On the fourth day of my Reggio Emilia study trip, I had the pleasure of visiting their famous Diana preschool. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in any of their centres, but I will describe them as best I can and add my quick sketches from the day!

Built in a park, a public space in the heart of the city, the school is hidden amongst the trees. Having visited an infant toddler centre earlier in the week, after hours when the children had gone home, this time we were allowed to explore the space during the morning, while the children were in attendance. As with all their centres, you arrive into a communal space that welcomes you into the heart of the school. Different areas are defined by furniture such as free-standing book shelves surrounding a seating area for lunch, around the corner there is a drawing area with projections on the wall and a dress-up area within 2 blue curved structures sits in the middle of the floor. With windows on all sides, this space wraps around an internal garden, giving you the feeling of being outdoors as you are surrounded by nature and light.

As well as a kitchen, where all meals are prepared, often involving the children, there is an atelier, or art room complete with an artist or atelierista, in residence. In collaboration with the teachers, children can expand their ideas in the atelier, individually or in small groups they develop thoughts and projects that began in their classroom.

Before entering their classroom, I had a preconceived notion that the spaces would be sparse and minimalist, focusing on a number of areas of interest. But I was wrong. The rooms were overflowing with opportunities and provocations to attract the interests of the children. As I stepped into the room for 4-year olds, I noted that every corner was being used, filled with children’s work, natural objects or documentation. In this context, the busy spaces worked. There were no distracting brightly coloured posters in primary colours, no alphabets circling the room, no wall charts of numbers. The walls were white, complementing the muted tones of the furniture. The images and work on the walls reflected the natural colours surrounding them, mirroring the outside spaces, creating a calm and natural space. They we not bland spaces, but alive with ideas, experiments and living objects. Work in progress climbed up one wall, highlighted by a projection of shadow, mirroring the marks made on the paper.

A small light box on the floor caught my attention. A thin wire structure sat on the surface. Beside it were sheets of clear acetate and black markers. A young girl was drawing marks, mirroring the wire form. Beside her a drawn piece of acetate had been transformed into a 3-dimensional object, like the wire, by scoring and bending. I don’t know what the intension was, but I was intrigued by this simple provocation. The adults had provided these simple materials and demonstrated how this flat, drawn acetate can become 3-dimensional, a simple drawn line can be twisted and folded, wire and a drawn mark can become similar in form through simple manipulation. Unfortunately, due to language barriers, I was unable to ask but by observing, I saw how this activity could be developed into a longer project, upping the scale, exploring different thicknesses of wire or materials such as willow, highlighting their form with light and projection. The possibilities were endless, from three simple materials.

As I moved further into the room, I noticed three children painting at a table. In front of them was a gnarled log sitting in front of a paper screen, highlighted by a spot light. I watched for a few moments. I noticed the paint colours on the table for the children were carefully chosen. There was no bright pink or red but different shades of browns and yellows, only colours relevant to the object they were focused on, mirroring its tones. On reflection, this makes perfect sense. Why introduce colours that are not there, confusing the elements of choice and ultimately distracting from the task at hand? Yes, you can see yellows in tree bark, blues in grass but to begin the study, using a limited pallet makes you focus on the object more, omitting distractions.

I walked around their table and a child was sitting on the other side of the screen, behind the log. Because of the spot light, the shadow of the log was visible to him. On white paper he was painting the shadow with an array of black paint, no colour available, of course, why would there be, he’s painting a solid shadow?

Another element I was interested in witnessing was their use of digital technology, projectors and laptops. I am not IT savvy and a little nervous of the thought to be honest, so I was curious to see how these were incorporated into the classroom. Within each classroom there were laptops and projectors on the floor and tables, all within reach of the children. Lights and micro-scopes attached to surfaces and tv screens showed landscapes, waterfalls and other images of the outdoors.

All this may seem very removed from our Irish preschool classrooms, but I understood how ‘their use encouraged a multi-disciplinary way of working and learning’, as explained by our translator, helping the children to become immersed in their environment:

‘Creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known’.    Loris Malaguzzi quoted in The Hundred Languages of Children (1993).

I had to reminded myself that most of the children attending Reggio preschools have had access to these tools for learning from a very early age, beginning in the infant toddler centres. This experience has embedding a respect of materials, equipment, technology and their peers within their space from a very early age. But this also highlights the respect shown by the adults, teachers and parents, for the children and their learning process. This respect floods out into communal spaces where activities were shared and explored. Classroom doors are open, with children moving freely from space to space or into the atelier or art room.

The Reggio Emilia ethos relies heavily on home/school relationships, advocating a partnership among parents, teachers and community members. This means, Malaguzzi said, ‘a willingness to question all your own abilities, your knowledge, to become humble. Only then will you be able to listen to the child, to set off on a common search, to ‘educate each other together’.’

I hope you found the details of my trip to Reggio interesteing. It really was such an inspiring trip!

Until next time!

Dee

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