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Reggio Emilia Education Philosophy Sweeps Tucson and the World

Children at Desert Spring Children’s Center in Tucson, Ariz. play with the natural materials at the Reggio Emilia inspired school. (Photo provided by Desert Spring Children’s Center)

Reggio Emilia is an alternative approach to early childhood education that is gathering more and more attention in Arizona.

The program allows children to see their value in their learning community. The philosophy hit the United States about 12 to 15 years ago, and has grown in schools since then.

The North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) is an organization that promotes the spread of the Reggio philosophy throughout education facilities across the nation.

NAREA held its fourth winter conference in Tucson last weekend at the Tucson Marriot University Park Hotel. Tucson Children’s Project, the University of Arizona and Head Start Children Parent Centers hosted the conference.

“Tucson is unique,” said Reggio educator Andrea Buttrick. “Unique in the way we’ve supported each other in collaborating and growing.”

This uniqueness ties into the winter conference in Tucson, titled “Walls into Bridges: Transforming Challenges into Opportunities.” It focused on turning the challenges the Reggio philosophy faces in Tucson into occasions in which educators can put this philosophy into practice.

Rebecca Zapien, a program coordinator in the College of Education at the University of Arizona and a board member of the Tucson Children’s Project, was one of the lead coordinators for the conference. It featured presentations by Reggio educators and three panel discussions with local educators and parents, which centered on different topics.

The Reggio philosophy is sweeping through schools in Tucson and all over the world. The basis of the approach is believing in the child and allowing them to act like such and create their own experiences.

The classroom at Desert Spring Children’s Center encorporates natural elements for children to interact with, such as wood, glass, metal, and fabrics. Making the learning enviornment authentic is a key aspect to the Reggio Emilia approach and the classroom reflects this belief. (Photo by: Megan Merrimac)

The Reggio Emilia approach comes from the northern region of Reggio Emilia in Italy. The philosophy was built post World War II as a way to rebuild the community. The founding director, Loris Malaguzzi, designed the system around the power of each child and education based on relationships.

The NAREA website states that the mission of the philosophy is “to build a diverse community of advocates and educators to promote and defend the rights of children, families, and educators of all cultures through a collaboration of colleagues inspired by the philosophies and experiences of the 0-6 education project of Reggio Emilia, Italy.”

Zapien is an avid supporter of the approach and sent her two children to a Reggio inspired school because she feels it allows for a more progressive experience.

“I think that helps them have a natural interest in learning. I think it allows for them to be more self confident and at the same time, build a community of learners with their peers as opposed to being told that they have to do this,” she said. “I feel like for a learner in a new setting, it’s a much more positive experience and authentic experience.”

To Buttrick, a co-teacher of a Reggio inspired preschool in Tucson called Desert Spring Children’s Center, the philosophy centers on the reality that every child is competent and has a great deal to contribute.

“Children are born competent, born whole and complete beings capable of forming connections and desiring of connections, and full capable competent researchers of their environments and of their relationships,” Buttrick said. “As opposed to being less than human, or less than full members of the community, the educators in Reggio really claim for children full citizenship of the world and therefore deserving of all of these rights of citizenship and service by their adults and by their educators.”

Buttrick became interested in the Reggio philosophy when she came to Desert Spring Children’s Center six years ago. In her interview, she was asked if she had heard of the philosophy and she said she had, but wasn’t fully aware of its depth.

The assistant director of the school gave her the book, “The Hundred Languages of Children” and she read it. She fell in love with the philosophy and felt that it honored the children as well as herself as an educator.

“This is it,” said Buttrick about how she felt upon completing the book. “This is the language that I feel like I have known and never had words for. This is the connection that I feel like I’ve always wanted.”

Another portion of the classroom at the early education center also focuses on bringing nature into the learning environment. (Photo by: Megan Merrimac)

Although Desert Spring Children’s Center has been open for more than 25 years, it has only been actively practicing the Reggio philosophy for about six. It is a preschool for children age’s three to five.

There are, however, Reggio inspired elementary schools in Tucson that children can choose to attend after completion in preschool. One such school opened its doors for the conference so attendees could see how it functions on a daily basis, Ochoa Community Magnet School.

The concept of experiential based learning is a huge component in the Reggio philosophy. The thought behind this approach is that children learn by doing, not by what they are told. Under this approach, children spend more time playing then doing structured activities with designated times for each activity.

“To me, a lot of where we are practicing the Reggio philosophy at Desert Spring is in reclaiming childhood. So not only just play for learning sake, but play for the sake of being a human being,” said Buttrick.

Documentation is another important portion of the philosophy. The educators of in a Reggio classroom spend most of their time taking photos, thinking of critical questions they can ask to advance a child’s learning, taking notes on behavior, as well as creating portfolios of the children’s work.

For Buttrick, this documentation serves several purposes. The first, and most important purpose for Buttrick, is that it deepens the child’s learning.

When a child creates a project, the process of that creation is documented. Upon completion, the educators will then offer the child back their work, usually in the form of photographs, to show them what they have accomplished.

“It allows children to see that their learning has value,” Buttrick said.

Another large component to documentation is that it allows the child’s parents see what their children are accomplishing as well.

“They get to see the moments of the day that they miss because they’re not here and they get to be reintroduced to their child as a competent member of a learning community,” said Buttrick.

Assessment is a huge aspect to early childhood education and documentation allows for this to be done more naturally. Assessment in the public school system has become standardized, and the Reggio philosophy does not believe in these types of evaluations. Leaders are able to dodge a lot of the requirements because they are a private nonprofit organization. However, through the use of documentation, they are able to evaluate the children in a way that covers many more aspects than the standardized tests do.

“Those standardized tests are very reflective of what we value as a culture and honestly, children are engaged in things that we have not put a lot of value on and it’s the human experience and its really amazing,” said Buttrick.

The assessment aspect is starting to shift around the world. For example, at Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., officials recently refused to give out standardized tests because they feel such exams do not benefit their students.

Texas is another state that is standing up to them. In the budget for 2014-2015, the Texas House of Representatives has provided zero dollars for standardized testing. Although it has not been approved, it is a huge step for those who disprove of the power of the tests, such as the Reggio supporters.

Children use different materials to make paper constructions at the preschool. (Photo provided by Desert Spring Children’s Center)

As the world becomes more familiar with this type of learning technique, the education for those interested in this philosophy also deepens.

Take for instance the University of Arizona. Zapien explained how their program in the College of Education works to give students the opportunity to explore the other types of learning options, and even complete their student teaching in settings such as Reggio inspired schools.

“Once they become placed in their student teaching experience and collaborate with their mentor teacher, they are able to not only see it as an observer in their first semester but also, in their second semester, actually co-teach with their mentor teacher and experience that and explore intimately, she said.

Buttrick agrees that although these opportunities used to not be available for students, schools like the University of Arizona are trying to incorporate them into their education.

The world is changing, and so are the philosophies that are based around educating tomorrow’s brilliant minds of the world.

“A lot of corporations and companies […] used to want leaders,” said Buttrick. “They want collaborators now. They want people who can be members of a team; they want people who can think outside of the box, who can think creatively and constructively. These children that are walking out of this classroom, they’re going to think that way and it’s going to be pretty awesome.”

It is hard to put a number on how many schools there are across Arizona and the world that practice this philosophy, because it is not a formal model. This means that it does not have defined methods, teacher certification standards, or accreditation processes.

“What the Reggio philosophy has done is rewarded my humanity and my spirit and reminded me to do it joyfully,” said Buttrick.

She then added an Italian philosophy that honors the Reggio approach, “niente senza gioia,” meaning nothing without joy.

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