Reggio Made Easy:  A Beginner’s Guide to Reggio-Inspired Learning the North American Way

Over ten years ago, I discovered an approach to teaching and learning that would forever transform how I view children, teaching and learning.

As an advocate for the Arts and play-based learning and a lover of inspiring design, the Reggio-Emilia approach to early learning resonated with every fibre of my being.

But what does it mean to be Reggio-inspired, and where did the term come from? And more importantly, how can we - as North American educators and homeschoolers - take inspiration from such an approach, but also remain accountable for the learning outcomes we are expected to teach our children in the context of a public or homeschool education?

Reggio Emilia is a town in Northern Italy, and over 50 years ago at the conclusion of the second World War, a forward thinking phychologist named Loris Malaguzzi re-imagined education for children that would forever change the landscape of teaching and learning in the early years.

Reggio is not a model, or a system that can be replicated. It is not a paradigm, or a theory, and unlike the Montessori method, is not something educators can become “certified” in.

The approach cannot be duplicated because it is a way of teaching that is context-specific: unique to its own culture, children, and geography.

A Canadian or American Reggio-inspired approach in a classroom would and should look very different from the Italians,’ and even more different still than a childcare setting.

As inspired as I was as a classroom teacher, to learn and grow in the Reggio way, I was often intimidated, overwhelmed and perplexed.

How was I going to ensure the curricular goals and outcomes were reached through such a child-centred, inquiry-based curriculum? How would I find the time to document all the learning? Involve all the parents? Being the lone teacher in the classroom, how was I going to set up thoughtful and engaging provocations for different interests and abilities each day?

In this post, I share Reggio from a North American educator’s perspective. An educator with sometimes up to 30 children in her classroom, with responsibilities for reporting and ongoing assessment as well as other duties beyond the classroom. How does a Reggio inspired practice look in a Canadian, Inner City classroom?

*Disclaimer: I am NOT an expert nor "purist" in the Reggio Emilia approach. I might even dare say, I straddle the line between Reggio and a more traditional approach to teaching {ie: I use direct instruction, I teach direct strategies in reading and math, and I run a bit of a tight ship with expectations}. But, like you, I am continually learning about the Reggio approach, and refining my practice. Like the children I serve, I consider myself a perpetual researcher, and co-learner, constantly looking to refine my theories and uplevel my practice. I hope you'll find this angle refreshing, and I'd love for you to share your insights in the comments section at the end of this post!

I would also TRULY APPRECIATE you sharing (copy + paste the link) to your Facebook page, so that fellow educators can chime in. 

Image of the Child

How we view our kids says a lot about how we view teaching and learning. A Reggio-Inspired approach is grounded in Constructivist and Social Constructivist learning theories. Knowledge is constructed, not “digested.” Ie: Worksheets, lecture-style teaching and textbooks are a no-no. Children learn from each other, and from their direct experience and interaction in the world. And a lot of that learning begins with with the seed of curiosity. When a child is genuinely interested in something, she is more inclined to want to learn about it. And our role - as accountable teachers - is to find those “curricular connections” and weave them into these provocations to extend learning.

Reggio-inspired educators view their kids as:

  • Capable {so kids explore big ideas, and big projects to go deep in learning}
  • Strong {so children’s ideas are challenged, and difficult problems are posed; children are encouraged to take risks and to form new theories}
  • Rich in potential {so children’s theories are challenged, so that new connections and new discoveries can be mades, and new perspectives be appreciated}
  • Competent {so they are given real tools and materials, high quality art supplies, and a beautiful and inspiring environment in which to learn}
  • Artists, scientists, mathematicians, creators, engineers, dancers, storytellers, musicians, bakers…. And they have 100 languages to communicate their ideas

Pedagogical Documentation

(aka: Learning Made Visible)

Teachers in a Reggio-inspired approach are careful observers of their children - looking for clues of learning all the time. Evidence of learning is discovered in conversations, projects, provocations, writing, music, drama and art compositions.

Children know more than they can say. Therefore, it is critical to look for the learning in “unexpected” places. When we look for the learning, we know how to pose questions and offer challenges to nudge learning further.

This observation requires taking notes in small groups, sometimes recording conversations for further reflection, and even analyzing art pieces. These are all forms of authentic assessment, and good teachers do these things all the time. We certainly do not have the time to observe all students each day, but one or two, or a handful in a group setting is definitely do-able.

We may not have the support of additional educators, so finding the time to transcribe or write our observations can be a challenge. I loved using post-it notes and affixing them to children’s work, based on my observations, or children’s comments. I do this with my own children even today. Good teachers generally have the learning intention clear in their minds - that is, what is the most important thing we want our students to understand? They also ensure their students can articulate these goals. This can be tricky when on a meandering inquiry path.

Where exactly will our students’ questions and curiosities take us? It is critical to have - at least in the back of our minds - a good grasp on the overarching learning goals, and the direction we are headed. As teachers, many of us enjoy a sense of control {I know I certainly do!}, and this control is hard to surrender. I found it easiest when I blended the children’s ideas, questions and curiosities with my agenda for learning. Teachers often have great ideas for learning activities, and if not, there is no shortage on Pinterest. The key, I found, was to ensure the experience was meaningful, tied to the children’s interests and questions, and provoked deeper thinking and understanding.

Play

Play is the work of the child, and is the primary way children make sense of the world. Lev Vygotsky, influential theorist (1978) noted, play “contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development (p. 102) A growing body of research over the past two decades recognizes the critical importance of play in a child’s development. Children who play, go onto succeed academically, develop better language, more secure and attached relationships with caring adults, enjoy better emotional well being, and have better self-regulatory abilities.

