates, parents, and you as the educator. Additionally, forming a connection between the children and their environment is another significant element in executing an effective Reggio Emilia curriculum which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Reggio Emilia classroom
The design of a classroom is always important to the success of the learners within it. The Reggio Emilia approach significantly leans on this idea with the concept that the environment is the third teacher. The environment plays a large role in the curriculum. It’s viewed as having the power to provoke learning and curiosity while encouraging interaction between the children.
Similar to the Montessori method, Reggio Emilia classrooms include elements of light and natural materials while moving away from commercial posters and plastic furniture. There is an emphasis on open-ended and versatile supplies. Natural elements might include leaves, sand, and stones, while common tools such as brushes, pencils, paper, and scissors help children explore.
Earlier, we discussed that one of the founding ideas of Reggio Emilia is “documentation for making creative knowledge processes visible.” Documentation is used to make a child’s learning visible to them and their families. At the beginning of the school year, you won’t find the walls filled with classroom decorations. Instead, walls are typically left bare to leave space for documenting learning experiences by showcasing children’s work as they create it.
Although the look of the physical environment is important, the foundation of Reggio Emilia classroom design focuses on how the physical environment causes children to interact with materials and each other. There are separate, intentional areas that allow children to engage in many different activities while actively promoting variation and flexibility. The areas in a Reggio Emilia-designed classroom include:
- The atelier: An area in the classroom that introduces creative thinking experiences and allows children the opportunity to express themselves through many mediums. The teacher, or atelierista, guides these experiences by introducing new materials or activities.
- Mini-ateliers: Smaller versions of the atelier, these are mini workshop areas that facilitate small group work and allow children to experiment with different materials and activities. Common mini-ateliers in Reggio Emilia classrooms include areas for sensory play, block building, sand writing, and painting.
- Group area: The group area acts as an instruction area. Here, teachers introduce new lessons, carry out group activities, and hold class discussions.
- Outdoor area: Children are encouraged to explore nature, especially if it’s one of their 100 languages. Outdoor areas are easily accessible from the classroom.
- The piazza: An extension of the classroom, the piazza is a gathering space for children. Similar to a space where children would go for recess, this area is for socializing.
Finding the right language
Reggio Emilia is a child-directed curriculum that encourages children to guide their learning by exploring their many languages or interests. This framework combines the collaborative efforts of children, teachers, and families with the physical elements of the classroom environment to create an individualized, hands-on learning experience. Introducing Reggio Emilia to your preschool program is an intentional measure that can help you develop a classroom of active, engaged, and interested learners.