The Reggio Emilia Approach To Early Childhood Education
Interested in an approach that nurtures children's natural abilities and innate curiosity? In the Reggio Emilia method, the focus is on child-led experiential learning. Here are some insights...
By Sindhu Sivalingam • 15 min read
“Can we read The Big Red Bus book again?” asks four-year-old Tara.
“Alright,” says the teacher.
And before she blinks an eye, all twelve children run straight into her arms, shrieking with joy and saying, “Thank you!" The teacher reaches out to every child’s hand, asking them to be careful not to hurt each other in the process of huddling into this big bear hug.
What I stand audience to is not a movie scene! In fact, I learn this is a common occurrence in the Lower Kindergarten (LKG) classroom of Grassroots, a Reggio Emilia-inspired school in Chennai. The classroom walls are filled with handcrafted items, picture charts and sight words on the day’s topic — vehicles. One wall is named ‘word wall’ — every new word the children learn goes up there. Another wall has a picture chart of codes of discipline. I learn that children and teachers come up with agreements about what is acceptable behaviour within the classroom.
Across the corridor in another room are the Upper Kindergarten (UKG) children. Similar walls, similar codes, and more enthusiasm and questioning. With each passing minute, I become increasingly amazed at the spontaneity and a natural sense of respect this philosophy has on offer.
It is indeed incredible the way Reggio schools treat the children with respect — giving them a voice of their own, and instilling in them curiosity and a love for learning. The goal of Reggio is not academic excellence, but a child’s overall development.
What makes Reggio unique?
Developed by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi and the communities around Reggio Emilia village in Italy, post World War II, this approach stresses on education being child-led and experiential in nature. There is no certification to the philosophy, and no two Reggio schools look the same. Reggio schools are also inclusive since the approach believes there are over a hundred ways for a child to learn and express. This approach suits both regular as well as special-needs children.
Key principles of the Reggio approach
Children are treated with respect. They are seen as educators themselves. Reggio believes that children can explore, construct and create their own learning experiences. This method encourages children to learn, communicate and express themselves. It also respects the artistic expressions of children whether it’s through spoken language, art, a poem or through some action.
Reggio believes that every child should learn to the best of his own ability, and at par with what is developmentally appropriate. During my ‘experience’ at Grassroots, I saw how children empathetically helped their special-needs friends. One boy stepped in and played with his special-needs friend, helping him do the puzzles. Another girl, an active four-year-old, graciously moved away to allow her special-needs friend to walk forward.
Reggio believes that the child’s environment is also a teacher. Care is taken to make the environment vibrant and inviting to encourage learning.
Children in this environment are constantly engaged in project work — model-making, chart preparation and field visits (and writing about them) to enhance their understanding. They constantly revisit the concepts they have learnt. Here, children and teachers collaborate to work on a project. Children are more excited about the process than the end product. This makes their learning experience rich.
Art and play
Art is deeply integrated into Reggio learning. No project or concept is complete without some form of art. Similarly, there is plenty of opportunity for both free play and structured, age-appropriate physical play.
An important part of Reggio education, documentation holds the key to ensuring that the subtle nuances of development are taken care of. Documenting a child's words, drawings and photographs are common in Reggio schools.
The curriculum comes from the child. The adult acts only as a facilitator. “It is emergent in nature. We teach whatever the child is interested in and curious about. The teacher here is a peer model. We believe in the right of the child — the right to learn and succeed,” says Sharanya, co-founder of Grassroots School.
The components of Reggio teaching
Evolution of concepts
The classes are fluid, but the teachers are trained to be aware of what is developmentally appropriate for the child and what level of academic knowledge he should acquire. Therefore, teachers and advisors, with the help of parents, come up with creative ways to explore those concepts within subjects the child shows an interest in. The teachers prepare activities, sing, read books, tell stories, make models, colour, paint, do cut-outs and enact plays based on the concepts. It’s a lot of fun, and along the way, a lot of learning also happens.
“We also take inspiration from the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Year Programme (PYP). It has eight concepts — Form, Function, Causation, Change, Connection, Perspective, Responsibility and Reflection. We use these concepts in designing our curriculum. If the idea or thought we need to elaborate on is about the earth or money or the environment, we look at the key concepts and decide to take up three of them to build the flow of our classes. For earth, we might take, function — how does it work; connection — where are we on this earth; and responsibility — what is our role and responsibility,” says Karuna, a UKG teacher at Grassroots.
Since most schools follow Reggio only in their kindergarten classes, the alphabet is not taught until the child is five or six years old. However, reading skills typically develop at the pre-primary level through sight words. Literacy is achieved through displaying work throughout the classroom, thanks to a vast array of available literature and accessible writing tools. This helps model good literary behaviour. The child’s fine motor skills are developed through various activities like threading and beading. Children also learn to draw. Therefore, when they start writing letters, it comes to them quite naturally.
