The Heart of our School: The Atelier
Chances are, before learning of this school or the Reggio Emilia approach, you rarely heard the word ‘atelier’ and may never have used it yourself. Yet here you are now, reading an entire post on the subject! But let’s just say you’re not entirely sure what happens in the Atelier, or maybe the visiting grandparents are wondering why their 3 year old granddaughter is excitedly shouting, “It’s ‘tilier day! It’s ‘tilier day!”. This month’s blog post has you covered!
By definition, an atelier is a workshop or studio typically used by an artist or designer. Think Parisian houses of fashion. To the innovative educators of post WWII Italy, however, the Atelier became an essential piece of the reimagining of education for young children. Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, realized that schools needed to do a better job of teaching children how to think, not what to think. He saw that reinforcing only verbal language in schools was stifling the chance for many other languages, ideas, skills and abilities to be recognized and developed. He had the idea to bring professionals from many other creative fields into schools. Artists, architects, engineers, etc. were invited to share their skills and knowledge with the children. Malaguzzi’s hope was that the learning environment would engage all of the senses, therefore allowing everyone to connect to the space. From this, the idea of an Atelier was formed, and the creative professional who guided it became the Atelierista. The Atelier would become a place where children’s learning, social development, cognition and creativity were reinforced and guided with open-ended materials, innovative tools, and thoughtful provocations and questions. The Atelier also came to serve as the creative heart of the school community.
Across the ocean, and many decades later, the Atelier at PPP remains true to Malaguzzi’s vision. Upon entering the space, children are greeted by the scent of lavender and the quiet sounds of piano music. They arrive in small groups once or twice a week for the better part of an hour. Miss Melanie, our visionary Atelierista, greets them smiling at the door. The room is light and airy, colorful but peaceful. Children may be guided to briefly sit together to discuss a project or an idea. They might listen to a story about color, a desert creature, or emotions. Then they are invited to explore the room. The children are taught early on how to use the materials and tools in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Students as young as two can be found rolling clay into carefully formed balls, refilling water jars for paint, or softly cradling a real bird’s nest. And there, observing, documenting, and asking thought-provoking and confidence-building questions is Miss Melanie.
Miss Melanie has been Atelierista at PPP for 8 years now. Just as in Reggio Emilia, Melanie comes from an art background, rather than a teaching one. And just as in Reggio, Melanie is the creative guide of our school. In reflecting on the importance of the Ateiier, Melanie shared, “It is a joyful space for relationships across the board…relationships with each other and with the materials. This, in turn, builds confidence for those children to communicate with the world.” The learning that occurs in this joyful, shared space is often deep and complex. And it is not just the children who learn and grow here. Melanie remembers the moment she learned the importance of asking a child about their work. A student created a collage that very clearly resembled an elephant. But, instead of saying, “Tell me about your elephant…”, Melanie simply asked the child to tell her about his picture. What followed was a beautiful story of the relationship between a lightning-fearing, long-tongued cow and the tree that protected it. This story might never have been told if Miss Melanie had labeled the cow as an elephant in her question!
The Atelier is also a place where family members are welcomed throughout the year. Each year, families have an opportunity to create clay tiles that will adorn our school walls for years to come at our Tallulah Project days. Miss Melanie also welcomes parents to her “Prepping Parties”, where they assist with anything from sorting beautiful papers by texture to creating documentation for our annual Art Walk. If you have yet to spend a few moments in the Atelier this year, pop by and ask the students (or Miss Melanie!) to tell you about their work. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed.