It is 13 years since I last visited the Reggio exhibition. Education and childhood have evolved dramatically in that time. I was interested to see how the schools of Reggio Emilia have adapted to meet the interests and fascinations of this new generation.
The projects and learning I observed 13 years ago embraced the physical world. Investigations were made through exploring physical objects and environments, through discussion and experimentation, using art, photography, written and spoken word. The documentation of more recent projects followed a similar pattern, except for one key difference. The schools of Reggio Emilio are now embracing technology as a tool for learning and artistic expression. This is not a piecemeal attempt to use technology to teach concepts, but rather a way of using new ways of investigating and deepening knowledge and curiosity, that were not possible before. They have fully embraced it as one of the hundred languages.
Take for example, investigations that occurred during the building of the Malaguzzi centre. The children were taken into the space. They ran and danced around the pillars, making patterns of movement. They were then invited to design their own pillars. Once the designs were completed, they were projected onto a large screen containing an image of the Malaguzzi centre. The children saw, that in the image of the Malaguzzi centre, some of the pillars looked smaller than the others. “Were they smaller?” they asked, “or did they just appear that way?” The children’s pillars all looked the same size when they were added to the image, so they used Photoshop to shrink some of the images and make a realistic picture. I have often seen images of how the Reggio schools use projectors to aid learning but the addition of computer technology added a whole new angle to the learning.
In another project, the children were fascinated by the sound their feet made on the metal stairs. They decided to give the gift of sound to the stairs. To achieve this, they tested ways to make different sounds by changing shoes and using a variety of movements. The sounds were then recorded.
The children decided how they might be able to annotate the individual sounds and used the symbols to create a sequenced map of sound. The children drew a picture of the steps and scanned it into the computer. Using music software, they added individual sounds to each stair to create their desired sequence.
I love the way these projects can take an idea further than they ever could before. In the past the discussion and investigation would have been similar, representation in art would also have been used, but it would not have been possible to make a working model.
Many educators would uphold the Reggio approach as an example of why technology isn’t necessary in early education. Yet, when it is used as one of the hundred languages, it enriches the learning experience without reducing creativity, curiosity or discussion.
It makes me feel sad that schools are often encouraged and expected to use technology more in the classroom, but I rarely see it used in a creative or enriching way. I mostly see teachers using screens to impart knowledge or show examples. I have never seen teachers use music software to investigate the science of sound, use photoshop to create art projects or see it in any way as a tool for the children. It has certainly made me contemplate how we might ‘play’ with technology at home too.
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Many years ago, I attended a training course where we were encouraged to follow the acronym OWLSin our teacher-child interactions. OWLS stood for
Children are naturally full of curiosity. Sometimes questions are asked as a way of thinking out loud and sometimes asked directly to obtain an answer from an adult. In both scenarios, if we follow OWLS we will discover a great deal about the children’s way of thinking and enable them to provide their own hypotheses.
If we are to support, rather than limit, children’s developing understanding, we need to allow them to help us recapture some of the wonder and innocence we have lost and to gain insight into their struggles to make sense of what is often a confusing and worrying world. Teaching is not about imposing our views, concerns or values on others. It is about enabling children to carry out their own investigations and draw their own conclusions. (Margaret Edgington – The Nursery Teacher in Action)
My children watched the fluff flying around the playground and wondered what it was. I’m not sure if they wanted a direct answer from me or a means of discussing possibilities together. I took it as the latter and listened to their thoughts.
The children used their existing knowledge about fairies, clouds, snow and cushion fillers to create hypotheses. They also borrowed ideas from the familiar story Cloudland by John Birningham to create a new story. Their answers could be a springboard to a project where the children create worlds, stories and characters involving the mysterious fluff.
Jerome Bruner explains that when we see children as thinkers, understanding is fostered through collaboration and discussion. The child is encouraged to express their views to achieve a meeting of minds with others with different views.
As the discussion ensued, the girls used their senses to explore the material and build on what they already know about the world to find answers. My role was to build an exchange of understanding between the two children and myself, to find the roots of the children’s systematic knowledge.
As we turned the corner we found a clump of the fluffy stuff.
The children began to construct even more elaborate stories, connecting with worlds they had previously imagined.
Encouraging these moments to develop into projects is described by Carolyn Edwards in The Hundred Languages of Children. She describes the role of the teacher in Reggio Schools.
