School of Education  

Reggio Emilia Approach

by Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, Ed.D.
Theoretical Perspective Four Key Factors

The town of Reggio Emilia is located in a wealthy region of Northern Italy that is well known for its agricultural and industrial production, as well as, for its art and architecture. New (1990) stated that the 1965 national law that instituted funding of preschool for all children ages 3 to 6 years old evidences Italy's nationwide development of its children. Rankin (1993) wrote that child welfare is a major priority of Reggio Emilia's well-subsidized social services as evidenced by the community's response to child care needs of dual-earner families since the end of World War II. Additionally, Hewett (2001) suggested that as part of the city's postwar reconstruction, the first school for young children in Reggio Emilia was built literally by the hands of parents using proceeds gained from the sale of a war tank, three trucks, and six horses left behind by retreating Germans (Gandini, 1993; Malaguzzi, 1993b).

Today the city of Reggio Emilia devotes 10% of its budget to the early childhood education and runs 22 schools for children ages 3-6 years as well as 13 infant toddler centers. Forty-seven percent of preschool and thirty-five percent of children from the two age groups are served, respectively (Edward, Gandini, & Forman, 1993b; Gandini, 1993; New, 1990). The schools in Reggio Emilia have grown out of three main features: a culture that values children, an intense commitment of a group of parents, and the leadership of a visionary man (Gandini; New, 1990).

Theoretical Perspective:

There is evidence that Reggio Emilia Approach is a constructivist and progressive approach, but how does one explain it? In trying to explain the Reggio Emilia approach, one must look at progressive educators like John Dewey and constructivist theorists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. John Dewey a philosopher, advocated for progressive education and the democratic school with emphasis on project based curriculum that followed student interests (Epstein 1999). Dewey viewed teaching and learning as a process of continual reorganization, reconstruction and transformation of understandings. Dewey saw education as an active and constructive process (not product) that was enhanced through social direction and through joint activity, where people consciously refer to each other's use of material, tools, ideas, capabilities and applications. He believes that learning is a reciprocal and collaborative process and that during a project, no one person knows exactly how things are going to turn out or where they will go. This mutuality of learning encapsulates Dewey's educational philosophies (Rankin 1997).

Piaget and Vygotsky both constructivists, have provided insight about the way children think and how this thinking changes developmentally (Santrock, 2000). Piaget a cognitive constructivist argues that the child is competent and education merely refines the child's cognitive skills that already emerged. Vygotsky a social constructivist states that while the child is competent, education plays a central role through the process of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Language and dialogue are crucial in helping the child learn the tools of the culture.
Examination of the Key elements of Reggio Emilia approach reveals recognition of Piaget's preoperational stages of development, specifically intuitive thought and symbolic function sub-stages. It also recognizes Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development.
Children in the second substage of preoperational thought (approximately 4-7 years of age) want to know the answers to many questions. They seem to know many things intuitively. They are often unaware of what they know.  Children at this stage begin to reconstruct their thought that involve a transition from primitive to a more sophisticated use of symbols to express their ideas (Santrock, 2000). Reggio Emilia educators believe that children have a hundred languages to express their realizations about the world. Other principles of the Reggio Emilia approach such as symbolic representation, image of the child and role of the teacher all evidence recognition of Piaget's sub stage of intuitive thought and symbolic functions.
Vygotsky's ZPD helps advance children's cognitive development through social interaction with skilled educators embedded in a sociocultural backdrop (Santrock, 2000). This supports the Reggio Emilia key principles of education that is based on collaboration, image of the child, role of the parents, role of the environment and the project approach.
Teachers inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, are facilitators, as both Piaget and Vygotsky suggested. They are guides, not directors, who provide support for children to explore and discover knowledge through a topic of their interest. This supports Vygotsky's idea of scaffolding. Reggio Emilia inspired educators use scaffolding to: help children with self initiated learning activities (Elicker 1996), offer just enough assistance, to help a child move to a higher level of skill and knowledge, use more skilled peers as teachers (Reggio teachers recognize the fact that 'not just adults are important in helping children learn important skills') (Gandini 1993), assess the child's ZPD not IQ.
The Reggio Emilia approach just as Piaget and Vygotsky suggested, emphasizes authentic assessment for example, use of portfolios as opposed to formal standardized tests to assess children's learning.

Although, both Piaget and Vygotsky's theories are constructivists, Vygotsky's social constructivist theory emphasizes the social contexts of learning and the fact that knowledge is mutually built and constructed which is the cornerstone of the Reggio Emilia approach.

