– By Anne Macken, Manager of Happy Days Creche, in Co Tipperary
I am a manager of an Early Years setting in Co Tipperary, with 130 children ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years and 30 staff. I was fortunate to attend the Reggio Emilia International Study Tour, with Early Childhood Ireland in April as part of The Reggio Children Project, funded by National Pyjama Day.
So, what did I learn in Reggio?
Well first, I am extremely grateful to have gotten the chance to travel to Reggio Emilia and to engage in the international study week with 406 likeminded people from 27 countries including 24 from Ireland. The week was a roller coaster of emotions from being inspired to overwhelmed to being motivated and invigorated to being sad.
Why sad? On the last day I felt sad because I thought about all the children around the world who would never get the chance to experience this way of learning especially those children who find it difficult to learn in a conventional manner. But I’m not sad anymore! I am inspired to support the children I work with to experience Aistear and inspired more holistically through a Reggio approach.
The first thing that struck me was how the community (the city of Reggio Emilia) was part of this approach and how much the community truly values early years education and respects children. The children’s influence throughout the city is very visible. Reggio is a unique city that puts early education at the core of its identity. As Nelson Mandela said in 1995 ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’
The Reggio approach to learning is not a model but an experience, where the respect is palpable. Respect is very evident in everything they do, the respect for the infants and toddlers right up to the older children, the respect for their environment, and the respect the educators (pedagogistas) have for everyone involved in the centre. Every single person plays a part in the education of the children from the cook to the gardener. I loved how they included and gave voice to infants, toddlers, and children with special rights (what we term children with special education needs). The educators viewed the children’s abilities and competencies very highly. This was something that really stayed with me. It also reminded me of how we as educators hold such responsibility on the potential a child can achieve and how our belief in their abilities can influence this.
Aistear views babies, toddlers, and young children as competent and confident citizens with rights, to be involved in decisions that impact on them. In our daily practice do we realise these rights, or do we play lip service? Through my study visit to Reggio Emilia, I realised we have a long way to go, and I hope the current updating of Aistear will learn from the Reggio Emilia Approach. Reggio cannot be directly transferred to Ireland, but we can aim to treat infants and toddlers and children with a high level of respect and provide them with a rich variety of experiences to ensure they reach their full potential.
The centres in Reggio are well designed with an internal garden at the centre and around that garden is the piazza (their common area). Here you will see a huge open space with lots of light and windows. All children use this space throughout the day. It contains a home area, a dress up area, a library, a dining room, and a space that normally has a large provocation displayed. Here is one of the big differences – there are very few toys, but the variety of provocations is mind-blowing. There is an endless supply of loose parts that are displayed very creatively as a provocation to enable a sense of curiosity and exploration. Every centre has an atelier, an art space with an artist (atelieristas) to collaborate on the creative approach within the centre. Long-term projects are a key feature. From the central area you can see into all rooms as there are large windows. This helps to create a sense of community.
The Reggio approach is not one where the educator believes their role is to impart knowledge to the child. Rather it is one where the educator co-constructs knowledge with the child and how they embark on a learning journey together through experiences that are shared and explored. They see teaching as a relationship, and that early childhood settings and schools are not preparing children for life. Rather that it is life being lived moment to moment. The 100 languages are very evident and very valued. The environment creates a space that engages all the senses in 100 different ways to entice an infant, toddler, child to feel, touch, explore and express themselves through a multitude of mediums. A saying that resonated with me was
“We are not to teach the children what they can find out by themselves”.
The culture in Reggio is a lot calmer, relaxed and slower than ours and embraces a slow relational pedagogy. Following the child’s lead, being in the moment, being mindful, observing and having a listening pedagogy where making the learning visible is a natural organic process.
I have come away with my head in a spin and my heart pounding but more than anything I have come back invigorated and motivated. We are doing many things right in Ireland, but we have a way to go. I want to share my learning with those with whom I work, so that we realise children’s potential using the 100 languages of children.
The Reggio motto ‘Nothing without Joy’ is a powerful message. I would love if all my team got to experience what I did. The pedagogistas are so passionate and confident in their approach, and they place so much value and have such respect for the children, themselves, and their role in co-constructing the curriculum.
So, coming home I am starting a new journey where I feel we must build a trust in ourselves to keep striving. As we have seen, there are better ways of being. We must learn to trust the process, trust the children, trust the community to start this journey. Where we have a reverence for the ways children learn and their abilities and their potential. We must give value to what children know and how they think. We can realise Aistear’s vision of competent and confident babies, toddlers, and young children through being inspired by Reggio. A big thanks to Early Childhood Ireland and especially to Debbie and Vivienne for looking after us on a week we will never forget.
Bio: Anne Macken is a manager of an Early Years setting in Tipperary with 30 staff and 130 children ranging in age from 6 months to 12 years. She graduated from Maynooth University with a BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning and also has a post-graduate diploma in Children and Loss. Anne has over 30 years working in the sector. She has always been a huge advocate of Aistear and has also been inspired through reading about the Reggio Approach.