The teachers constantly pay close attention to the children’s activity. They believe that when children work on a project of interest to them, they will naturally encounter problems and questions they will want to investigate. The teachers’ role is to help the children discover their own problems and questions. At that point, moreover, they will not offer ready solutions but instead help children to focus on a problem or difficulty and formulate hypotheses. Their goal is not so much to facilitate learning in the sense of making it smooth or easy, but rather to stimulate it by making problems more complex, involving or arousing. They ask the children what they need in order to do experiments – even when they realise that a particular approach or hypothesis is not “correct”. They serve as the children’s partners, sustaining the children and offering assistance, resources and strategies to get unstuck when encountering difficulties – Carolyn Edwards.
I wonder how many rich learning opportunities are missed in our school system because there isn’t time to slow down and teach in this way? Perhaps, all the more reason to share these experiences with our children when they are at home.
The children went on to discuss the ‘fluff’ with their friends. One friend told them it comes from a tree and they thought it was Dogwood. The next question was ‘What is a dogwood tree?’. This will be the next step in their discoveries.
Yesterday, in the wake of the US election, I was filled with questions. These were not questions about my role as a parent or about my future as a resident of the US but about my role and responsibility as an educator.
My core educational philosophy is to encourage children’s critical thinking and creative expression. Children should be valued for who they are and children, teachers and parents should work collaboratively, in an environment of respect and dialogue. I draw inspiration in my thinking from Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the preschools of Reggio Emilia. He worked with the community, to create new schools in the aftermath of World War II that would bring hope for a new generation. He created an environment that encouraged critical thinking and creative expression, and a culture of working together with respect for one another. Malaguzzi achieved his goal with a community of like-minded individuals.
Yesterday, a key question for me was; if I only work with liberally minded families is there really anything to change and am I really making a difference? If I want to encourage a different way of thinking, shouldn’t I be helping children who have not been encouraged to think in this way?
I struggled with the juxtaposition between encouraging critical thinking and respecting family beliefs and cultures. I believe that it is our duty to create an environment of tolerance and open-mindedness, and to promote a culture of children who think for themselves and whose opinions and emotions are valued. However, I also believe that we should work alongside families, respect their beliefs and work together for the good of the child.
More questions arose.
Can you do both and is it even possible to foster a new way of thinking if there are opposing values at home?
If a family believes something is a fundamental truth should I give the child the tools to question their world or would this be disrespectful to the families beliefs?
Perhaps it is my own issue and not theirs and I should instead seek to understand them better and why they uphold those beliefs?
Yesterday, that is where I left it, but today things are clearer, particularly in regard to the final question.
When there is hatred, unease and unrest in the world it is because of misunderstanding, ignorance and lack of knowledge. I can criticise people if they believe in things that I find fundamentally wrong, but should not condemn them until I have listened to their story, understood why they feel that way and looked into the contexts of their beliefs. America is divided; there is a clear feeling of them and us, but who is looking to understand why the other side holds their beliefs and the reality of their lives?
I grew up in Wales. In Wales we dislike the English because we are fed a history of English wealthy landowners who treated the working classes badly and took away our language. We see the English as arrogant toffs who think they are above us. Of course this is ludicrous and there is as much diversity in England as there is in Wales,but if you rarely cross the border, ignorance prevails. The same is true here. Liberals see Trump supporters as racist, bigoted individuals and people outside of the cities, see city people who are ignorant to their way of life and take away their values and livelihoods.
I think I now know my role. All children should have their minds opened. This isn’t only about questioning and critical thinking, it is also our duty as educators, to partner with other educators from other parts of the country and the world, to help them understand what the world is like for others. Show children the diversity of the world, teach them to ask questions of one another. Do they have the same questions? Do they think the same things as me? How are they different and how are we the same? We have a new opportunity in the world of the internet and social media to open children’s eyes so that they will not grow up in ignorance and fear.
We are all different but in many ways we are also all the same – let’s celebrate that for a while instead of trying to outdo one another all the time.
The girls often enjoy mirror play, I’ve tried a number of different types. I love this big one but it is very fragile and difficult to store. For small projects, I have an oval mirror in a tray but it isn’t big enough for more than 2 children to play with. Unframed circular mirrors work well, but I’m yet to find a suitable one. We also use Ikea mirror tiles, these are portable and I can change the arrangement to suit the project but the pointed edges bother me.
Suddenly it came to me – “why not stick the mirror tiles onto a table?” I sent out a plea for a table to my Buy Nothing group. I didn’t expect to find one that was the perfect size but within 30 minutes I had been offered a table that would fit the tiles perfectly. The mirror tiles come with sticky pads for mounting to a wall. These were perfect for attaching the mirrors to the table. I taped the sharp corners with duct tape and a vanity mirror was placed against the wall. In a preschool setting I would mount more tiles to the wall and put the table in front to allow for seamless reflections. The border around our mirror makes it difficult for small items to be reflected in the upright mirror.
