Children as Visible Citizens
I had the privilege of attending a week long Educator Study Tour to Reggio Emila, Italy in May with 11 other Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool teachers and staff. We joined 150 other educators from a 5 State Collaborative group that have been working together for the past 10 years.
Reggio Emilia is a town of 170,000 inhabitants located in northern Italy. In 1991, Newsweek named Reggio Emilia’s municipally-operated infant/toddler centers and preschools among the 10 best educational programs in the world.
Since that time, worldwide interest in the unique and provocative experiences of children, families and teachers who live a daily life in these schools has exploded. People from many countries have visited Reggio Emilia to study how they design schools to be places where learning, teaching, childhood, community, and family participation are celebrated.
When you visit Reggio Emilia, it becomes clear that children are almost always present in the public sphere. Babies in arms at public meetings, children biking through piazzas, teenagers sitting in groups in the park.
The belief that children have a right to be seen and heard is reflected in the overall feel of the city. Hard to know which came first, but you might imagine that as a generation of individuals, who were once children that attended Reggio’s world-renowned infant/toddler centers and preschools, became parents themselves, they held without question the expectation of high-quality, joyful, exciting, loving, thoughtful, provocative, curiosity-stimulating, socially dynamic early education environments. In this way, parents are a sort of guarantor of high quality in their children’s education and care.
I noticed that the teachers in Reggio often asked the children questions beginning with the specific phrase of “In your opinion, ….” To me, that distinctly displays a respectfulness toward the children and lets the children know that their ideas matter. By using this specific phrasing of our language toward the children I feel we can improve upon how we speak to them and how we encourage ideas from the children through our questions.
In Reggio Emilia, adults explore topics like human rights alongside the youngest of children who, when seen and heard as fellow citizens, offer provocative and fresh ideas about ideas that grown-ups sometimes mistakenly imagine they have already figured out.
This respect for human rights seems woven into the fabric of the city. It is a community that has welcomed immigrants, granting them the same rights to early education that all the citizens of Reggio have traditionally been privileged to enjoy for decades. They speak often of context in Reggio, and the context of place is very important. From their viewpoint, a child is growing up in a specific corner of the world, which is unlike any other corner of the world. Where you are matters. A key early experience of childhood, and an experience that extends throughout the lifespan, is the ongoing effort to create a sense of belonging. This effort has especially strong implications for children’s development, including their sense of identity, their competence as a communicator of ideas, their willing ability to problem solve, and on and on.
For some educators (and, increasingly, parents), encountering this educational philosophy is almost life-changing. The potential of education is evident in Reggio Emilia, and the values that are living and breathing there refresh teachers who strive to build similar schools in their own communities. The schools of Reggio Emilia are built on relationships, on respect, on the lifelong desire to learn and an almost worshipful respect for curiosity and beauty and joyful interaction.
As I reflect on our Study Tour, I am left with many questions and thoughts as we move forward - What is the kind of school that we strive to be? What values do we want to see expressed in our choices and our ways of being together? What do we want children to learn from us about learning, and what do we want to learn from them?
This quote by Reggio educator, Carlina Rinaldi will be our guiding voice as we “unpack” our experience from our Study Tour, “From the beginning, children demonstrate that they have a voice, know how to listen and want to be listened to by others”.