When Julie Silverman and I embarked in October for an early childhood seminar in Reggio Emilia, Italy, our bags were packed, not only with layers of clothing for various weather conditions, but with a list of questions from our ECDC teachers. Today I’d like to respond to those questions. First I’d like to offer gratitude for the generous support of the Dr. Solomon and Sarah Goldberg Memorial Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. What a gift it was for our Pittsburgh educators to receive support to visit Reggio Emilia, perhaps the only city in the world that specializes in the field of Early Childhood Education. Though it would take special research to study the history of Reggio, it was obvious that over the decades their educators, citizens and civic leaders have made countless thoughtful choices that have supported the growth of extraordinary schools. As students of Reggio, we experienced the intentionality that was apparent in every aspect of our visit. As educators in Jewish schools, we were reminded of the meaning of kavanah – the Jewish concept of focus and concentration in words and action – in this case on behalf of the welfare of children.
There are 23 infant-toddler centers and 21 preschools under the umbrella of the municipality of Reggio Emilia. Most of the schools have three classrooms with 26 children per classroom. Each classroom has two teachers with a possible third teacher if there is a child with special needs, which Reggio educators refer to as special rights. Each school also had a fully staffed kitchen which serves the nutritional needs of the school, including hot lunches and an amazing array of food choices for visitors and events. It is always startling for Americans to see how children set the tables in the dining room with real porcelain plates and glasses.
Reggio schools are made beautiful by an array of natural materials, interesting use of spaces, irregular classroom layouts and exceptional art work. The classrooms are arranged with a wide range of materials, including duplos, wooden train tracks, cars, plastic animals of all sizes, and lots of loose materials – small and large. Materials are pre-arranged on much of the surfaces. In the center of one table, for example, was a collection of pomegranates, grapes, leaves and oranges. Baby food jars of paint with corresponding colors and sheets of paper were set along the perimeter of the table. All of the materials, especially the art materials, were of high quality. Surfaces in the classroom are of multiple heights. Outdoor areas were large and grassy with few pieces of equipment, possibly one slide. The outdoor areas had lots of large loose materials, including logs and rocks.
While visiting one preschool starting at 9:00 am, children were in small and fluid groups. They were drawing, building, engaging in imaginative play with plastic figures and natural materials, and playing outside. The multi-shaped building was designed as a school and each classroom has direct access to the outdoors. Children may go in and out independently. One teacher explained that they can allow the children to be independent because they know them so well based on staying with the same group over the years. For me, one highlight was watching a group of three at an easel. Two girls were drawing at each side while a third child, a boy, sat on a chair and posed for his portrait. One of the girls traced the boy’s face with her finger to get a feel of the shape, while the boy was smiling beatifically, obviously enjoying the contact and attention. It was a joy to watch the drawings emerge on the paper and the delighted expressions of the children as they compared results.
Learning to think critically is central at Reggio schools. Experience with even the youngest children has taught the educators that children have questions about the world and can learn to view things from multiple viewpoints. Investigations are the vehicles for such learning. The learning is not linear and does not consist of a fixed sequence of steps. Words and phrases used by the Reggio educators to conjure the learning process were: spiraling; ping ponging back and forth; multidimensional; involving multiple viewpoints and using at least two materials or mediums to represent the learning.
I am struck with how far we have come at Temple Emanuel ECDC in our own investigation of the Reggio approach. We are fully engaged in dialogue, in seeking and listening to multiple points of view. This is the path of intentionality – of kavanah – of focusing thought conscientiously on what is best for our children. I am so very grateful to participate in this investigation with our school community.