What is that Reggio thing?
The receding tide laps gently at our feet, while wet sand is left behind to caress with a coolness that contrasts sharply with the heat of the piercing sun reflecting off the Bay of Bengal. My ten year old son, Max, kneels beside a tidal pool formed next to a large rock jutting out from the earth. His hands move slowly through the water, attempting to grasp the tiny fish swimming there. He exclaims aloud with each miss, confidant a simple change in technique will bring greater success and then tries again. Eventually, his attention is diverted to a piece of Styrofoam bouncing atop the waves. He runs to it, picks it up, and quickly shapes it into a disk of sorts. He sends it gliding through the air and chases after it. I hear his laughter between crashes of the waves as he moves father down the beach.
Meanwhile, my seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, slowly makes her way along the beach, stopping from time to time picking up shells and stones. She marvels at the designs and colors appearing on each one, comparing them in some cases to familiar scenes and objects. She discusses them with my wife, Kirstin, asking questions about what she sees more as something to think about rather than something she truly seeks a response to. At one point, she stops to watch a hermit crab in the sand. She pulls out her iPhone and takes a photograph of the patterns it leaves behind, maximizing this bit of technology to capture an image for later consideration. Kirstin keeps walking along the shoreline, occasionally picking up a piece of wood, some stones, or other items she wants to bring back with her for students to use in her Reggio inspired classroom.
Walking along, watching this, I find myself thinking about the ideals of Reggio Emilia. I was recently in a meeting where I was asked, “What is this Reggio thing?” The speaker continued, “I assume its Italian. Is it?” I had smiled. Yes, it is Italian, but in a sense, that is immaterial. Reggio Emilia is a town in Italy. Re-emerging from the ashes of World War Two, the citizens there committed themselves to the idea of community involvement in educating the child and an image of each child as having their own potential and resources that are stimulated by an environment that solicits the interests and curiosity of the child. The Reggio experience is not one that can be duplicated, rather it is a philosophy that inspires us to think differently about children, how they learn, how we interact with them, and their individual reality.
Reggio inspired learning is something that resonates with Kirstin and I. Before we had every actually heard of Reggio Emilia, our thinking had begun to align with it, and the way we raised our own children was something that would fall into Reggio inspired thinking. Early on, as parents, we realized we didn’t help our children if we did everything for them, or solved their problems for them. This was a difficult concept to accept. When our children were small there was a real desire to protect them from the big bad world. At some point, we realized this was a disservice, and we began to step back, encouraging them to solve things on their own. We would watch as they sometimes failed, or made mistakes, but then respect these attempts at their search for more successful approaches. Similarly, we encouraged them to ask questions and challenge ideas, not as a way to find fault, but as a way to seek deeper understanding and to look for ways to contribute and make a difference. We also encouraged them to interact with their environment and learn from it, whether that environment was a city street, or the woods around our cabin. There is something to explore and opportunities to learn in the world around us. When we first came across the philosophy of Reggio Emilia, it was a natural fit for us. It was a framework that gave coherence to many of the things we believed in.
My friend and colleague, Mike Simpson, speaks passionately about the Reggio Emilia inspired experience. He describes it as being about the rights of the child, and specifically the right of each child to explore and to learn. He says when you begin to think about learning in these terms, it changes the way you approach education. You no longer ask the question, “Why do we have to do this?” and begin to instead ask, “How can we best support the learning for this child?” It isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it does speak to a climate that places more value on the individual subjectivity of each student and the idea of supporting their learning rather than emphasizing conformity as the means to a successful learning experience.
In many ways, when I think about the Reggio inspired experience, I think about our youngest students when they first come to school. They seem full of awe and wonder. They constantly interact with their environment, inventing play in everything they do. As author George Couros says, “learning happens at any time, and all the time.” The Reggio inspired experience is one that capitalizes on this, pursues it, and promotes it. Students become aware of their own well-being and it becomes our role to support them in taking responsibility for it.
Continuing our way down the beach, Max has moved on from his Styrofoam disk. He collects a variety of different lengths of bamboo. He draws a line in the sand. Standing behind it, he begins throwing the bamboo, as though they are spears, watching as they glide through the air and plant themselves in the sand. I ask what he is dong, and he explains he is trying to figure out which length of bamboo flies better. He asks me to try. As my results differ from his, we begin to question the impact of weight, as well as characteristics of the thrower. We continue on like this until again, the environment provides another distraction, and Max heads off to pursue something new.