A couple of small card mirrors and a few loose parts led to fun explorations.
I cut the insides of a roll of tape in half and placed them on the table with a few wooden rings.
“It looks like wheels. I’m going to make a car”
To keep the interest going, I changed the materials regularly. The loose parts, building bricks and mirrors maintained interest for only a short time. Knowing that my children love to draw and write, I decided to leave white board markers and a rubber on the table to see if this would engage them.
This arrangement was perfect and by far the most popular so far.
To add variety, I purchased a pack of glass markers. This was a very different experience. The girls discovered that the pens were difficult to erase. They liked that they no longer needed to avoid erasing part of the picture with their sleeve. It took more effort to erase and the girls experimented with the best ways to do this. Since they love to use cleaning sprays, I showed them how to use a small amount of glass cleaner to remove the pens quickly.
I noticed that the style of drawing changed when I introduced these pens. The girls drew intricate patterns using the colours and adapting their movements to light touch of the pens.
This one reminded me of Kandisky ( and a pattern in one of the earlier photographs is reminiscent of concentric circles).
“I like drawing random things that come into my head. Then they don’t have to be anything” said my 6-year-old.
I explained that this is called abstract art. I have an artist friend and we all visited her exhibition recently. I told them that this was the kind of art that she makes.
Later, I printed some Kandinsky paintings, placing them around the edge of the vanity mirror.
“Why did you name this one the traveller?” I asked.
“He looks like he has a bag on his back and the multi-coloured bits look like a map”
The mirror table is also the perfect surface for shaving foam.
On a flat, even surface their natural instinct was to cover all the space, smoothing it over like icing a cake.
They began to create a story.
How about we’re the servants and it is the queen’s birthday and she wants us to decorate everything?
Now we need it all smooth again. We are the servants.
Wait, she said decorate everything. How about our hands? Oh no there are some gaps.
Maybe the queen will be mad. Come on we’ve got to make it smooth.
I don’t think she’ll be mad. She is the nicest queen. Everyday for pudding she gives us cupcakes.
It’s all textury, move your hands around like this.
Or I could do an M – like this.
The scenario soon changed to one where they were at school.
There is lots and lots of art but you don’t like doing it, do you?
Of course I do, why wouldn’t I? I love it
No, but remember we’re playing a game where you don’t like being creative . You just like playing video games and stuff.
I know, this is creative and you don’t like it. Pretend when someone asks you to do something creative you just say ” but when can I watch tv?”
Do you know what I’m going to do next?
Neither do I but it will be something creative.
How about you make a snowball?
The girls abandoned a game of Minecraft when I put the foam out. It is interesting that they were exploring ideas about creativity in their play.
Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of enquiry, their motivation and interest explode. – Loris Malaguzzi.
We’ve had a few rainy days so I decided to leave the lid off the water table to catch the rain. We’ve had so much rain that it was nearly overflowing. My girls looked out at the rain and decided to play in the water. They know from experience that rain water is very cold so my youngest put on her waterproof gloves so that she could tolerate the cold water for longer.
I gave her a bottle and a funnel to add to the other materials. I have recently noted her eagerness to transport things from one place to another and predicted she would probably use the bottle to empty the water from the table. True to form she filled the bottle, carried it to the bench and poured the water through the slats before returning for more.
Her sister is less eager to play outside but loves umbrellas so when I suggested she take her umbrella outside, she was out like a shot. Of course her sister needed her umbrella too.
It looks like winnie the Pooh’s boat
Bob needs to stay dry
I can’t quite reach…
Here you go
I want to make an invention
What kind of invention?
Like we made before for serving drinks.
Last summer the girls had inserted a straw into a hole in a milk carton and made a drink dispenser. They worked out how to turn the tap off and where to place the tap so that they could drain the container of all the water.
What do you need?
A cup – this will be good (finding a coffee container) a tube or something and some small cups.
I found a piece of plastic tubing and plastic wine glasses.
I need another pipe. One to blow into and the other one for the water to come out of.
I gave her another piece of tubing that her sister had been using to make a contraption the previous day.
It’s not working mummy, when I blow nothing happens.
Are there any bubbles coming when you blow.
The air isn’t getting through the pipe.
We put the container onto the floor so that she could keep the pipe straight without any kinks and still reach to blow into it.
I have to be honest I didn’t expect it to work but look what happened.
You have to blow so, so hard to make it work that it hurts your mouth, but that’s okay.
