Reggio Emilia is a place.
Given that the words ‘Reggio Emilia’ often focus our attention on an approach to early childhood education, it is worth remembering that this approach to early learning that has generated so much worldwide attention, is located within a city – and that city can explain if you look for it, the essence of the Reggio Emilia project.
Located in the Emilia Romagna region in the northern part of Italy, Reggio Emilia is a city steeped in culture, community and democracy. It is known for architecture, fashion, flags, cheese, bikes and importantly -children and if, like many, you seek to understand the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, you need to first understand the city.
The Reggio Emilia project invites us to consider deeply the role of community, as this project is not so much an approach to early childhood education but a breathing, pulsing social context. It provides us with a model that situates quality early learning environments as a community good. The community needs to reflect the children that live in it. When you take an approach to children that places them isolation to the broader community, you ignore the multiple social and cultural interactions that are required to shape them. Childhood is socially constructed and in the city of Reggio Emilia, you will see the social, cultural, historical and political elements that have informed an educational approach for their youngest citizens.
The qualities and values of the city of Reggio Emilia are central to the Reggio Emilia project. While much is written about the way this city and its citizens approach early learning, experiencing the city itself provides a valuable context in deepening our understanding. It has been said before that you cannot really understand the Reggio Emilia project unless you understand the city that gave birth to it.
I have recently had the opportunity to spend 9 days in this beautiful part of the world. I have been here before and it feels familiar and welcoming, as I visit regular haunts and find new ones. Each encounter or experience further ‘fleshing’ out for me the nuances of the link between the city of Reggio Emilia and early childhood education. To visit Reggio Emilia and focus solely on the project itself and the early learning environments contained within it is to miss out on experiencing the very necessary community infrastructure that supports it.
Any travel blog or visitor information guide will give you information about what to do and see if you should be lucky enough to spend time here, but for those of us who, keen to understand the role of the community in how we teach young children, you need to really ‘look’ at the city. You cannot walk the streets of Reggio Emilia firmly looking ahead. You have to look up and look down to see what is really there.
A pedagogy of paying attention perhaps!
Each time I visit there are 8 things I immediately want to see, eat, and touch that help make my connection more visceral. These 8 things help give me a glimpse into culture, history and politics and allow me to more fully understand the link between community and early learning.
- Take a walk around Piazza Fontanesi. Named after the painter – Antonio Fontanesi it is surrounded by beautiful trees and breathtaking architecture and it is wonderful. A lot of families and children meet to talk and play here, and it is a delight whatever time of year you visit. Make sure you look up to see the art between the arches. While you are in the Piazza make sure you take the time for an Aperitivo at a bar called Rookie. Marco, a born and bred local, will happily make you an amazing drink, have a conversation and if you ask, will share his Spotify playlist!
- Parco Alcide Cervi is a local park where children play, and dogs run. There is the most beautiful piece of sculpture, dedicated to the Teachers of Italy, at the entrance to this park and it is worth a visit just to see that. Take a look at it from different angles as it seems to reveal different aspects as you move around it.
- Italy is a country full of religious artefacts and churches and while there are some beautiful churches and cathedrals in this city, I love taking a look at the beautiful mosaic tiles embedded in a wall on the corner of the Piazza Di S. Giovanni. Seemingly out of place high up in a wall, you might walk past them and never see it.
- At the bottom of the Galleria Parmeggiani is a quirky bronze and clay sculpture situated in the corner of the wall. Part animal, part beast – I’m not sure, but I love running my hands over this as I walk past, and it makes think of the many children who probably do the same. (Via Gennari Renzo Medaglia D’Oro).
- Eat a slice or two of Erbazonne pie. A simple regional dish that combines spinach, (chard), onions, garlic and Parmigiano. It is a local staple and it works well with both coffee and wine! I have eaten this pie at restaurants, markets, train stations and Kindergartens and I have never had a bad one.
- Visit the Sala del Tricolore, located at the Piazza Camille Prampolini. While a flag museum may not be high on everyone’s list of things to do, this museum, located with the municipal building, displays objects, documents and artefacts that relate to the history of the iconic Tri colour Italian flag, which has its origins in Reggio Emilia. The Reggio Emilia project has its origins in the political context of post-war Italy and this beautiful and very old space, steeped in history gives you a strong sense of that.
- Take a look at the flagship store of Max Mara, a high-end fashion house that was founded in Reggio Emilia and still operates locally. Italians love their fashion and I have often reflected on the fact that this city has been responsible for two things of great interest to me, children and fashion. Even if you buy nothing, and that would be most of us- the store is a visual feast. (Via Emilia San Pietro 14b)
- For a wonderful piece of street art take a look at ‘ Fami.Lies’. This piece of stencil art can be found on the corner of Vicolo Delle Rose and Via Palazzolo. I like the juxtaposition that this type of art, modern and sometimes fleeting, located on some of the very oldest buildings, offers to us, and I like standing to look at it and wondering who painted it and what it means.
The challenge after spending time in this city is to try and work out what this all means in our local context. If you had to list 8 things that demonstrate your connectedness to your local environment what would they be?
What 8 things would you point out to others to explain your cultural context?
It is important that we think about this if our aim is to use the provocations that Reggio Emilia offers us to develop our own local responses. As Howard Gardner states:
“The Reggio Approach in other parts of the world outside Reggio only makes sense if we are capable of re-inventing it if we are capable of understanding the context we work in, the values in which each culture believes” (Howard Gardner, 1997).
Carla Rinaldi has written of the need to have more ‘Reggios’. By this, she means not places that aim to replicate what is already being done but rather other places and communities that embark on their own local projects.
I think the way forward in doing this is to really understand who our community is and how we might reflect this within our early learning environments.
Karen Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing are strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via website at: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.karenhopeconsulting.com