Curriculum Feature: The Reggio Emilia approach – A child-led learning approach in the preschool years

By Sheryl Ang

From the Editor:

In our first curriculum feature, we dive into the workings of the Reggio Emilia approach. While commonly implemented in early childhood and primary level institutions, it is also popular among homeschooling families. I have chosen to highlight this approach under the current theme due to its primacy in cultivating relationship-driven environments.

In a study, Biroli, Pietro et al (2017) compared individuals (across several age cohorts) who attended Reggio Emilia learning centres, with those who attended other centre-based programs within the cities of Parma and Padova.1 This longitudinal study on the Reggio Emilia philosophy yields two findings that I find interesting.

My first point of interest is how former students of the Reggio approach attained higher scores for emotional symptoms, positive conduct, and pro-social tests, compared to those who attended other preschools in Reggio Emilia.2 Secondly, in matters of employment, socio-emotional skills, high-school graduation, election participation, and obesity, the Reggio Emilia approach showed a significant impact compared to those who did not receive formal childcare. However, the results were not significant when compared to those who attended alternative forms of childcare. These may lead observers to discount the effectiveness of the approach. Nonetheless, the researchers highlighted how “essential elements” of the Reggio approach had “diffused rapidly across towns and alternative schools within the same towns.” They also emphasized how northern Italy in the mid-20th century experienced a resurgence of early childhood education programmes that inculcated ideas promulgated by highly-regarded educational experts. One of them was Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the philosophy behind Reggio Emilia. These findings are therefore telling of the effectiveness of the Reggio Emilia method.

In her article below, Sheryl Ang describes the environment as “the third teacher”. This idea resonates with our current campaign to intentionally build our homes as the seat from which our children would engage in healthy ways to express and explore the limits of freedom, seek a safe distance from life’s pressures and formulate strategies for socialization. I would also like to perceive this notion of the “environment” to include the larger community that impacts our belief and preferred approach to education as a whole. After all, the Reggio Emilia philosophy emerged out of the partnership between visionary pedagogists and the passionate parents of the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, where its name was derived.

In shaping our children’s experiences, we do not have to merely seek to mitigate what we deem as the undesirable influences of the education system. Through a collective will to embrace more favourable narratives on education, we can effect desired changes to our ecosystem. 

Read more about Reggio Emilia in this article. Sheryl Ang is a homeschool mum to three boisterous boys. She has been running a Reggio-inspired co-operative for the last few years. She’s a certified Wonder Based Educator and a Music Together teacher who strongly believes that children learn best in a playful, child-like manner. Follow her on Instagram: ee.fam

1Biroli, Pietro et al. (2017), “Evaluation of the Reggio Approach to Early Education,” IZA Discussion Papers, No. 10742, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Bonn. (https://www.econstor.eu/handle/10419/161365, assessed 15 August 2021)
2Based on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), a scale to measure emotional symptoms, behavioural problems, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relationships problems, and pro-social behaviour.021)

The Reggio Emilia approach – A child-led learning approach in the preschool years

By Sheryl Ang

The Reggio Emilia approach started in a town called Reggio Emilia in Italy. Just like how “Champagne” can only refer to sparkling wine produced from the Champagne wine region in France; outside of the Reggio Emilia town, the approach would be known as the “Reggio-inspired way” or simply, “Reggio.”

Despite its origins, the application of the Reggio Emilia approach is more common than one might think. In Singapore, pre-schools such as Eton House, Odyssey and Blue House adopt it even if they may not refer to their approaches as such. Instead, they often use the term “inquiry-led learning.”  It is also known as child-led learning or emergent curriculum. 

Reggio holds a strong image of the child and believes that all children are born with the ability to learn and be curious. Following this premise, a child has the right to choose what he or she wishes to learn. Children are not empty vessels to be filled by a teacher’s teachings. However, what is purported as “child-led learning” or “child-led play” nowadays is often teacher-led play in disguise because they are carried out with desired learning outcomes in mind.

How does one carry out an inquiry-led approach?

An authentic inquiry or child-led method starts with a child’s wondering. This could be a question or conversation that a child has. A child’s statement, “The trees are blowing the wind here” could prompt an investigation about wind, movement or wind direction.

For a non-verbal toddler, a series of actions might spark his or her inquiry. A toddler, surprised by the movement and texture of sinking sand on a beach, might dive into a sequence of digging and burying activities. The act of splashing into a puddle might lead to explorations about ripples, waves, depth, and density. 

Being Reggio-inspired requires you to be observant of the child. You simply act as a facilitator, setting up play stations or “invitations” to see what interests the child, or quietly observing the child’s response to nature. Once you identify what sparks the child, additional activities can be built around this theme or topic to scaffold their learning. This could be as simple as putting stones beside the puddle that could be used for counting and throwing, or as elaborate as incorporating basic math skills and introducing books or letters to support literacy skills. Taking a broad definition of “provocation,” anything that can sustain a child’s interest beyond the initial play is a successful provocation.

Discovery and creativity are precursors to inventions. A child’s wondering tends to be fleeting and could be gone before you know it. If we were to snuff out the child’s hypothesis by merely correcting him or her that for instance, it is the wind blowing the trees and not the other way round, we would lose the opportunity for the child to discover ideas about movement, wind direction, speed and so on. In addition, we could subconsciously discourage independent thinking as children might develop learned behaviours that it is not okay to be wrong, or that they should merely be waiting for answers. This inquiry-led approach might seem like a much slower way to acquire knowledge than the traditional teaching-lecturing style. However, the former provides more opportunities for the child to internalise knowledge and develop a greater breadth for lateral learning.

