Where young children are in charge
It's a short but remarkable sentence: "He seemed very much in charge of his own learning." This describes not a teenager devising his own study programme or an independent-minded primary-school pupil, but a toddler of just 18 months.
San Miniato is a Tuscan town of 26,000 inhabitants where children know best - from birth. Its celebrated nidi d'infanzia - nurseries for under- threes - and other pre-school services are vehicles for childhood exploration, unrestricted by rigid learning plans, fussing adults or over- zealous health and safety.
Children in Scotland sent a group of researchers there this spring, and has published its report by chief executive Bronwen Cohen and vice- convener Keir Bloomer, Young Children in Charge: A small Italian community with big ideas for children.
Although child-centred learning is increasingly common, applying it to very young children - many in San Miniato are about six months old and a few start at three months - may seem "bizarre", the authors note. In this corner of Tuscany, 25 years of practice has made it commonplace.
The nidi are staffed by educatori, a title chosen to emphasise that their role is educational as well as caring. They have similar pay and conditions to nursery teachers and are often pedagogy graduates trained to work with children's educational needs as well as social and emotional development. Their role is to "facilitate, not instruct". It is a relationship that is "less liable to lead to resentment," say the authors.
The boy described above was observed playing for 45 minutes, "utterly absorbed" by a wooden block with a tunnel and drawers. He was joined for 10 minutes and five minutes by two other children and briefly spoken to by a staff member. At the end of this, he moved "freely and calmly" to another activity.
The nidi are beguiling and carefully thought-out spaces that put the child in control. Ostensibly open-plan, they appear to be distinct spaces from a small child's perspective, and offer varying activities from which they can choose.
"The central guiding concept is that of the child as a competent and active human being - it is an optimistic vision which contrasts starkly with a focus, too often found in the UK, on protecting children perceived as being in need or at risk," says the report.
San Miniato aspires to provide a universal service, rather than selecting children on the basis of deprivation or special needs. Almost half the children under the age of three (45 per cent) are in a nido or similar service, which exceeds EU recommendations of 33 per cent by 2010.
The authority allocates EUR2 million to services for children under three, three-quarters of the total cost. Another 5 per cent is met by regional and central government, and the remainder by means-tested families. The full cost is EUR192 a year for a part-time place (seven hours a day) or EUR344 for full-time (11 hours).
Dr Cohen believes that Scotland can learn from San Miniato's conviction that helping young children is a civic duty, rather than driven by parenting problems.
San Miniato encourages close collaboration with families. Educatori talk with parents every day, at least on arrival and departure, and are assigned 40-50 hours a year for more formal meetings to plan activities. The nidi are considered complementary environments, "not removing responsibility from parents but strengthening them in their role".
There is no long-term programme. Educatori make detailed notes of what a child does each day, a "critically important" activity for which they have 70-80 hours a year. They identify behaviour, rather than steering them to specific goals. This forms a starting point for discussions with parents, but the documentation is not used for quality assurance or passed to any outside body. There is no external inspection.
"That's what's quite challenging about what they do, because in many ways it contradicts the idea of curriculum, which they don't understand in the way that British educators would," Mr Bloomer says.
The long-term impact of the San Miniato nidi has not yet been studied, but Children in Scotland is sufficiently impressed to advocate introducing the ideas here. This would, however, involve "some quite significant mind shifts", given the "obsession with measuring things" in Scotland, Mr Bloomer says. "I think it's child-centred, personalised and constructivist to an extent that wouldn't immediately find ready acceptance in Scotland."
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AN ITALIAN HISTORY
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sisters Rosa and Carolina Agazzi formulated teaching methods based on play and everyday objects;
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) set up the first case dei bambini ("children's houses") prioritising sensory activities and self- learning;
The Second World War, rising numbers of mothers in work, and high levels of inward migration started debates on gender roles and childcare provision;
Reggio Emilia, near San Miniato, opened its first public nursery in 1963, and pedagogical thinker Loris Malaguzzi instilled in the city its internationally-renowned belief in children's abilities from birth;
National legislation in 1971 required 3,800 new pre-school centres, although only 500 opened in the next 10 years;
San Miniato opened its first nido in 1980 and now has seven, with another to open in 2009.