The basic Reggio Emilia approach to kids education: What it is & what makes it different from other types of education like Montessori

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What is the basic  Reggio Emilia approach to education and how you can help integrate this approach into your own, even if you don’t go all the way

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The Reggio Emilia approach to education is pretty much all the rage today. It started in Italy and has filtered its way down to many schools in the United States.

A real Reggio Emilia classroom has a full scale art studio  separate from each classroom plus a mini studio in each classroom. There is also an atelerisita, which is a full time art teacher that is based in the art studio.

There are many teachers who love the Reggio Emilia approach but, either cannot afford the full scale environmental changes to their classrooms or they cannot afford a full time atilierista. By understanding the philosophy and approach of Reggio Emilia you can however,  become a Reggio inspired classroom teacher and bring much of their teachings to your own children. You can even do this if you are home schooling your children.

I am going to give you some of the basic concepts of a Reggio Emilia type of classroom and what is important in their curriculum. It will give you enough of an idea to get started and you can then read some of the many books on the method that will help you fill in the blanks. There are a few books that I used more recently when I was giving a workshop to a group of early childhood teachers. These books are listed below and may be very helpful to you on your journey toward a Reggio Emilia approach to education.


There are two major ideas about the Reggio approach that I am going to discuss here. I am not going to go into detail about the way a real Reggio school is run but, if I share with you their two basic philosophies you can apply them to any learning environment, in your classroom or even at home

A major part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is the importance of the environment for the children and how the environment can be used as a third teacher. Beautiful spaces are very important and play a large role in the Reggio philosophy.

The second is the  use of art media for communication and critical thinking. That is in essence  what Reggio is all about. It is often called  the 100 languages of children because of the many different ways children can express themselves in the various art media. The languages being the art mediums.

These two pieces of the Reggio Emilia education can definitely be incorporated in many environments and I will tell you how.

Some Basic Reggio Emilia Philosophy

Reggio philosophy believes in creating good connections between the physical world and learning ,and connections between the home and the school. Connections in general are very important. Having a homey environment brings out a sense of security and belonging and helps children feel comfortable and connected to their homes. Feeling secure in ones environment helps create a healthy learning environment. Making cozy spaces that are homelike encourages this feeling of comfort.

Within this comfortable environment as part of a  Reggio Emilia curriculum is the necessity to help provoke wonder, curiosity and intellectual engagement in the children. Children are very fascinated by things in the physical world that play with light. Items that reflect, sparkle, and make sounds and as a result these items should be added to the environment and should be part of the curriculum. Many of these items can be added to the various centers and tables in a centered based classroom.

Children need to be investigating, manipulating, building, creating, communicating and problem solving all throughout the day.When they are discovering different properties in object they are making connections in their brains which as we learned is one of the the foundation of learning in a Reggio environment.

The environment indoors and outdoors also needs to allow for lots of physical activities to let off steam, develop strength in their muscles and make the the children see themselves as competent and powerful. This enhances their ability to learn as well. The more they absorb rich sensory information the more their brains make the connections that are so crucial to the foundations of learning.

Some ideas that can  help make a Reggio Emilia classroom and/or outdoor environment rich in sensory experiences

  • Adding old stumps and blanket can create some really  nice small spaces for private work and discussion
  • Couches for adults and children to sit on are very homey
  • Plants scattered around the room add a soothing element
  • A fireplace is very cozy and is a great addition to a dramatic play area
  • Multi level floor spaces: The way to create more space in a classroom and cosier spaces is by building up. Creating lofts, and using risers and ramps are great for giving the children small places to hide out in and are great for grouping activities
  • Art and mirrors on the walls in the classroom and even in the bathrooms are a great addition
  • Break up areas in the room by adding gazebos to make smaller areas, add hammocks and screens to divide the rooms into smaller sections
  • Lighting: Adding floor lamps, track lighting and lamps on tables gives ambiance to the environment
  • Keep in mind that neutral colors are more soothing for an environment than bright garish colors
  • The outdoors should become an extension of the classroom if possible. You can add couches, a trellis and gazebo to spice up your outdoor space. Bales of hay, ladders, step stools, milk crates, barrels, wheelbarrows, planks, shovels, rakes,  wheels, tires and ramps are all just some of the things you can add to your outdoor space to make it more exciting.
  • Don’t forget that beautiful storage is very important. Aside from the fact that the displays in a Reggio Emilia classroom take top priority, beautiful, well kept and organized storage adds its own aesthetic value.

So what is a Reggio Emilia curriculum and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education

The truth is that if you look at any reggio school, they are for the most part  all reggio emilia early childhood education based.You won’t see reggio emilia schools that are past the early years of children’s education.

The types of curriculum that are practiced in a reggio emilia program are very close to what is known as the project approach. The ideas for the curriculum are taken from the children’s interests and encompasses all of the skills that they need to learn. There is reading, writing, math, science and many other types of things that the children learn through their projects that can often extend for weeks and months at a time.

There is a tremendous amount of documentation of the children’s learning. Photographs, writing, reading and of course, the most important part of the reggio emilia preschool curriculum is the art.

The reggio emilia materials  are the art materials that are so readily available for the children to document their work. To be able to document their work in an artistic, creative and competent manner there is much concentration on learning HOW to use all of these art materials. They need to learn how to use the various art media for the communication and critical thinking that is so vital in a reggio school..

In order for the children to learn how to use art media to communicate they  need need fluency in the language of art before they will be able to use it for communication and critical thinking.