Research and policy communities in the field of education worldwide recognize that although many factors influence a child’s development, the findings are clear: the one vital ingredient in supporting healthy intellectual, emotional and social development in young children is the “provision of opportunities and the support for play.” (Whitehead, 2012)

In fact, play is so critical to healthy child development that in 1990 at the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations recognized play as a right of every child. (Article 31)

But play is under siege (Zigler, 2004) in an increasingly results-driven education. And to be sure, the forces of a technology in an ever-growing digital world make it harder for children to engage in good, old-fashioned, multi-sensory play. Teachers are on guard about letting their children play, for fear that they are being criticized by parents and administrators, and not “doing enough” for the children in their care.

As teachers, we must arm ourselves with research and information to share with parents, administrators and the general public about the importance of play, and build rich opportunities for quality play in our classrooms.

When educators wonder how to engage small groups in inquiry and projects, and what to do with the “other children,” my answer is: let them play. Of course, a great deal of instruction and modelling goes into what play looks/sounds/feels like in a classroom when the teacher is working with small groups. There are many ways to bring invitations for play into the classroom, to engage and sustain children’s interest, and these invitations will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

Parents, teachers and administrators must not look at play as an option, or an end-of-the-day “free time” activity, but rather, opportunities for learning, exploration and discovery that are embedded authentically into each academic day.

Inquiry and Child-Led Learning

All learning begins with interest, curiosity or excitement about a particular topic.

Think about the last time you learned something new. It probably resulted because of the fact that you were curious about something. And that curiosity moved you to ask questions, to dig deeper, to and to eventually understand.

Children are no different.

The art of piquing a child’s curiosity can be fun and exciting. Take note of things that are exciting them. For example, our class partook in an in-depth inquiry about spiders, and the “web of life” based on an incident when we found a real-live spider crawling around our class bookshelf In the dead of winter. What a frenzy was had over that spider! I took my cue from the children, and determined ways to weave math, science and literacy learning into this fascinating subject.

Looking for broad and meaningful ways to explore topics of interest requires tremendous critical thinking. A KWL exercise {what do you KNOW, what do you WANT to know, and what have you LEARNED} can be a great way to collect children’s theories and ideas.

 

I like to use an open curriculum planning chart to plot out experiences and hands-on learning activities that lend themselves to the investigation. In this way, I am able to integrate the learning outcomes from the back end, to ensure we are meeting the curricular outcomes and big ideas.

 

100 Languages

“We can know more than we can tell” - Michael Polyani

The idea that children are brilliant human beings, full of knowledge and potential is central to a Reggio-inspired approach. Children know so much more than they can articulate, which is a significant problem for contemporary education. In today’s classrooms, children’s knowledge and understanding is primarily measured through traditional assessments and tests, and is generally biased toward a certain type of learner: the logical child with a strong propensity for language.

A Reggio-inspired approach offers experiences and opportunities for learning in many mediums. Children experience the world through a truly multi-sensorial approach, and learn fluency in a variety of languages: sculpture, wire, paint, dance, music, movement, story, poetry, puppetry, dramatic play and so much more.

 

When children are given opportunities to experience learning in a variety of rich, meaningful ways, they flourish. 

Inspiring Environments

In a Reggio-inspired approach, the environment is considered the child’s third teacher. If we have a high image of the child, we must create responsive environments that reflect and honour that image of the child.

Attention to light, pathways, use of colour and texture are a few ways we can create an inspiring environment. But more importantly, attention should be given to the quality of experiences within those environments. Does the environment encourage exploration, discovery, imagination and creativity? Are there thoughtful provocations and inspiring invitations set up to invite children in to explore, muck about and linger a while?

Is the child’s work honoured and celebrated in the “decor” of the classroom? Is artwork displayed in unique and interesting ways? Is the child represented in her environment as an active participant in the education process?

These are questions that help to guide us to make decisions about how we prepare our environment for learning.

A note about whole group and direct instruction

There is a notion amongst educators that there is limited to no direct instruction in a Reggio-inspired classroom, and that whole group instruction is frowned upon. From my experience, this is a misconception, and next to an impossible standard to uphold.

In my practice with Early Years learners in a school setting, there was plenty of direct and whole group instruction. Reading strategies, mathematics strategies and writing instruction all required the use of specific, direct instruction, responsive to the needs and abilities of my students. I’m not speaking of dull, lecture-style teaching, but rather, creative ways of teaching very specific skills. For example, like many teachers, I had a daily message for my students to encourage literacy strategies. I turned this practice into a lovely ritual for learning that children looked forward to each day. I made this practice fun, interesting and engaging for children, but there was an element of direct instruction as well as whole-group instruction in this daily lesson.

As North American teachers, our jobs are becoming increasingly complex and demanding, and our plates are filling up with ever-increasing duties, responsibilities and systemic requirements. It’s no wonder that 8% of American teachers who leave the profession each year. (Learning Policy Institute)

In order to sustain our energy and passion for teaching, there must be JOY in what we do.

As we dabble with the Reggio-inspired approach in our practice, we can’t help but find nuggets of joy and inspiration in all that we do.

As Loris Malaguzzi said so eloquently, “Nothing without joy.”

*The tenets presented in this article do not represent all fundamentals of a Reggio-Inspired approach. There is much more to learn and be discovered as we begin to “dabble” with a new way forward in Education. 

Close

Sudden Homeschooler?

I've got you!

Download your {FREE} Sudden Homeschooler's Survival Toolkit today!
 
YES! SEND ME MY TOOLKIT!
Close

50% Complete

Get your FREE Planner!