New Lessons from Reggio-Emilia for Early Childhood Education

by Tatiana Feldman – Circletime CEO

When I became a mom, the one thing that hit me from day one is that I wanted something different for my daughter. As I looked back on my life, I felt that I had very little time to be a curious, investigative child. That my creativity was squandered early. That I didn’t get to play enough. I lost interest in school because I was bored. I remember being just 7 years old and trying to “play hookey.” But I understand now — what 7 year old should really be sitting behind a desk all day, facing forward, with one teacher directing instruction at them for several hours on end and one recess?

As I began to explore options for my child, I stumbled upon the idea of progressive education. I fell in love with the origin story of the Reggio Emilia approach. As we all try to make sense of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, I think it’s an important story to tell right now.

In 1945, the most pressing problem for a population that had just come out of a war was that of rebuilding — materially, socially, and morally. Aside from the need to restore physical infrastructure, food supply chains, and general economic activity, many felt the need to overcome the ideological divisions that had lasted for two decades in Europe. Above all, many felt the need to ensure their children would never experience anything as terrible as the war had been for themselves.

In a small town in Northern Italy post-World War II, a collective of women with the support of the National Liberation Committee and then from Louis Malaguzzi, decided to build and run a school for young children, financed initially with the sale of abandoned trucks and other items left behind by the retreating Germans. Parents did not want ordinary schools. Rather, they wanted schools where children could acquire skills of critical thinking and collaboration essential to rebuilding and ensuring a democratic society.

Loris Malaguzzi joined in this endeavour and later became founder, and for many years director, of the Reggio Emilia system of municipal early childhood education. Malaguzzi loved to recall the genesis of the Reggio experience at the preschool in Villa Cella, and the declaration which is still inscribed on the school as the place where peace-building is achieved by educating the new generations.

Out of the ruins of the second World War, a battered community rose from the ashes to build a more promising future. That is a powerful image that fills me with hope for what’s to come. If we think of the pre-COVID-19 world, just a short few months ago, we already carried the heavy burden of needing to reimagine our society to create a sustainable future. While this moment is difficult and will leave much devastation behind, it is upon us to not just revert to our old ways, but commit to constructing a different reality for the new generation.

This pandemic has brought us to our knees and exposed so many of our weaknesses. But it is also giving us a tremendous opportunity to embrace and reimagine the future. Up until now, the future of digital learning was an obscure concept in most homes, something we read about casually in some articles sometimes. It was not being designed by us as a society. While the concerns around it are valid when it comes to its role in children’s formative years, it’s time to flip the conversation to talk about the opportunity. Our children are digital natives. There is no changing that and no going back. What if, instead of being passive consumers of educational technology or children’s media, we embrace the example of the women of Reggio Emilia and roll up our sleeves to build the blended learning model that can best serve our children for the future? We already know that the greatest factor in school success is parental involvement in children’s education. Digital tools can help us bridge the home-school gap that COVID-19 has completely exposed. Instead of being afraid of screens, it’s time to build a model that will support them as whole children, as creative agents, as active learners and as the bright-eyed innovators we know they can be.

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