Meanwhile her sister was trying to catch floating objects with the tongs.
I laughed to myself as I watched my 2-year-old playing in the borders, hiding a stick in the bushes and drawing in the dirt. A few feet away was a very expensive sensory playground with musical instruments, water features and a little bear cave. It was very impressive, but the lure of a stick was just too great. Given the choice I’m sure regardless of the expensive equipment we provide, most children are happy with a stick, a pile of stones, or a tub of water.
My eldest was obsessed with tiny stones when she was small. Everywhere we went she would stop to pick them up or take them home in her pockets. If we were in the garden she would make collections of little stones and spend hours moving them from one place to another. She was very young at the time but I never stopped her for fear that she may swallow them. I simply made sure I was sat nearby so that I could see what she was doing.
My 2-year -old loves sticks. We have 2 rules:
No sticks in the house
Do not point sticks at people’s eyes.
Sometimes they are magic wands, Sometimes fishing rods or sometimes simply something to carry around. Every stick is greeted with equal excitement.
All 3 children play for hours in the sand pit. When I first moved to the US I didn’t think the girls would like the grey, gravelly play sand they have here. I was wrong, they love it as much, if not more than the fine golden sand we had in the UK. Even at the park they chose to play in the dirty gravel rather than on the equipment.
The Theory of Loose Parts
In 1972 the architect Simon Nicholson devised the Theory of Loose Parts. It grew from the notion that all children love to interact with variables. Variables can be anything from materials and shapes to media such as gases and fluids and are used to discover, invent and have fun. The theory of loose parts is as follows
‘In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it. (Nicholson 1972)
Put simply, the playground with static play equipment will not offer a child the opportunity to discover and create their own scenarios as freely as one that is less predictable or restrictive and offers moveable objects that can interact with the child’s play. A swing is a swing but the gravel can be a home for a bug, fairy dust, a cake, something to draw in, a track for a car and other endless possibilities.
We have the perfect garden for playing with loose parts, with an abundance of trees, pine cones, stones, dirt etc. I decided to organise these a little to see if it would change the way the children played with them.
Storage for Loose Parts
We had an old clothes horse in the garden that was waiting for a purpose. I bought a few hanging baskets and hung them on the clothes horse along with a few other baskets I had found. I also clipped a variety of containers to the clothes horse using an underwear dryer (we also use this for drying paintings).
Using the clothes horse means that it is fully portable making it easy to move out of the rain or to the sandpit, paddling pool or lawn .
The Slide show illustrates some of the things we collected .
Other ideas for loose parts that can be stored outdoors
glass beads, marbles, buttons, bells, beads
acorns, conkers and seeds,
large things like pallets, tyres, flowerpots, fabric, boxes, pots and pans, tubes, guttering, bamboo canes, bricks, planks, logs, driftwood.
I love to see the children using their environment to stimulate imaginative and creative play. Here are some of my favourites.
We could build a boat
Carrying a rock to build a boat on the beach (the family were sailing). Moving heavy objects around was a key part of the play.
Come on row faster!
What happens when I bang the stick with a pebble?
The youngest became absorbed in pebbles and sticks, abandoning the project for a while.
Let’s ride on a horse together
Using loose parts with a large piece of clay
I’m putting them on the top
The finished product
1 year old transporting pistachio nut shells
moving from one container to another
Making a bed with magazines
Let’s put the stones in here and make a magic potion
There has been a common thread on early education forums recently about how best to share information with parents. Parents are the child’s first educators and most good early education settings will look for ways to share learning journeys with parents. There could be barriers; some busy parents want to rush away without spending time conversing, other families are hard to reach, English is not their first language or they may feel uncomfortable about talking to teachers but it is important to understand a child’s home background and to support learning at home.
Put yourself for one moment in the shoes of a parent who drops their child to your setting at the start of the day and won’t see them again until it is almost bedtime. Imagine you are a parent who has stayed at home with your child for 5 years to suddenly find them in full-time school. Most young children will find it hard to remember what they have done during the day, leaving parents feeling completely out of touch with their child’s world. I remember when my daughter started school for the first time and feeling sad because I was no longer in control of her influences.
Many pre-schools are really good at sharing information. The key worker system means that staff know the children well and nurseries are generally happy to invite parents into the classroom and spend time talking to them. As Karin remarks
Thanks to the thorough keyworkers and pre-school staff we knew everything that went on every day.
Karin talks about the new learning journey parents experience when their children start school as she is learning to be a big school mum and asks
‘ how on earth can we find out what they are getting up to?’