This means that they will need lots of experience with the art media before they can really use it properly to communicate. That is what the curriculum is mainly geared towards. Helping them gain fluency in the arts so that they can easily communicate what they have to about what they are learning.

You cannot just give children new paints or oil pastels that they have never used and except them to know what to do with them and how to express themselves with them without having extensive experience with them.

Since main driving point of of a Reggio curriculum is the art that they need to communicate what they are learning, it is  often called the hundred languages of children. This is because of the many different ways in art it is believed that children can communicate. In order to use the 1oo languages the children need to encounter a wide range of media and materials so that they can explore color, texture, movement , line and space. The more comfortable they become with all of these media and elements the more they can use these hundred languages to speak about their experiences, observations and feelings.

The teachers role in the Reggio Emilia or Reggio inspired classroom

The teacher in most non traditional classrooms has long given up the idea of being the disseminator of information. It has long been the case  in non traditional classrooms that the teacher is the facilitator of information but, in the Reggio Emilia classroom the teacher does much more than that.

I will  elucidate in points some of the roles of a teacher.

The teacher must…

  • Teach the children to learning to pay attention to detail and nuance.
  • Help the children collaborate with each other.
  • Help them develop skills with the various media.
  • Get the children to slow down and to take the time to work on projects.
  • Coach them on how to work with media.
  • Teach them correct way to use tools.
  • Help them with documentation of their work. Collecting, observing, taking notes, taking photos, transcripts of conversations are all vital to this work. Portfolios play a major role in Reggio classrooms.
  • Create beautiful displays and presentations of the children’s work.

If children need to fully understand a medium, its behavior, how it feels, how it can be used, and what skills and tools are needed to work with it…how is that done?

Learning about new media

  1. Have the children explore the media through all possible senses (no they should not taste it)
  2. Let them learn what tools are useful for this media
  3. How is this media used for representation
  4. How does one set up a work space for this media
  5. How is this media kept after it is used
  6. Let them gets lots of experience with the media before moving on to the next

The more familiar children get with these media the more the children will gain an independence and a vision for their work. They will also learn to move their ideas from one media to another. When building a building they may decide to draw it and then to sculpt it using the drawing as a model.

The hundred languages of children is taught through many steps of art media

There really are not a full hundred languages of art and it is just an expression, however there are definite steps that can be taken to each Reggio children about the types of art media in a sequential manner.

The Language of Art: Reggio-Inspired Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings :

In this book Ann Pelo delineates the sequence she uses to introduce the children to the media. The book is not a recipe like guide  but, it deals more with what the teacher should say and how to introduce the different media. She also has a sequence to introducing the media that I find very helpful.

She starts the children off by introducing them to  texture and movement using the vocabulary of  gooey, wet, drippy, slippery, squishy which are all sensory based experiences. You can use  cornstarch and water  for these experiences. After the cornstarch you can introduce them  to a very favorite children’s activity, finger painting which can then lead into  easel painting.

Color is the next : When you introduce color to children it is best by teaching them about  absence of color in using black and white paints and black and white papers. Then comes the introduction of color mixing with tempera paints, then watercolor painting and then pastels and chalk pastels.

After color comes 3D media like clay/found materials/ constructions/ wire sculptures and then comes the activities that tie it all together Representational drawing and painting.

When teaching representational drawing she will give the children still life objects like sunflowers to copy, then move to self portraits and then have them make some mural.

You would be surprised by how much children can draw when they just learn to focus on detail. If you were interested in a more comprehensive treatment of drawing for kids then check out Mona Brooks book
Drawing with Children.

Once the children have mastered these  art media for communication and critical thinking they will then be able to..

  • Draw the city they built with lego so they can remember their work(don’t even need a lego table for this one)
  • Sketch an idea of how the pulley  in the loft would work
  • Use wire to show how lines of a leaf are like its bones

They will be able to confidently use these media to create anything related to what they are learning and want to know about.

This type of art work is not anything like scrapbooking for kids or making easter art projects in the kindergarten classroom. It is about developing real competency in the art areas to be able to communicate ideas.

Many people ask what is the difference between  Reggio Emilia vs. Montessori

Even though this is not a treatise on Montessori education the methods are vastly different. Montessori is a very structured type of education which has specific toys and materials that are supposed to be used to develop certain specific skills. The Reggio Emilia philosophy on the other hand is not structured at all but, does rely on many art materials to keep the curriculum going. It is much more in tune with the individualism of the children concentrating on their development through art and the environment.

The interesting thing is that both methods originated in Italy. Maria Montessori however, developed her methods based on the poverty stricken children she was working with and the skills that she felt they needed to develop in a very structured way.

Are there any Reggio Emilia training courses

Many times there will be teachers that very inspired by the Reggio way and would love some Reggio Emilia training. There are reggio inspired schools that don’t worry about doing things the way they are done in Italy where this all originated from. Unfortunately, if someone wants Reggio training and is looking for some real  Reggio training courses they will probably not find it. I have  a dear friend who is an atilerista in a Reggio inspired school. She is not Reggio trained and did not take any reggio emilia training course. She is an artist and a former preschool teacher who loves the method and has read up on it a lot. According to her there is no real formal training to become a Reggio teacher and the best way to become one is by apprenticing in a school that is either reggio inspired or more than inspired.

The best way to learn more about the method is to read and read and read, and go observe other schools if you cannot get an apprentice position.

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