A child’s wondering is fleeting and could be gone before you know it.

Sometimes, the child’s interest in a topic could be so strong that it would last for months, or even years. When that happens, allow the child to take the lead in exploring adjacent topics, incorporating them while developing his or her literacy and numeracy skills. For example, my son loves dinosaurs and it has led us down numerous rabbit holes. However, it has allowed us to explore science through the study of land formations, language through reading books on dinosaurs, and mathematics through counting, adding and subtracting with dinosaur counters. In art, I see how he has evolved over the years, from moulding simple dinosaur shapes with clay in his younger years, to using toothpicks as spines to support his dinosaurs at the age of six.

A distinct feature of a Reggio class is having an atelier, which is an art or makerspace classroom facilitated by an atelierista or art teacher. The art teacher weaves previously taught concepts into art. Therefore, art is not taught as a segregated subject. Practitioners of Reggio Emilia believe that the appreciation of art, music, and beauty as a whole elevates our appreciation of the world and things around us. This is why art and music are a big part of my family life.

The Environment as a Silent Third Teacher

Due to the nature of an emerging curriculum, the child needs an environment rich enough to support the multifaceted ways of expression and learning. In the Reggio circles, the environment is the silent third teacher. This does not mean having every wall plastered with colourful posters of the alphabet or multiplication tables because they might cause a sensory overload for the child. Instead, the Reggio approach emphasises having an aesthetically pleasing and inviting environment for children to stay calm and focused long enough to explore and learn. Traditionally, this translates to having a lot of natural light and materials such as leaves, seeds, sticks and wood. 

Materials or “toys” presented to the child must be versatile. Loose parts such as nuts and bolts, toilet paper rolls, buttons, stones, sticks, make good toys for children to imagine. A stick could be a fence for the farms or a sword for the knight, nuts and bolts for building a castle or skyscraper, and race tracks for monster trucks or plain-old construction builder play. For manufactured toys, LEGO or magnetic tiles make good toys for open-ended play. 

A rich environment makes resources accessible and is flexible to modifications. In our regular home life, I make art and drawing supplies readily available for the children to work on their fine motor skills anytime. When conducting co-operative sessions with other families, I would turn around the space in our house to draw the children to specific invitations and hide others that could cause distractions. As social-emotional and self-regulation skills are held as very important skills in our household, we also make calming toys, books, and meditation sounds within reach. A rich environment keeps on teaching, even in the absence of teachers. 

An important but often neglected element of the Reggio approach is the community element. While certainly, many of these activities seem achievable on a one-to-one basis or even in isolation; they are often done with some form of engagement with the community. After all, Reggio started as a community’s effort to provide preschool education in the post-industrial revolution. Traditionally, this translated to, on one hand, the children having the ability to play and work in public spaces, and on the other hand, having privileged access to resident artists or guests coming in to work with them. My interpretation of having a community would be experiencing social spaces at the museums, parks and theatres, as well as interacting and learning with other people through workshops, shows and learning co-operatives.

Why I have chosen Reggio over other methods

There is numerous research about the benefits of a play-based education. Children learn best in a playful and stressless environment. Babies learn when they are born. They learn how to make sounds and how to crawl with very little help from adults. As adults and upon completing our formal learning years, we too, learn on the get-go; through books, from people, experiences and being on the job. I strongly believe that early childhood and formal education can also be achieved in these self-motivated, interest-led ways. 

Children learn best in a playful and stressless environment

“We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.”

Peter O. Gray

Reggio believes that children express themselves in hundreds of languages, spoken or otherwise. We love the fluidity of learning to support self-exploration and discovery. This helps us focus on the longer-term developmental milestones and education goals, rather than worry about the day-to-day underachievements. Learning is non-linear; we all have to explore and grind at it for a while, and once it clicks for the child, learning will fall into place.   

I believe that Reggio is not difficult to implement in the homeschool environment. One would already have most of the tools to do so at home. Probably the most difficult part is for the facilitator to hold an open mind and see that every opportunity of play could be an opportunity for learning if he or she can pitch appropriate responses at the children’s level.

A child’s education is more than just school with fixed times at a fixed place. My eldest child, who has a very strong opinion on his learning interests, is also very good at putting together his own “unit studies.” At the library, he picked books about jaguars so that we could use them in our music class that featured a jaguar music collection. During Art, he would apply the concepts of two and three-dimensional objects that he learnt earlier – express that a sculptor is a  three-dimensional artist and a painter is a  two-dimensional one and thereafter, construct a  three-dimensional clay dinosaur, his favourite subject.

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning and how to learn.” 

Louis Malaguzzi

Although Reggio is not difficult to implement, it is also not a walk in the park. I find it much easier to put a workbook or a gamified learning app on an iPad in front of a child. But the satisfaction is to catch that fleeting wonderment in the child’s eyes and watch how he transforms his sense of awe into tangible learning. These precious wide-eyed moments are what I live for, both as a parent and educator. They give me positive affirmations that I’m heading in the right direction, even if I’m far from perfect!