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Creativity is central to the success of Italy's Reggio Emilia nurseries. Stephanie Northen relishes the fruits of pupils' imagination.

Take an abandoned Nazi tank, a few trucks and some horses. Sell them. Salvage and wash bricks from bombed houses. Collect sand from the river and pile it on land donated by a farmer. Then, working only at night and on Sundays, build a nursery.

This was the task that a group of Italian parents set themselves in 1945, six days after the end of the Second World War.

From this "school of the tank" arose the Reggio Emilia nurseries, long recognised as one of the best early education systems in the world. The Hundred Languages of Children exhibition, currently in Exeter and touring the UK until the end of the year, is a celebration of the nurseries' art, and of children's creativity and curiosity.

Forget swords into ploughshares: the Nazi tank has undergone many more exciting transformations. In the children's art it has been reborn as a silver elephant heavy with beads and foil, as a huge summer fresco of peacocks and poppies, and as ceramic squares filled with spirals and dimpled clay sausages.

There are now 22 pre-primary schools for three to six-year-olds in Reggio Emilia, a prosperous northern Italian city, as well as 13 infant-toddler centres. As a result of the way they began, the nurseries have strong bonds with parents and with the community. The children are encouraged to value their city, and the city, for example, collects materials for the youngsters to use in their art. And what art it is.

Chiara, aged two, draws a few scrawled lines on paper (It is poetry). She sees "a bird's tail in a merry-go-round" (It is abstract). Riccardo, aged five, colours tiny glowing triangles, squares and clouds. He is representing thoughts. It is funny. Mario, aged two, hangs wire ears on the back of a chair to make a "horseback rider". It is beautiful, all of it.

Manny Lewis, a Devon primary adviser who helped organise the Exeter stage of the exhibition, says that most visitors "are bowled over by the quality of the work. The Reggio philosophy is that nothing is beyond a child."

Loris Malaguzzi, a teacher who helped the parents in 1945 and went on to lead the Reggio Emilia movement, laid great stress on art. Each nursery has an atelier or studio staffed by artists which, Malaguzzi said, "has proved to be subversive, generating complexity and new tools of thought". P> The children learn to explore their environment and express themselves through what Malaguzzi, who died in 1994, regarded as their natural languages - drawing, painting, sculpture, building, music, drama. He is quoted in the exhibition as saying: "Children are aware very early that through the art of research they can discover the joy of living and be freed from the boredom that comes from existing in an unexplored world." Manny Lewis worries that in England: "We have bred a generation of indifferent adults and are in danger of breeding a generation of indifferent children. They are given no time to explore, but are always under pressure to attain the next target."

The Reggio children do not work to a formal curriculum. Instead they have the freedom and time to explore their own ideas. The exhibition is arranged to reveal the progress of 20 such projects which can take the youngsters months to complete.

The imaginative richness of their work comes through in the projects' names: "The importance of seeing yourself"; "A rustling of angels' wings"; "The price of things"; "An amusement park for birds". While art is the medium through which they express their discoveries, the work embraces science, maths and literacy.

Take the "Rain in the city" project. The children talked about what their city is like in a downpour, how, for example, it affects behaviour and changes the appearance of buildings. They went out in the rain, watching people, investigating gutters, taking photographs. Back in the nursery they created painting-sculptures with wire people walking on pavements done in cross-section so viewers can see pipes, drains, worms and rats under the streets. They taped the sound of raindrops and studied what happens to light and colour in puddles. They investigated condensation, drew houses to demonstrate the water cycle and finished it off with a visit to the municipal water works.

All their work is without guile. They and their teachers are not precious about their art. It is the process of producing it that is important. While everything the children do is recorded in incredible detail, this is largely to show to their parents. Fortunately we are able to see it too.

The Hundred Languages of Children is at three venues in Exeter until April 26. It then visits Bristol (May 4-June 4), Bradford (June 18-July 15), Glasgow (August 1-September 15) and Coventry (September 30-November 12). Details: Jenny Rabin, 020 7539 5400 or Robin Duckett, 0191 227 3424

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