Preschools with an Italian flair

Reggio Emilia approach lets kids take the lead in education


Liz DeCarlo

When Hinsdale mom Amanda McKnight was looking at preschools for her children, Martha, 4, and Laura, 2, she was more interested in a school that would foster a love of learning than one that would stress academic accomplishments. Her search led to a new school based on an Italian approach to early childhood education.

Called Reggio Emilia, after the town where it originated, this is a philosophy of learning, not a specific curriculum. The approach starts with the premise that children should be the guide to their learning. They call the shots on what and how they will learn. Teachers are there only to support children as they explore the world.

And while to some, it may seem a recipe for classroom anarchy, the reality is surprising to many parents.

"The whole Reggio thing is so exciting," says McKnight, whose children attend the early childhood center at Zion Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, which opened this month and uses the Reggio approach. "As a parent, you want your children to enjoy education, and from day one in a Reggio school, they learn to like learning."Reggio’s roots

The Reggio education approach was developed after World War II but came recently to the United States.

In 1991, Newsweek magazine declared Italy’s Reggio Emilia schools to be the world’s top models for early childhood education. The resulting publicity, along with an exhibit about the Reggio Emilia philosophy that came to the United States around the same time, caused American educators to take interest. Since then, the approach has been studied and copied by many American schools, including some Chicago public schools and area private schools.

Because the approach is not a set curriculum, the schools that use it vary in terms of the ages they serve—some schools start classes with 2-year-olds, while others wait until children are 3. The hours also vary. Some are a few hours, while others are a full day.

But there are similarities among schools offering the Reggio approach.

"One thing that sets us apart from other schools is that we’re actually creating a program where children are the source for their own learning. If you have child-initiated activities, you really do have better results [than in a traditional classroom]," says parent and educator Phillip Jackson.

His Chicago Grammar School is opening this fall with preschool and kindergarten classes using the Reggio approach. Plans call for the school to add a grade each year, ultimately offering preschool through eighth grade.

"This approach doesn’t have to be an either-or, that you buy into or not," notes Gillian McNamee, director of the teacher education program at Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development. "These are wonderful ideas to experiment with. What we’re seeing in the U.S. is that the Reggio approach is being so well done at some schools, but at others it’s just a token attempt. But it is adaptable to all schools, from the inner city to Naperville."

Although Chicago Grammar School plans to use the Reggio approach through eighth grade, most schools limit it to preschool and kindergarten classes. Also, the cost of tapping into this approach varies widely for parents—from the free programs offered by the Chicago Public Schools to more than $16,000 per year for tuition at Chicago Grammar School.

A key aspect of the Reggio philosophy is the emphasis on the "hundred languages" children use to communicate, such as dramatic play, art, music or verbal language, which is why Chicago Grammar School has staff artists and musicians assigned to each classroom.

"One important thing with Reggio is the development of symbolic language through play and having the children work out ways to figure out the world," Jackson says. "They can dance it, sing it, act it out."

Reggio schools generally begin their days with a meeting in which the children discuss what they’d like to learn. Many Reggio-based schools have children vote on topics and then work out any differences. The teacher may be a guide, but the work is done by the children, and it revolves around projects.

Ann Gottschalk, Zion Lutheran’s director, has taught preschool for decades, and the last five years she has used the Reggio approach. Now, as director of Zion Lutheran’s preschool, her school is based on the philosophy.

Gottschalk’s experience using the Reggio method has left her amazed at young children’s learning abilities. She recalls one project about monitor lizards. The children were fascinated by the animal’s sticky tongue and decided to re-create it. They worked at home and at school to create a variety of different tongues and also observed a monitor.

As the preschoolers noted the lizard’s tongue and ability to catch bugs, one child said, "I can’t see the tongue coming out because it’s so fast. Let’s videotape one and slow it down."

"To have a young child figure this out, that is just awesome to teachers," Gottschalk says. "When children go through Reggio Emilia schools, they know how to be learners, and learning is not just answering questions it’s being able to ask questions."A demanding approach

Rachel Gubman, interim director of the Winnetka Public School Nursery, says children become active learners with the Reggio method, which her school has followed for 14 years. And teachers interact more with kids.

But it’s not for everyone.

"It’s a very challenging approach. It asks teachers to be researchers and students of children. And because you don’t have a pre-packaged curriculum, making it meaningful and appropriate is always a challenge," Gubman says. "For a teacher who wants to keep repeating [the curriculum] year after year, this is not the right approach."

