Reggio Emilia Approach Gives Students a Voice in the Curriculum

When Newsweek magazine recognized Reggio Emilia in the early 1990s as one of the top approaches to preschool education in the world, the groundbreaking philosophy soon became more popular across the United States, including in a growing number of public schools.

Named after the Italian town where it originated, Reggio Emilia is an innovative approach to teaching preschoolers and kindergarteners that may seem unstructured and slightly out-of-the-box, but it works. It’s a form of negotiated learning that encourages the students to create the curriculum. Teachers are seen as co-learners and observers, and the environment itself is a “third teacher.”

It’s not a traditional classroom with assigned seats and roll call. Art hangs at the children’s eye level, and they can easily see where supplies are in the class and are encouraged to use them.

A classroom at the Maplewood Early Childhood Center.

“The Reggio Emilia approach is an example of how teachers can engage children in creative and meaningful learning activities,” explains Shyrelle Eubanks, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association. “We would like to see more young children in schools have opportunities to learn using developmentally appropriate approaches like Reggio.”

The Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center in Maplewood, Missouri launched their own Reggio Emilia program in 2005. The school’s administration and teaching staff, says Brenda Fyfe, Dean of the School of Education at Webster University, both believe that “children should have a voice and a sense of agency in negotiating the learning process, and have the right to engage in experiences that are meaningful to them. ” Webster University, a partner with the Early Childhood Center, is a leader in bringing Reggio Emilia to St. Louis-area schools.

“They understand that children and adults learn through an active process of exploring their world together, exchanging ideas, and learning from and with each other,” Fyfe adds.

In Heather Bailey’s kindergarten classroom in Mapleweood, children climb in and out of a cardboard box with a large umbrella sticking out of the top. The inventive contraption is a “hot air balloon,” the recent topic of their class discussions. They chart maps of their hot air balloon journeys and share stories of their make believe travels.

Bailey incorporates Reggio’s “hundred languages,” a metaphor for the way the children express themselves. The languages include writing, building, sculpting, and dramatic play. “Play isn’t something we do to take a break,” she says. Bailey tries to include play in learning, whether it’s creating a story while sculpting clay figurines or learning how hot air balloons are able to travel before building their own full-size model.

“I’ve learned about harnessing the power of play. You need to give children the opportunity to play, and it needs to be intentional. It’s student-led and teacher-framed.”

Ann McLaughlin, another teacher at Maplewood, shares the benefits of the Reggio approach: “Children gain a sense of autonomy. It’s a hands-on learning experience, and they develop hands-on skills. They’re engaged in real-life situations and have fun and enjoy it.”

The students are seen as important members of the community, and they often take walks through the neighborhood to learn about the world around them.

McLaughlin and Bailey also frequently turn the students’ curiosity and questions into guided science experiments. Bailey elaborates, “There’s a lot of collaboration and teamwork because you can’t do the work yourself.”

The transition from negotiated learning to tradition classroom learning has not been an issue for their students.

“The Reggio approach equips them to use problem-solving strategies,” says Bailey. “The children have a strong sense of self, and they construct their own knowledge and do it well.”
Video: Reggio Emilia at the Maplewood Early Childhood Center