Art in Early Childhood Education – Reggio-Inspired Curriculum
With my recent return to working in Early Childhood Education after pausing to start my own little family, I have been reviewing some of the documents from my time in training to be an ECE. Looking back through and reflecting on the materials I was fully engrossed with during my time at Capilano University, I found this article on art in early childhood education that I had written as part of an assignment.
I thought that I would share it with you, as it is my own personal exploration of the Reggio philosophy that I find is my main guide when developing plans and engaging in the day-to-day experiences with children. Although I try to pick the best bits from each philosophy and use the pieces that are most important to me, I find the ideas behind Reggio resonate with me the most. In sharing this, I hope that it might help others to understand more about where it is I come from in my personal childcare and education philosophy, and use it to help explain some of the ideas and experiences I plan on sharing through this blog.
I am including the entirety of my paper – without alterations – so it may be definitely is a lot more… technical than the simple and relatable posts you might be used to reading here. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it and can gain a greater understanding of Reggio-inspired early education, and why I believe art in early childhood education is such an important part of curriculum.
Art as Curriculum for Reggio Emilia
An exploration of art promotion in Reggio Emilia early education
Who is this “Reggio Emilia” I’ve heard so often referred to in reference to early education? That is the question I wondered to myself in the past, and one that I’m glad to have inquired about. In this paper I intend to discuss how art is promoted in the early education centers of Reggio Emilia – which is, in fact, a town in Italy rather than a person – and why this artistic approach which integrates ideas of Dewey, Bruner, Montessori, and others (Schroeder-Yu, 2008) is so valuable to learning.
History of Reggio in the Context of Early Childhood Education
Reggio Emilia schooling began with “a group of parents in the [post World War II] war-torn village of Villa Cella, Italy who decided to build and run a school for young children” (Wexler, 2004, p.13). The parents were interested in more than simply having their children ‘babysat’, and so they enlisted the services of Loris Malaguzzi as a voice for this approach (New, 2007). Malaguzzi, in line with the Reggio Emilia philosophy, saw children as “creative, capable learners from the moment of birth” (Fawcett & Hay, 2004, p.236). Through his writing of The Hundred Languages of Children, Malaguzzi spoke to the world of the variety of methods children use to represent their ideas and experiences, and communicate them to the world (Fawcett & Hay, 2004; Wexler, 2004). This poem evolved into a book and a touring exhibition of children’s art work (Wexler, 2004).
Today there are “more than 21 city-run preschools, 13 infant-toddler centers, and 12 schools owned and operated as cooperatives” (Kang, 2007, p.45) and the preschools of Reggio Emilia have demonstrated the desire to share their approach with the world by inviting one country, every month of each year, to visit their schools and converse with the educators (Wexler, 2004).
Why Promote Art?
As Schroeder-Yu describes, “the Reggio Emilia philosophy of ‘art’ for children is a definite departure from what many teachers are taught in the United States, and challenges many assumptions about the use of art in early childhood classrooms” (2008, p.128). The first and foremost idea behind the emphasis placed on children engaging in art is that there are multiple ways of knowing, and thus multiple mediums for the expression of ideas that must be provided in order to allow every child a voice with which to communicate their understandings, thoughts and feelings (Fawcett & Hay, 2004).
Finding a way to express oneself – through artistic means – leads to self-discovery. Kang speaks to this in writing “[the] means by which Reggio Emilia schools encouraged children to build their languages…increased the possibility of children developing and representing their own ideas, feelings, and thoughts” (2007, p.47). When children can learn the art of expression, they can communicate with others and exchange ideas, leading to collaboration and social interaction (Kang, 2007). Quoting the words of Nimmo, Kang explains that “representation is more than the expressive act of an individual; it is, instead, an invitation to interact” (2007, p.48).
How Art is Supported
Time is not to be restrained as projects (as referred to as progettazione) are part of an emergent curriculum, on-going over a long period and are open-ended so as to offer extensions and multiple possibilities to arise (New, 2007). Children need the time to explore at their own pace, and educators of Reggio Emilia preschools give their children the gift of time for listening, and in doing so are also to “listen” to the children (Wexler, 2004). In listening to the children the educators become learners themselves and better teachers as they become able to create a curriculum that is meaningful to both the teacher and the children, offering the children experiences to learn by extension of their interests (New, 2007).
