What to Know About the Reggio Emilia Approach

Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood teaching. Here's everything parents need to know about this educational philosophy.

Reggio Emilia is both a city in northern Italy devastated after World War II and an educational approach. The city's people developed it as part of their efforts to rebuild after the war.

"The citizens of the community came together and said, 'What do we want? What do we value? And what do we want to be important to our new community that we're rebuilding?'" says Kristin Papoi, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Out of the rubble, with the bricks of the cobblestone streets in the town, they rebuilt their schools."

Reggio Emilia schools are only found in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Schools in other parts of the world that rely on the approach's principles are considered Reggio Emilia-inspired. Read on to learn about the Reggio Emilia philosophy, its pros and cons, and how it differs from the Montessori method.

An image of a toddler painting.
Getty Images.

Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach

The Reggio Emilia approach, designed primarily for infants to preschoolers, places children at the center of their learning, Dr. Papoi says. "The child is assumed to have rights and to have the knowledge of how they need to learn and should be learning."

The philosophy has seven main principles:

  1. Children can construct their own learning.
  2. Children are collaborators in relationships with each other, teachers, parents, and their environment.
  3. Children are natural communicators and are encouraged to express themselves.
  4. The classroom environment provides a sense of belonging.
  5. Teachers are partners in children's learning.
  6. Documentation is an essential component of learning.
  7. Parents are partners in their child's learning and are encouraged to play an active role in their child's education.

A key text for the educational philosophy is the poem 100 Languages, written by Loris Malaguzzi, the Reggio Emilia movement's founder. It assumes that children have 100 languages, such as the language of dance, art, laughter, play, and song, which they use to make sense of the world.

To learn, they need access to all those languages. But, the poem says, traditional educational practices where children are told to listen and not speak or think without doing, rob them of those various languages.

How Children Learn in Reggio Emilia-Inspired Schools

What children do during school relies primarily on what they're curious about. Teachers talk to students about their interests or notice what they gravitate toward and then support and observe the children as they explore the topic.

Classrooms, considered the "third teacher," are stocked with various materials that encourage creative expression and learning. Students work on projects based on their interests, and collaboration is encouraged.

Children might come away from their work learning letters or numbers, but it depends on what they're working on. "If I see a kid very interested in mark-making using the paints I've provided…we might do some exploration of that," Dr. Papoi says. "But there is no set curriculum that says, 'Here's how you do the letters and numbers.' Those things will come."

Advantages of the Reggio Emilia Approach

There is a lack of formal evaluation or robust empirical evidence evaluating the outcomes of the Reggio Emilia learning method. However, 2018 Italian research compared kids exposed to the Reggio preschool approach to children who did not attend preschool and those who attended different preschools. Researchers found that compared to those who did not attend preschool, the Reggio-educated students had better outcomes in:

  • Employment
  • Socio-emotional skills
  • High school graduation
  • Participation in elections
  • Obesity rates

There were no significant differences, however, when compared to kids who attended a different style of preschool.

Beyond long-term outcomes, proponents of the method point to how Reggio Emilia schools encourage kids to be active, eager, hands-on learners. Namely, through research and exploration, children learn to be problem-solvers.

Disadvantages of the Reggio Emilia Approach

Reggio Emilia schools in Italy are public schools open to all children regardless of socioeconomic status. In the United States, Reggio-inspired schools are primarily private and too expensive for most families. And many are spaces predominantly white with white families and educators, which can feel jarring for children of color.

"Even a well-resourced and elite, predominantly white school can leave a child of color feeling excluded, isolated, unmotivated, and lacking really healthy racial identity," says Valerie I. Harrison, Ph.D., co-author of Do Right By Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces.

When considering schools, Dr. Harrison encourages parents of all races to ensure that the program recognizes and celebrates diverse cultural traditions and has recruitment practices that promote diversity among teachers and students.

How Reggio Emilia Compares to Montessori

The two approaches have a lot in common, says Catherine McTamaney, Ed.D., associate professor of the practice of education at Vanderbilt University. They are both community-centered spaces focusing on following the child and their potential.

One place they differ, however, is in the materials, says Dr. McTamaney. Montessori classrooms are stocked with instructional materials designed specifically for the approach. But in Reggio Emilia, the entire world is filled with materials that could lead to learning.

Another difference is that while fostering independence is a crucial Montessori skill, collaboration is centered in Reggio Emilia.

Reggio Emilia-Style Activities

What happens inside classrooms depends on the kids' interests and which of the "100 languages" they want to use.

What happened inside the Reggio-inspired Helen Gordon Child Development Center in Portland, Oregon, is typical. First, children were interested in birds, and their discussion eventually focused on birds' eyes, says Will Parnell, Ed.D., a Portland State University professor and the center's pedagogical liaison. Soon, they were discussing the differences between animal and human eyes and creating art based on their discussions. "It can be very organic," says Dr. Parnell.

What to Look for in a Reggio Emilia-Inspired School

An important practice of any Reggio-inspired school is that children should be present even in their absence, Dr. Parnell says. Walls, for example, might be filled with children's artwork and quotes about their projects. He adds that providing a welcoming space is another key aspect of the philosophy. The entryway, for example, should be filled with information about the school's philosophy and news.

"What they really believe at the end of the day…is that children are born wanting to be with us," he says. "And if we can express that through welcome, then we are opening ourselves to the child who wants to be with us."

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