Reggio Emilia approach in schools takes children seriously

A celebrated approach to early childhood education is making headway in Canadian public schools, transforming cultural assumptions about children and their intellectual abilities, according to a new book edited by York University Professor Carol Anne Wien. 

Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools explores elementary school educators’ efforts to integrate the Reggio Emilia philosophy with standard curriculum in Canada’s diverse urban communities.

Developed in preschools in its namesake northern Italian town over several decades, the Reggio Emilia approach recognizes children as resourceful and capable, and places the community and local culture at the centre of democratic, participatory learning.

“What teachers find here in Toronto when they try working in these different ways, is that children have amazing ideas and a thinking capacity far beyond what they originally thought four-, five- and six-year-olds could do,” says Wien, a professor in the Faculty of Education at York. “This approach shows we could be inviting much more from children on an intellectual level, because, while we underestimate children intellectually, we overestimate their academic skills.”

The Reggio Emilia approach is not a formal model, like Montessori, with defined methods, teacher certification standards and accreditation processes. Rather, the association that promotes Reggio Emilia worldwide encourages educators to reinterpret the approach based on their own cultural traditions with help from association volunteers and supporters who share their experiences with the international community.  

A theme in Reggio-inspired teaching, Wien says, is listening with care to children’s ideas and theories about the world. These ideas and theories are explored using different modes for learning. To study interconnections in nature, for example, children might physically explore trees, draw trees, mold clay trees, talk about trees, while teachers document their thinking and share it with the children, their parents and the school community.

Reggio-inspired teachers also allow children to participate in choosing what to study, while the teacher ensures that the topic is explored in ways that meet the standardized curriculum. 

Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School has been integrating the Reggio-inspired approach into its Junior School, from kindergarten to Grade 6, for the last six years. While it is an independent school for girls, the experience of marrying the Reggio approach with the Ontario curriculum, as Bishop Strachan does, has been an inspiration to many educators in both the child care sector and in public schools. Jennifer Armstrong, principal of the Junior School and teacher Susan Hislop authored one of the chapters in the book.

“As we learn more, we come to understand that it is more important to consider how children learn, than what they learn,” Armstrong says. “In this way we can honour their intellectual capacities and intense curiosities. So far the children have consistently impressed us and have far exceeded the demands laid out for them by the provincial curriculum.” 

Many other chapters are authored by teachers from the Toronto District School Board, which also has a study group in emergent curriculum that offers support to primary teachers in eight schools who are interested in exploring what the Reggio approach might offer.

Interest in Reggio-inspired schools has grown internationally with 80 countries involved in ongoing study tours to Italy to learn more about the approach. The Chicago Head Start program is an example of a North American early childhood initiative that has redesigned all aspects of its system in Reggio-inspired ways, making it more participatory and community based. Professor Howard Gardner at Harvard University has pointed out that it requires about 10 years of daily practice to create a Reggio-inspired school.

Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools is published by Teachers College Press. The Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, the largest association of its kind, will distribute 28,000 copies of the book this year to its members who specialize in early childhood education.