Guest columnist Paul Murphy: Reggio Emilia’s empowering approach to early education


Published: 5/25/2023 3:51:21 PM
Modified: 5/25/2023 3:48:52 PM

I am a proud early childhood educator working on the Preschool Teaching Team along with Meem Carry and Kate Nicolaou at the Hampshire College Early Learning Center in Amherst. I am writing to share about an inspiring trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy that I went on for a week in mid-April with my school director Ronit Ben-Shir to participate in an international study group with 430 educators from 27 countries.

We were there to learn from and with educators from the city of Reggio Emilia, a small and spirited city in northern Italy. The Reggio Emilia approach to education, and specifically infant, toddler and preschool education, has influenced and inspired educators and schools around the world. During our week participating in the immersive study group we were able to see many great presentations from the educators in Reggio Emilia, visit several of the schools firsthand, network and dialogue with colleagues from all over the world, and bring some of this learning, professional development and inspiration back to our work in education here in our region.

Reggio Emilia has a long and storied history of pushing the envelope and continually evolving the possibilities for what education can look like, and they also have a revolutionary spirit and strong history of fighting against fascism and authoritarian rule. These two threads converged in the immediate aftermath of World War ll, when the community came together to literally build a school with the bricks from bombed-out buildings, and women led the way in fighting for the rights of children to have a quality education.

In the Reggio Emilia approach, you can see the pushback against fascism and toward an education system and society that values freedom, democracy, engaged citizenry, critical thinking, and creative expression in all the languages of art and expression available to children.

The image of the child is that of a young learner and researcher capable of being the protagonist in their own learning, educational, and life experiences. From this starting point all things are possible, and the curiosities, questions, ideas, words, insights and creativity of the children is centered in the classrooms.

Children are viewed as quite capable of having big discussions and thinking about the world and articulating profound ideas about many topics, including politics, social justice, the environment, social relations, the gender spectrum, and more. In fact, children are viewed as active citizens right now — not just in the future — and as an educator researching, dialoguing, and learning alongside children, one becomes struck by how much children have to teach us and how much they have to contribute in all areas!

So during the study group, Reggio educators made it clear that they were not there to give us answers but hoped that we would leave with more questions than we came with. They were interested in a reciprocal dialogue with us educators from around the world, recognizing that we all have important ideas and inspirations to share with each other as we continue our interactive learning and research with the children in our own contexts and places in the world.

Early childhood education is a crucial stage of education and life because it is where the foundational learning for all other learning to come happens: early math, early literacy, science, engineering, creative expression, etc. Learning through play and direct experience is powerful.

Also, it is a place where we first learn how to treat each other as human beings! How do we include others? How do we express ourselves when our feelings are hurt? How do we share and take turns? Figuring out how to make space, and take space. Working on helping each other and being in community together. How do we feel empowered, have a voice, speak up for ourselves and stand up for others? Learn how to be active and engaged citizens?

There are many kinds of learning and intelligences. Social learning, social skills, and emotional intelligence are very important and make our relationships with each other better and the world a more peaceful place. This kind of learning and intelligence is central in early childhood education. And when given the opportunity, children have so many ways to teach and inspire us — with their creativity, kindness, compassion, intellect, and curiosity for people and the world and — also with their capabilities for problem solving, thinking outside the box, and making many valuable contributions to their schools, communities, and the world!

Paul Murphy is on the Preschool Teaching Team at the Hampshire College Early Learning Center in Amherst. 

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