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The Italian job

Reggio Emilia, a town in north Italy, has for many years been a Mecca for early years educators. Now, at last, The Hundred Languages of Children, the famous exhibition of the work of its municipal nurseries, has come to England. It opened at Newcastle's Discovery Museum last week and will move to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London next month.

Early years practitioners, including primary heads, reception and Year 1 teachers, should find the time to visit it. So should anyone involved in policy-making and curriculum for children up to six, including government ministers responsibl e for re-thinking the national primary curriculum.

The exhibition is full of wonderful artefacts by children: drawings, paintings, sculptures, constructions. There are many records of work in progress in words and photographs, and illuminating videos.

The children investigate the most subtle and intangible aspects of the world - light and colour and shadow and reflections. The work is based on extended projects that follow the children's interests, such as rain in the city or crowds.

Children are helped to give their inspirations concrete expression. In one school, a conversation about creating a lake for birds ended, months later, with the construction of a whole "amusement park for birds" in the school grounds, with a fountain and other attractions. The town's water workers came in to help, so that the fountain could be "big and real and spray the water really high".

The exhibition records the thoughts and conversations and insights of the children themselves. (These comments are mainly in Italian, but a full translation is available.) It also offers visiting children some of the equipment of Reggio nurseries, such as mirrors, a light table and a shadow screen.

It is not an easy exhibition to grasp quickly. Much of the explanatory text is an English translation of high-flown and philosophica l Italian, and opaque at first sight: Reggio Emilia is anyway not a programme or curriculum that can be encapsulated in a few paragraphs.

Instead, it is a whole set of attitudes, to children, teachers, parents and the community. The exhibition is a celebration of babies' and young children's innate competence, skills, and ability to make sense of even subtle and hidden attributes of their world, and of what skilled teachers can do to support their learning and investigations.

It represents a community's consistent attempt, over more than 30 years, to provide environments that enhance children's creativity, and their innate capacities to understand their world for themselves. The town now has 20 municipal nursery centres for three to five-year-olds, and 13 infanttoddler centres for babies and children up to three, which combine to develop and sustain the work.

The whole project started after the Second World War, when a group of parents decided to build a school for their children. A gifted young teacher called Loris Malaguzzi bicycled over to see it, and stayed to help and inspire the project until his death in 1994.

Malaguzzi's poem about the hundred languages of children, their hundred hands, thoughts, joys, ways of playing, thinking, speaking and listening, and their hundred worlds to invent and dream, gives the exhibition its title.

Its pedagogical nub is that the child has a hundred languages, but the school and culture steal ninety nine. They "separate the head from the body. They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to understand without joy."

English visitors to Reggio Emilia, many of whom suspected they would be underwhelmed after all the publicity, have been stunned. "It was like coming home to a dream of what early years should be" said Robin Duckett, a former nursery teacher, now directing a project in association with Newcastle University, who helped raise funds to bring the exhibition to Newcastle.

Talking to people who have spent time in Reggio Emilia nurseries, it is clear that their success depends on many interlinked cultural, practical and pedagogical strands that cannot be transplanted abroad wholesale. But they provide an invaluable perspective on early years education elsewhere, and they reinforce the excellent practice of some of our own nurseries.

The practice is built on a clear view of the rights of children, parents and teachers. Each child is credited with a wealth of inborn abilities and potential and creativity. "Irreversible impoverishment of the child" results when these powers are ignored.

Parents have rights to participate in their children's growth, care and development when they entrust them to public institutions. Reggio schools are managed by advisory councils with elected parents, and there are many meetings, for class and other groups.

Teachers have a right to "contribute to the study and preparation of the conceptual models that define educational content, objectives and practice". Initial teacher training is seen as relatively unimportant: what matters is reflection and development on the job.

Reggio Emilia teachers work a 36-hour week, of which six are set aside for professional development, planning and recording, and meetings with other teachers and parents. The nurseries share eight pedagogistas - advisory teachers who support a small enough group of nurseries for them to know all the teachers, and many of the parents and children, well.

Visitors say that teachers are emphatic that their practice is based on their own thinking, not that of any outsiders. All workers have equal status in discussions and decisions.

Great attention is paid to the architecture and environment, which is light and - by English standards - very spacious. Children work with natural materials and beautiful and often delicate objects much more than with manufactured toys and equipment. Every centre has a well-equipped studio, staffed by a trained art teacher.

As well as space, children are given time to pursue their interests. The day has long uninterrupted play periods, without fixed breaks for "story" or "circle time". Even babies' autonomy is protected. Instead of cots, they have basket "nests" on the floor they can crawl into, and private spaces made out of curtains and drapes.

Children encounter a rich and consistent educational approach from birth to six. The nurseries provide seamless care and education. Many children have working parents and stay all day.

The curriculum is based on the exchange of messages and meanings, using many media. Each child has a post box, where they exchange gifts and drawings and messages of all kinds, including, eventually, written messages. The view is that "non-word languages generate complex vocabularies, metaphors and symbols. Word languages derive from non-word languages".

Teachers spend a great deal of time documenting children's activities, using a wide range of media - notes, sketches, photograph s, tapes, video. This documentation is used to plan the next stage of projects and discuss results with children and parents.

The schools belong to the community, and cause great civic pride. Their success is a political achievement, as well as a pedagogical one.

"Our hope for children is that they continue to be enchanted and amazed, to wonder and to ask 'why?', to try to understand the interconnectedness of things", says one of the texts at the exhibition. That, together with the joy of children that is visible everywhere in the exhibition, seems to be the ultimate desirable outcome for early childhood education.

The Hundred Languages of Children will be at Discovery Museum, Newcastle, until June 28, and then at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, London, from July 7 to August 21. Newcastle is also offering evening seminars and a conference with speakers from Reggio Emilia, Britain and Denmark on June 21. In London, the British Association for Early Childhood Education is holding a conference in conjunction with the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children on July 12 to complement the exhibition, and a series of evening seminars with a private viewing of the exhibition are being held at the museum. The catalogue (#163;13) is an excellent record of the exhibition.

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