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The Reggio-Emilia Way: Developing a Sense of Wonder and Thirst for Knowledge in the Early Childhood Classrooms

By Sarah Probst “Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of The Reggio-Emilia School Systems and Philosophy.


  1. The Reggio Emilia philosophy was founded in 1945-46 shortly after World War II when the town of Reggio-Emilia located in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy was seeking to rebuild their educational system.  The town is rich in culture and diversity having been the hometown of Renaissance poets, such as Matteo Maria Boirardo and Ludovico Ariosto and was the birthplace of the Italian republic and national flag.  The citizens of Reggio-Emilia also served an important role in the history of Italy for their movement against the Naziism-Fascism regime and for which they received Italy’s highest gold medal for military valor.  During this time Loris Malaguzzi founded the town’s preschools with the intent to build a strong and free educational community to the young children of Reggio-Emilia.  He was heavily influenced by a close friend named Bruno Ciari who believed that [“education should liberate childhood energy and capacities” and promote the harmonious development of the whole child in communicative, social, and affective domains].

    In the Reggio-Emilia philosophy employs an emergent curriculum, where students are considered protagonist’s that are strong in their desire to make connections with their peers and the world around them and highly capable of constructing their own learning process.  Therefore the curriculum is guided by the children’s interests.  There are two teachers within the classroom that routinely engage in reciprocal conversations to build on the development of language and to allow the children to speak about their topics of interest.  They are provided a plethora of activities to further their intellectual development and are encouraged to explore their environment independently and in smaller peer groups.  Within smaller peer groups, they are able to collaborate on group projects, such as building a teepee out of sticks, creating a culinary masterpiece, or painting a colorful underwater scene.  In this manner, the children are active participants in their educational journey and fueled by their natural curiosities and innate sense of wonder and the teachers serve as their partners, nurturers and guides. 

    The environment is considered a third teacher in the Reggio-Emilia philosophy.  In the classroom, you will find a thoughtfully constructed learning environment heavily influenced by nature and arranged as organically as possible.   Teachers provided a variety of interesting objects and collections to collaborate with the children’s interests and they are encouraged to examine their intricate details with magnifying glasses and microscopes during their exploration time.  The use of adult furniture pieces and items are meant to create confidence in the children’s ability to use adult items in their play, so in the Reggio-Emilia classroom you may find a table set up with ceramic dishware, silverware, drinking glasses, and a vase with fresh flowers as well as elevated lofts to create private little nooks to read or engage in imaginary play.  “Every corner of every space has an identity and a purpose, is rich in potential to engage and to communicate, and is valued and cared for by children and adults.”  The children are also taken on numerous outings and able to explore their town.  During nature walks and hikes, the teachers take the opportunity to teach basic outdoor skills as well as identify and learn about items discovered, such as plants, animals and natural resources.  As the children explore their classroom and their natural environment, they begin to make strong connections with the world and are able to develop a strong sense of self and their relation to it.

    The Reggio-Emilia approach considers the educational process a partnership with the child’s family and parent participation is highly recommended.  Prior to enrollment, teacher’s conduct home visits to introduce themselves to children in their comfort zone and to become familiar with the children’s home environment and their family dynamics.  The parents are able to frequently visit the classroom and share their talents and knowledge with the children.  The children are then able to share their knowledge through a student-inspired and developed event for the parents, staff and community.  After-school meetings with parent, teachers and directors are organized to provide a place to discuss current events and exchange new ideas or developments in educational wisdom and practices.  In this manner, the educational environment is considered ever-involving and the parents are considered an integral part of the process.  

    “Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of The Reggio-Emilia School Systems and Philosophy.

    Once of the defining characteristics of the Reggio-Emilia schools are their ateliers (studios) and atelierista (studio teachers), which allow children to explore and communicate through a variety of materials. In the atelier, the atelierista uses art as a form of expression and language and the children are able to work on independent projects that allow them to communicate a unique thought or idea.  The children are taught a variety of techniques to help them communicate their ideas and better articulate their views through the use of pictures, symbols, lines and forms.  They may be given a mirror and encouraged to paint their own self-portrait developing a sense of self and pride in their physical qualities or given an object and allowed to recreate it from a variety of different viewpoints, challenging their intellectual growth by looking at the world from different perspectives. 

    “When children feel they are not being listened to, they don’t have anything to say.” – Sergio Spaggiari, Director, Reggio Emilia municipal schools, 1994

    Another important component of the Reggio-Emilia philosophy is the documentation and communication of the children’s exploration and educational process. Children are encouraged to ask questions and their ideas and thoughts are listened to.   Whenever an experiment or new material is introduced, the child is asked what they think will happen or what they think the material will feel, smell, taste or sound like.  They are asked several questions during their experiences and given time to reflect on their new knowledge.  Usually, the secondary teacher records their responses and the dialogue that is produced from these discussions.  The teachers may take several pictures of projects created by the children both collaboratively and independently, such as an ornate castle constructed of building blocks or an intricate system of tunnels and connections made with drinking straws and display them around the classroom with the child’s dictated description and/or dialogue about the activity/project.  Through this process teachers and parents can see the progression of the child’s thought processes and discuss their development.  The children are also able to review and reflect upon their developed ideas and it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment.

    The Reggio-Emilia Approach is student and community driven and because of this it is ever-evolving and is adaptable to the student’s needs.  The teachers strive to have the classroom fit the student as opposed to the student fit the classroom.  They celebrate differences and unique qualities that each child brings to the collective whole and do not expect cookie-cutter projects and performance.   Most importantly, it keeps the child interested and invested in their own learning process.    However, public school systems are often rigid and the curriculum is strictly planned in accordance with state-wide tests.  Children are spoon-fed tidbits of information and not given the time to really chew on the information and enjoy the revelation of new information.  Often times, public school teachers cover several topics in a week and are trying to have children memorize facts, so they will score high on statewide tests that in turn will provide funding for their school.  Children loose the opportunity to really explore interesting subject matter and get a sense of the whole picture so they can make thoughtful connections and tinker with different ways to problem-solve.  In the public school systems, we are not teaching children how to learn and find the answers; we are teaching the children the answers and they are learning that someone else will provide the answers.  If we want to build a better tomorrow for our school system and in turn our society, then we need to keep the children interested and invested in their education similar to the Reggio-Emilia philosophy By seeing the child as someone who is fully capable and strong in their ability to collaboratively learn and problem-solve, explore a variety of subjects of interest, and by providing that spark and inspiration in the process we will guarantee that the children in are classrooms continue to be passionate life-long learners long after they have graduated.