Recently, when one of the school’s 4-year-old students said during a group meeting that Earth is the biggest planet, the teachers didn’t correct him. When other children disagreed, the teachers asked, "How can we learn more?"

"That discussion evolved into a five-month project that included re-creating the solar system," Gubman says. "What we did was give the kids lots of different ways to express their ideas, so we had paint and storytelling and Play-Doh. A lot of problem-solving was done, and what’s interesting is that every child isn’t participating in the same way. For some, it was all about the science; for others, it was the art; for others, it was about relationships."

The Reggio approach also shows parents and teachers to measure a child’s success in ways beyond test scores, says Winnetka parent Georgie Geraghty.

"My initial expectation with preschools was that the way to judge a school was by measurable outcomes, knowing your ABCs and counting," Geraghty says. "But Reggio has taught me patience because this is a far more subtle type of learning. I realize now, four years into it, that every child is going to learn to read and write. What you have to capture is the sense of wonder, creativity and the ability to think outside the box.

"I love the fact that my children don’t feel they have to color in the lines and that they can do things differently. You get a far greater product, a child who is a creative thinker."Importance of play

The basics of the Reggio Emilia approach can be applied to many schools, from low-income, inner-city to wealthy suburban schools, says McNamee. However, it’s not possible to replicate the Italian schools because American attitudes toward children are so different, she says.

For instance, Italians believe children are strong and powerful, capable of guiding their own learning.

"In America, we see children as weak," McNamee says. "It’s not just taking the Reggio approach and doing it in America. There’s no way we could duplicate their view of children and the family.

"But their ideas are wonderful to think about. It’s not a good or bad approach-they invite us to listen and see a view of learning. The Reggio Emilia approach is a way to ask questions in a new way that sort of turns our head around," she says.

McNamee thinks the success of the Reggio approach in Italy also validates the belief of many American educators that play is an important part of learning.

"The Reggio approach is built around a philosophy of children constructing their own ideas--an active agent in their own learning. It’s not passive learning, and it’s based in pretend play, something that’s becoming endangered in U.S. schools," McNamee says.Altering the environment

Italians also emphasize the environment as a "teacher," and their classrooms look nothing like American preschools, McNamee says. Most American preschool and kindergarten classrooms are filled with plastic, frilly decorations that are visually overstimulating to children.

"Reggio Emilia views the environment so artistically--it’s offensive to them to plaster stuff up on walls," McNamee explains. "And all the furniture is wood, and white or cream walls, and the children’s artwork is displayed beautifully."

About 30 Chicago public schools have started incorporating some of the Reggio principles into their preschools, and environment is the first thing they’re looking at, says Jane Cecil, coordinator with the Chicago Public Schools Office of Early Childhood Education in curriculum and professional development.

"We’ve looked at the materials [and] the arrangement of furniture, thinking about how we create an environment for learning," Cecil says. "The environment is so important, because when the teacher’s working with children in a small group, the rest of the children are working with the environment. So we’re trying to create an environment that’s respectful to children and children’s work."

The Reggio Emilia approach is still not considered mainstream, but the number of American schools using it has increased in the last five years, McNamee says.

Although Reggio preschools use very nontraditional learning methods, McNamee says children shouldn’t have any problems succeeding in traditional elementary schools because they’re developing a life-long love of learning.

Gottschalk agrees. "We’re interested in genuine learning, which isn’t reading when you’re 4 and counting to 100," she says. "In Italy, they said their old schools gave water to horses that weren’t thirsty. Our goal is to make them thirst for knowledge. In our schools, questions are more important than answers."


Liz DeCarlo is a freelance writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.

The guiding principles of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education are:

• Emergent curriculum. The curriculum builds upon the interests of the children.

• Project work. Projects are in-depth studies of concepts, ideas and interests that arise within the group. Throughout a project, teachers help children make decisions about the direction of the study, the ways to research the topic and the best approach for demonstrating it.

• Representational development. Schools encourage multiple forms of representation--print, art, construction, drama, music, puppetry and shadow play.

• Collaboration. Children are encouraged to talk, critique, compare, negotiate and problem solve through group work.

• Teachers as researchers. The role of the teacher, first and foremost, is to be a learner alongside the children. The teacher is a teacher-researcher, a resource and guide as she lends expertise to children. The teachers listen, observe and document children’s work.

• Documentation. Documenting children’s work in progress is considered an important tool in the learning process for children, teachers and parents.

• Environment. Great attention is given to the look and feel of the classroom. Environment is considered the "third teacher."

Winnetka Public School Nursery



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