Just like letters, numbers and numeric functions are also an important part of everyday life. That’s how Reggio children see, understand and apply numbers. Teachers also sing songs and rhymes like Five Little Monkeys and enact the rhyme so that children learn the concepts.
Assessments are done not to test the children, but to see how well they have understood the concepts. I observe a simple form of assessment conducted in an LKG class. There is a chart paper divided into four columns. At the top of the four columns, there are pictures of a railway track, a cloud, water and a road. The teacher has cards with pictures of various vehicles. She calls a child, takes the card of a hot-air balloon, and asks the child, “Which mode of transport does this vehicle belong to?” The child immediately answers, “Airways!” The teacher asks, “So where will you put it up on the chart?” “On the clouds,” says the child cheerfully, sticking the card right on top of the cloud. It doesn’t stop there. “Can I do more?” asks the four-year-old child, all eagerness.
“When I learnt about Reggio, I read Loris Malaguzzi’s poem, 'A hundred languages of children'. It speaks about how children have ‘infinite ways to express, explore and connect their thoughts, feelings and imagination', and I had no heart to curb that freedom in my child when she is in the receptive mode. I believe in my child and do not doubt that she will be able to survive in this conditioned society. If my child is confident, has clarity, and loves to learn, she can survive anywhere and do anything she wants to.” – Ushma Kaleeshwari, Chennai
We gathered some questions about Reggio from parents. Sharanya, co-founder of Grassroots School, Chennai, answers them.
How are letters introduced in Reggio? Is it similar to the traditional way of learning?
The Reggio philosophy simply takes the children through the process of print awareness, letter-sound association and word fluency through established sight words (Dolch words and Concept words). The focus is on vocabulary development, spelling conventions and patterns — teaching children how a word is spelt. Even if we do highlight or introduce a few letters a day, this is done through rhymes and books like Chicka Chicka, Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault or The ABC Book by Dr. Seuss.
If one child wants to learn about garbage trucks and another about tigers, at exactly the same time, how do you handle the situation?
In Reggio, children are taught to share and take turns. When children show interest in a topic, we explain further and ask how many would like to take that forward. In the rare case that we do see children picking two concepts, we get creative and weave them together in one story, and the children partake in creating that story. To answer your question, if it is a garbage truck and a tiger, we would create a story about how humans destroyed the forest and the poor animals did not have food to eat. So, they had to come to the city to eat. Unfortunately, the tiger was scared of this monster (the garbage truck) that lived in the city that would open its mouth and eat everything around….and so on.
How is Math taught? Can you give us an example of an activity?
In Reggio, we use real world objects and techniques to teach counting and numbers. We make strip puzzles where children will have to put together the puzzle in a sequence, based on the numbers written on each puzzle piece. We give number sheets where the children count similar objects and match it to the right number (for example, if the theme is transport, the children will count the number of vehicles drawn on the sheet and match it to a number). We also ask children to arrange objects in the order of their sizes.
Also read: Curriculum: Waldorf Education
*The Preschool Hunt: A Handy Checklist
No matter which curriculum you choose, use this checklist to find the best preschool for your child:
Key points to consider before finalising a preschool
- Does the programme address all areas of a child's development — social, emotional, intellectual and physical?
- Does the preschool offer a balance of individual, small-group and large-group activities as well as spontaneous play and teacher-guided activities?
- Is there a balance between rest and quiet periods and vigorous outdoor activities?
- Does the preschool encourage self-expression?
- Does the preschool help children develop various motor skills and regularly expose them to literature, the arts, music, science and nature?
- Do the staff encourage and respond to children's natural interests in reading, writing and counting?
- Do the staff pay attention to, and follow up on the children's interest in the world around them?
Questions to ask about the programme staff
- Are the teachers trained in early childhood education?
- Does the director have experience as a teacher?
- Does the ratio of adults to children comply with required standards?
- Do the staff welcome parents as visitors and participants, communicate regularly with them, and respect their preferences and ideas?
- In their work with children, do the teachers express warmth, interest and respect for each child?
- Are the teachers engaged with the children most of the time?
Questions to ask about the physical setting
- Is there a safe and spacious outdoor area for vigorous activities?
- Is there sufficient equipment?
- Are children always supervised when outdoors?
- Can children find small, quiet places in the classroom, if they want to?
If you tick all the boxes, you have chosen the right preschool for your child!
*This checklist is used here with permission from Grassroots School, Chennai
If you are inspired by the Reggio philosophy, visit a school and observe a class in session. See the teachers being respectful towards children. Feel the enthusiasm, joy and confidence with which each child interacts and participates in a class. If you don’t find a Reggio school nearby, just go Reggio at home!
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