The implication of Piaget's and Vygotsky's theory for teaching is that children need support to explore their world and discover knowledge as well as many opportunities to learn with teachers and more skilled peers. Thus the Reggio Emilia approach carefully blends the key elements from Piaget's cognitive and Vygotsky's sociocultural constructivist theories. The powerful outcome, according to Santrock (2000), is an approach where children often explore topics in groups. This fosters a sense of community respect for diversity, and a collaborative approach to problem solving. Two co-teachers are present to serve as a guide for the children. Every project is based on what children say and do.
The philosophy of Dewey and the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and other socio_constructivists have assisted in the creation of central operating principles and the core aspects of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Therefore, the central operating principles lead to an integrated approach to education that effectively engages the creativity of young children (Rankin, 1997).

Four Key Factors to Integrating the Principles of Reggio Emilia into Teacher Education:


I.   OBSERVATION: Aquinas College Early childhood pre service teachers actively observe children to learn their interests, and then offer to develop their interests into theories that can be explored and extended.


II.   REPRESENTATION: Working with the laboratory Instructors and the Atelierista the children explore projects of their own theories in the studio. Early Childhood pre service teachers scaffolds and helps children at the laboratory school represents their ideas.


III. DOCUMENTATION: The whole process of exploring a project is documented as the early childhood pre service teachers listen, watch, transcribe, and tape record children's conversations. They also take photos and video tapes. Often the early childhood pre service teachers combine quotes and photos into huge documentation panel (big wall posters). The documentation process give importance to the children's efforts and shows parents and visitors what their children have been doing. 


IV. REVISITATION: Children revisit their experiences often creating new art work that reflects what they have learned. Pre service teacher gain in-depth knowledge about children's thinking while revisiting the documentation with each other, their professors, laboratory instructors and with the children.


The Fundamental Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach:

The following are the fundamental principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach as identified by Louise Boyd Cadwell in her book Bringing Reggio Emilia Home. These principles weave themselves throughout the implementation of the process.
The child as protagonist.  Children are strong, rich, and capable. All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity, and interest in constructing their learning negotiating with everything their environment brings to them. Children, teachers, and parents are considered the three central protagonists in the educational process.
The child as collaborator.  Education has to focus on each child in relation to her children, the family, the teachers, and the community rather on each child in isolation. There is an emphasis on work in small groups. This practice is based on the social constructivist model that supports the idea that we form ourselves through our interaction with peers, adults, things in the world, and symbols.
The child as communicator. This approach fosters children's intellectual development through the systematic focus on symbolic representation, including words, movement, drawing, painting, building, sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, and music which leads children to surprising levels of communication, symbolic skills, and creativity. Children have the right to use many materials in order to discover and communicate what they know, understand, wonder about, question, feel, and imagine. In this way, they make their thinking visible through their many natural languages. A studio teacher, trained in the visual arts, works closely with children and teachers in each school to enable children to explore many materials and to use a grate number of languages to make their thinking visible.
The environment as third teacher.  The design and use of space encourage encounters, communication, and relationships. There is an underlying order and beauty in the design and organization of all space in a school and the equipment and materials within it. Every corner and space has an identity and a purpose, is rich in potential to engage and to communicate, and is valued and cared for by children and adults.
The teacher as partner, nurturer and guide.  Teachers facilitate children's exploration of themes, work on short and long-term projects, and guide experiences of joint, opened-ended discovery and problem solving. To know how to plan and proceed with their work, teachers listen and observe children closely. Teachers ask questions; discover children's ideas, hypotheses, and theories; and provide occasions for discovery and learning.
The teachers as researcher.   Teachers work in pairs and maintain strong collegial relationships with all other teachers and staff, they engage in continuous discussion and interpretation of their work and the work of the children. These exchanges provide ongoing training and theoretical enrichment. Teachers see themselves as researchers preparing documentation of their work with children whom they also consider researches. The team is further supported by a pedagogista (pedagogical coordinator) who serves a group of schools.
The documentation as communication.   Careful consideration and attention are given to the presentation of the thinking of the children and the adults who work with them. Teachers' commentary on the purposes of the study and the children's learning process, transcriptions of children's verbal language (i.e., words and dialogue), photographs of their activity, and representations of their thinking in many media are composed in carefully designed panels or books to present the process of learning in the schools. The documentation serves many purposes. It makes parents aware of their children's experience. It allows teachers to better understand children, to evaluate their own work, and to exchange ideas with other educators. Documentation also shows children that their work is valued. Finally, it creates an archive that traces the history of the school and the pleasure in the process of learning experienced by many children and their teachers.

The parent as partner.  Parent participation is considered essential and takes many forms. Parents play an active role in their children's learning experience and help ensure the welfare of all the children in the school. The ideas and skills that the parents bring to the school and, even more important, the exchange of ideas between parents and teachers, favor the development of a new way of educating, which helps teachers to view the participation of families not as a threat but as an intrinsic element of collegiality and as the integration of different wisdoms (Cadwell, 1997, pp. 5-6).

Cadwell, L. B. (1997). Bringing Reggio Emilia Home. New York : Teachers College Press.
This summary authored by Dr. Nkechy Ezeh, Ed.D.
Last updated on November 1, 2005.