As a parent there are a few simple things that can help. Start by asking very specific questions – Did you like the story you read today? What was your favourite thing that happened today? Who did you play with at playtime?
Chat to the other parents in the playground, children usually tell different stories and you may start to piece things together.
Encourage your child’s teacher to help you to find out by suggesting some of the things below. Start your discussion with it would be really helpful if …
As teachers there are things we can do to help. When parents feel valued and a part of their child’s learning and fully informed about what, why and how their children are learning, it is less likely that there will be a feeling of them and us.
Here are some of the ideas I have seen working well in practice
In my opinion this is the most effective way of showing parents what their children are doing. Documentation tells the story of what children have been doing by representing the stages of learning, using photograhs, anecdotes from the children, examples of work and teacher analysis. In this way parents can see what their child is doing, what they are learning and why they are doing it. Carlina Rinaldi president of Reggio Children in Italy says,
documentation is more than simply assessing or displaying the work of the children. “One of my definitions of documentation is that it is first of all an act of love,”
This describes perfectly the warmth that emanates from the documentation in Reggio Emilia – it is like shouting from the rooftops – look at what our children are doing. Isn’t it fascinating? Come and join in. Many good examples of documentation of children’s learning can be found in the projects of Sightlines Initiative.
Learning diaries have been available for every Foundation Stage child (up until the end of their first year at school) in the UK since 2008. These show the learning journeys of individual children through photographs, children’s comments and teacher analysis of learning. The diaries are an excellent record of progress and should move with the children when they go to school. Parents should be made aware that they are available to be viewed at all times and encouraged to comment about learning at home.
Learning diaries work best when they are, as the title suggests, a record of children’s learning. My first encounter with learning diaries was when working with children with additional needs, as a way of understanding what was happening at home and how that translated into their behaviour at school. In my experience this shared aspect of the diary is sometimes missed. Emphasise that this is the child’s book and it is important that everyone involved with the child shares information to build up a complete picture of the child.
If parents are struggling to get information from their children about the day at school it can be useful to display a timetable. Some specific information is also helpful, such as today we read this story or we looked at seeds and berries.
Not all will agree but I think that modern technology could revolutionise the way we build partnerships with parents. Allowing parents access to your email (preferably not your personal one) is a great way of sharing experience though I would suggest creating guidelines. Perhaps suggest that the email is for sending anecdotes about events or things they have been doing at home that they may like to share or build on in class. Teachers could send photographs to parents during the day of their children’s learning or maybe create an online version of the learning diary? I once had a childminder who even in the days before smartphones sent my daughter home with a sheet of thumbnail photos depicting what she had been doing that day. This meant so much and gave me a great starting point for talking about her day.
Open door policies.
In my experience most pre-schools and schools profess to have an open-door policy but in reality it means little. Many encourage parents to help at school and this is a great way of understanding what children are doing at school. However for working parents and those with younger siblings this is not always an option.
Most nurseries and pre-schools invite parents in to the classroom to collect their child. Parents have the chance to familiarise themselves with the environment, children can show their parents what they have been doing and there is a chance to talk to the staff. It surprised me when my daughter started at a school based nursery that children were handed to parents at the door and we weren’t invited in.
It can help parents to feel a part of their child’s day if the room remains set up at the end of the day and they are able to wander around with their child talking about what they have learned. Clearly this can be difficult if younger siblings start to play with toys or children don’t want to leave, so simply leaving one or 2 things out is sufficient. Outlining rules about this being a talking/sharing time not a play time should also help along with setting a clear time for leaving. Not all children/parents will want to stay every day. Perhaps encourage a parents’ rota for helping clear away.
The benefits of the above are plentiful
Parents will not continually demand information from you about their children as they will feel better informed.
Parents will be less anxious about their children if they feel a part of their life at school/nursery.
The children will be more likely to share what they have done with their parents by proudly showing their documentation and learning diaries.
Children can encourage parents to contribute to learning diaries creating a clear picture of the child for the teacher.
Photographs are a wonderful way of sharing information with families for whom English is not their first language.
Parents will feel better equipped to support their child’s learning at home.
With thanks to North Somerset Early Years advisory team, Liz Maggs, Hilltop Pre-School and Early Birds Nursery – Long Ashton for images and learning diary extracts.
The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.
Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play. I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood. Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal. Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings). In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self. Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.
As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game. How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?
I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg. We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time. Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing? It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.
I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play. If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia, there is one thing that sets them apart. The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder. We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them. Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.
In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia projects are based around what the children say and do. They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience . A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play. In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important. It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.
In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next. I believe therefore that the proverb should be