- Early Childhood
When I tell people I work in a “Reggio-inspired” preschool program, I get a whole range of responses from blank stares to genuine curiosity, peppered with follow-up questions like “Isn’t that basically Montessori?” (Which it isn’t). Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience when trying to describe your own child’s experience at Clark or your decision to begin their education here.
What is Reggio?
By its nature, “being Reggio” means a variety of different things and can play out in a variety of different ways. To me, it’s sitting back and listening to the conversations that happen between kids in my classroom and waiting for the perfect opportunity to jump in and extend their learning. It also means getting to know my students on a personal level, so that I can use their interests and curiosities to guide our learning as a class. When social conflicts arise, as we expect with a group of four and five-year-olds, we try to guide students to their own resolution instead of trying to solve the problem for them.
Kids this age are capable of a lot more than many adults sometimes give them credit for and we try to honor that. In our classroom, you will see natural, open-ended materials that can be used in many different contexts and for many purposes. The process of thinking through which materials to use at a certain time is an important part of our students’ learning. There is a common misconception about Reggio classrooms that if five-year-olds are in charge it must be chaotic. In fact, when my students are in the middle of a project that they care deeply about, our classroom is the furthest thing from chaos. Yes, our excitement usually means that it’s a total mess, as we pull out blocks and art materials and loose parts to work with, but it is an engaging, beautiful mess to say the least.
Reggio in Action: The Polar Bear Hotel
The best way to really explain Reggio is to give you a picture of what it looks like in action. Last year, one spring morning, I added a projector to our blocks area in the classroom and was caught off guard by the way the kids responded to it (with total amazement and excitement) and the project it initiated.
I set the projector up with a cityscape showing on the wall so that the shadow of their blocks would show as part of the image too. They started out building “bridges and buildings” and really exploring the shadows their blocks made on the wall. As happens, somehow always on rainy mornings right before Spring Break, technology was not cooperating with me. The projector kept switching into “sleep” mode, changing my beautiful city skyline to a nice blue square. Fortunately, the only person experiencing frustration with this was me. One student declared that it made his building “look like it was covered in ice” and asked me to please “turn it back on.” From there a month-long project, which came to be known as “The Polar Bear Hotel,” was born.
A small group, inspired by their friend’s imagery of an ice-covered building, spent that morning working together experimenting with blocks and the projector. While they built, they talked about and sometimes argued passionately over which blocks should go where and what their creation was going to ultimately become.
Over the course of their play, they agreed upon a “hotel for polar bears.” When they were finished, the rest of our class gathered around the hotel and they shared it with us. They explained what they had made and their reasoning behind the materials they had chosen to use. The rest of our class offered suggestions and asked questions like, “Don’t you need penguins in it?” and “Where are the doors?” Our class was so excited about this work that they made signs to tape to it asking any visitors to our classroom not to destroy it.
The next morning at our class meeting, many students expressed worry about the possibility of it falling over. The children decided to trace the outline of the hotel on butcher paper so that it could be saved. Many students suggested that we could paint it so that it looked like it had ice and snow on it like they had imagined. A small group of students, different than those who were involved in building the hotel, worked on painting it that morning and adding some artistic details to our paper version of the Polar Bear Hotel.
The kids spent the next few days looking through books for inspiration on how to paint polar bears and penguins so that they could get it just right. When all was said and done, we had a beautiful mural on the wall in our classroom. Each student had played a role in either building the initial hotel with blocks or transferring onto paper with paint. It made for the perfect backdrop for imaginative play with polar bears and other Arctic life, which totally fascinated our class.
Taking Reggio to the Next Level: “Starving at the Polar Bear Hotel”
At our class meeting, about five days after all of this had begun, I asked the children to think about whether they were finished with this work or whether they saw it going somewhere further. A student suggested that we should write a story about the Polar Bear Hotel and literally everyone jumped at that. It doesn’t happen very often that every member of our class is interested and excited about the same thing, so I knew we must really be onto something amazing with this one! Some students suggested writing a play, others wanted to do a puppet show, and many agreed with all of the options presented and couldn’t decide. Through a lot of conversation and a classroom vote, we decided to write a book together to share with our families since we had already done a puppet show earlier in the year.
The Creation Process
Over the course of the next two weeks, we worked as a large group and individually to write and edit the story, illustrate it using paper and digital materials, and then record the kids’ voices narrating the story. I wish now that I had videos of our class sitting around the carpet at our meetings, brainstorming names for our main characters, arguing over what our title should be, and belly laughing about plot details like “penguins watching plants grow on TV.” This is truly Reggio at its core and what I love so much about it. Following the kids’ lead took us through some uncharted territory, but they learned so much along the way because they cared so deeply about what they were doing.
When the book was finished, we invited all of our families to join us for a “Book Release Party.” We shared with them the world premiere of the digital version of our book, with the kids’ voices narrating the story, and also sent home with each family a printed copy to keep. A major focus of the Reggio model is documenting students’ learning. Before we shared our final product, the children explained the evolution of this project to their families and we shared pictures with them of each step of the project. Documenting learning in this way communicates to kids that we value their work and that it’s not “just play.”
Learning Through the Process
In this month-long journey, our students explored so many different skills.
- Story elements like plot, character, and setting
- Fine motor and handwriting
- Social skills and navigating small group work
- Oral language and presentation skills
- Using technology as a resource to do research or create a final product
- Perseverance through difficult tasks
- Science concepts like shadows
- Spatial awareness
- Dramatic play
As you can see, the academic and social benefits that can come from such an experience are significant! When children are fully engaged and passionate about what they are doing it makes for some truly meaningful learning. To me, that’s Reggio.
Watch Now: "Starving at the Polar Bear Hotel"
About the Author
Preschool 4/5 Teacher