The Reggio Emilia Approach: My 4 Initial Impressions

Since we moved to Reggio Emilia, I’ve dreamed of exploring the city’s renowned preschools. You can find the Reggio approach throughout the world, but it originated in the city of Reggio Emilia. (The first Reggio preschool opened in 1971.)

When the pandemic started, visits to the city’s preschools came to a grinding halt. Reggio preschools have remained closed to visitors this fall, but I’m hearing that they may reopen in the spring.

Outside of Reggio preschools, the best place in the world to learn about the Reggio Way is the Loris Malaguzzi International Center in Reggio Emilia. Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994) an Italian pedagogist, is widely recognized as the forefather of the Reggio approach.

Last week, I visited the Malaguzzi Center with a group of educators from around Europe. I heard a presentation from Lorella Trancossi, a pedagogist. I, also, participated in a guided tour. According to our tour guide, we were among the first to visit since the pandemic began.

In this blog, I’ll share four of my initial impressions of the Reggio Way.

1. Inquiry is at the heart of the Reggio approach.

Loris Malaguzzi believed that the primary work of children and teachers is research. Lorella Trancossi shared this Malaguzzi quote with me:

“The art of research already exists in the hands of children acutely sensitive to the pleasure of surprise. The pleasure of learning, of knowing, of understanding is one of the first, fundamental sensations each human being expects from experiences faced alone or with others.”

Reggio is widely known as “the pedagogy of listening.” As children study the world through inquiry-based research, teachers study the children and their process of learning. Reggio teachers focus their attention on making observations and asking questions.

2. “100 Languages” is Reggio’s guiding metaphor.

Malaguzzi’s poem, “100 Languages,” encapsulates the Reggio approach. Here’s how it begins:

“No way. The hundred is there.

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking…”

The poem eloquently reminds us that children have numerous ways of expressing themselves. This poem, also, articulates a provocative, subversive message.

According to Malaguzzi, “the school and the culture” have drastically restricted the creativity of children. Metaphorically speaking, they’ve stolen 99 of their languages, leaving kids with just one.

Reggio classrooms seek to be places where children can freely express themselves, wielding their “100 languages.”

3. Reggio is a flexible approach, not a rigid methodology.

Malaguzzi insisted that the Reggio Way is an approach, not a set of methods.

I’ve learned that the Reggio classroom is a dynamic learning environment where children determine their learning outcomes through inquiry-based research. It beckons children to wonder and learn through exploration.

Reggio educators consider the classroom to be “the third teacher.” (Parents and teachers are the first two.)

Reggio teachers strive to make the learning environment welcoming and beautiful. They offer a variety of natural materials for children to create with. Teachers may leave examples of creations on the tables, but these are simply recognized as “possibilities” for the children to consider.

4. Reggio children serve the community.

Before visiting the Malaguzzi center, I strolled through downtown Reggio Emilia with my family and we noticed colorful banners, featuring drawings and precepts from Reggio preschoolers.

I had stumbled upon another key aspect of the Reggio approach: children engage in service learning.

Several years ago, Reggio officials started asking themselves, “What can the children do for our city?” Since asking this question, the city has intentionally involved Reggio preschools in different service projects.

I heard the following example from Lorella Trancossi at the Malaguzzi Center.

A few years ago, several groups of Reggio children (1.5-5 years old) and their teachers left the confines of their classrooms and ventured into the city for fieldwork. They visited public and private spaces, including libraries, museums, and shops.

One group of 5-year-olds visited a shoe shop. They interviewed the owner and recorded observations. When they returned to their classroom, they shared findings and began to draw conclusions about what they had seen.

The children identified a problem. They believed that there were very few people visiting the shoe shop. Many people had walked past the store, observed the children, but few had stepped inside.

The teachers asked the children what they might be able to give as a gift to the shop.

The 5-year-olds suggested that the shoe store needed something inviting that would attract more customers. So, over the school year, the children worked with their teachers to create an attractive platform leading to the shop’s entrance. The 5-year-olds, also, noticed that the store lacked a sign to advertise shoes. They designed a banner, which featured different types of footwear.

When I visited the Malaguzzi Center, I noticed another sign of service-learning: a stunning theater curtain, designed by Reggio 5-year-olds. A company produced the actual curtain for the theater, but the final draft and the original idea for the curtain were derived from the children.

Beginning the Journey

In summary, these are my initial impressions of the Reggio Way:

  1. Inquiry is at the heart of the Reggio approach.
  2. “100 Languages” is Reggio’s guiding metaphor.
  3. Reggio is a flexible approach, not a rigid methodology.
  4. Reggio children serve the community.

This is just the beginning of my journey to grasp the Reggio approach. If you’re intrigued by the Reggio Way, consider subscribing to this blog. I’m hoping to explore the city’s preschools as soon as possible.

Do you have any questions about or insights into the Reggio approach? I welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Tim Walker is an American teacher, writer, and speaker based in Finland. He is the best-selling author of Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. Tim has written extensively about his experiences for Educational Leadership, Education Week Teacher, and The Atlantic. Inspired by his work in Finnish schools, he speaks internationally about play, trust, and joy in education.

Tim blogs about global educational practices at teachlands.com. Join the mailing list here and follow Teachlands on Instagram and Facebook.

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