Another means by which art is supported in the Reggio philosophy is through the “aesthetic beauty that permeates every corner of the schools (Wexler, 2004).” This beauty seems to be reflective of the Italian culture, not only the schools, and serves a multitude of purposes. Besides “putting one’s best self forward” in the style of bella figura, giving an attention to aesthetics allows the children to notice and appreciate the elements of art, helps parents and others feel at ease, and satisfies the teachers’ needs as well (New, 2007). By presenting the children’s works of art in this carefully considered way, it shows that the children’s ideas and work are respected and valued by the community (Kang, 2007).
Many different types of materials are offered to engage the children – raw materials, recycled materials, and of all sorts of variety – which encourage and provide children with the means to “build their languages” (Kang, 2007, p.47). With the use of the recycled and open-ended materials children can make use of their imagination by creating meanings and uses for these items (Kang, 2007).
Artists are employed in early education centers as atelieristas – “permanent full-time member(s) of staff in every preschool” (Fawcett & Hay, 2004) to promote creativity and provide the tools necessary to explore and engage in different ways to express oneself. These artists work as enablers of the children, supported by atelier (studios within the schools), providing them with the materials and the artist’s expertise to represent their ideas through the various mediums (Fawcett & Hay, 2004; New, 2007).
Documentation and its Many Uses
As Fawcett & Hay demonstrate, “documentation is at the heart of this approach” (2004, p.243). It is another great support of art expression as children can see traces of the process they have been involved in and look back at their learning to reinforce it (Schroeder-Yu, 2008). Documentation provides a base for educator discussion and reflection in which we can learn from children and can help to give ideas for further activities that will be of interest to the children and meaningful for the adults as well (Fawcett & Hay, 2004).
When documentation of children’s art and artistic processes are provided in a thoughtful and aesthetic manner, it shows a respect for children and their works which can help build confidence and self-esteem (Kang, 2007). Through careful documentation in pictures, art in progress or final form, and captured dialogues the parents and the rest of the community can be involved and better see what is being learnt, and how their children’s learning is progressing (Fawcett & Hay, 2004). This leads to a sense of community, connection and contribution (Kang, 2007). Documentation also allows us to focus on the process of the experience, life moment-by-moment, as it “moves us beyond an interest in outcomes and moves us to an exploration of the relationships and feelings that form the context and stuff of educative experience” (Schroeder-Yu, 2008, p.132).
Although the ideas that Reggio Emilia have brought about for early childhood education hold significant value, “they do not constitute a recipe to be copied” (Fawcett & Hay, 2004, p.236). As Wexler states, “we cannot ‘blindly copy’ Reggio Emilia” (2004) but we must remodel the ideas to fit in our own culture and our own time. This is in line with Vygotsky’s idea that we need “culturally constituted mediational means to accomplish goals particular to local circumstances” (New, 2007). We need to find a way to transmit the values behind the schools of Reggio Emilia into a practice that is culturally meaningful to us. “If we are willing to walk without looking for a known destination we might find wisdom… and remake pedagogy that looks more like living. Without the emotions of love, friendship, caring, joy, conflict, and uncertainty, school is only a shadow of life (Wexler, 2004).”
As an approach to doing early childhood education, I find the artistic approach in the schools of Reggio Emilia to offer much inspiration as practices that hold many potentials to help children discover, with our help as enablers, their own identities and capabilities.
Fawcett, M. & Hay, P. (2004). 5x5x5 = Creativity in the Early Years. International Journal of Art and Design Education, 23(3), 234-245.
Kang, J. (2007). How Many Languages Can Reggio Children Speak? Many More Than a Hundred! Gifted Child Today, 30(3), 45-48 & 65.
New, R.S. (2007). Reggio Emilia as Cultural Activity Theory in Practice. Theory Into Practice, 46(1), 5-13.
Nimmo, J. (1998). The child in community: Constraints from the early childhood lore. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The Hundred Languages of Children (2nd ed., p.295-312). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Schroeder-Yu, G. (2008). Documentation: Ideas and Applications from the Reggio Emilia Approach. Teaching Artist Journal, 6(2), 126-134.
Wexler, A. (2004). A Theory for Living: Walking With Reggio Emilia. Art Education, 57(6), 13-19.
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