Why is the Reggio Emilia educational project—which exists in a context so far removed from ours, culturally, politically and geographically—so important in our Australian context? While this project now has networks in many countries around the world, its influence in Australia has been significant both in our application of its theoretical and practical ideas. The provocations they give us on the image of the child and the environment as the third teacher are now an embedded part of our own conversations about early learning.
What is it that this project offers to us in our local early learning context?
This approach to early education has many facets, notably the ways it encourages us to actively listen, to collaborate and to view thinking, learning and teaching through the hundred languages of children, as well as the provocation around the image of the child as a citizen with rights and potential. Yet it is the idea of participation that is its most defining feature and the one on which we should aim to model our own systems of early learning.
Having just spent time in this city in January on an intensive study tour that focused specifically on the culture of participation, I would say that this project is most important because it evidences to us the power of the group, the potential of the collective. It shows us the real power of citizen participation and what can be realised and achieved when we look at children and learning through a gaze of shared solidarity. This gaze of solidarity is not a superficial one.
The Reggio Emilia project invites us to consider deeply, the role of community. The project is not so much an approach to early learning but rather a breathing, pulsing social context. It gives us a model of participation that situates quality early learning as a community good. Children need to understand the community they live in and the community needs to understand the children that live in it.
They talk a lot in this city about the idea of participation. They speak of the participation of a community of children and adults. Civic participation. They say that participation is an ethical attitude, both a right and a responsibility. In the charter of services of the Municipal Infant-toddler Centres and Preschools they describe this idea in the following way:
‘Participation is the value and the strategy that defines the way in which the children, the educators, and the parents are stakeholders in the educational project. Participation generates and nurtures the feelings and culture of solidarity, responsibility and inclusion’ (Reggio Children, 2017, p 50).
People and therefore communities grow with participation and children have a right to a city that invests culturally and politically in children and childhood.
The most powerful idea I came upon while in this city was that often we view children as the offspring of adults rather than children who are children. If policies and systems are only based around the needs of parents it shifts the focus of the individual and collective gaze. In our local environment, where early learning is predominantly linked to women’s workforce participation, this requires a significant shift in thinking. The benefits of quality early learning environments are almost an afterthought to the main goal of supporting working parents. We position children as a problem.
The image pictured was taken in the Piazza Prampolini, which is the main Piazza located in the heart of Reggio Emilia. There is an inscription in Latin at the entrance to this piazza that translates as ‘The fidelity of the Reggio Emilia citizens resists and it will never die’. This is a city that has a proud history of fighting for the rights and freedoms of its citizens. On my last night in this city, I had an impromptu opportunity to speak to some elderly citizens in this Piazza, about how they view their city of children—this educating city.
We spoke about children, about families and a world that now seems to have more boundaries and borders than ever before Some of these citizens were grandparents of
children who lived in the city, others were not What they had in common was a strong belief in the necessary community investment in children. One resident told me ‘Children should be here and there so we can all see what they do. They are part of every day’. Essentially children’s experiences of life should be coherent with the community everyday experiences.
It has often seemed to me on my visits to Reggio Emilia that often residents, are somewhat surprised by the level of interest and even fame that their city has achieved because of this approach to early learning. This leads me to think that perhaps the essence of the success and influence of this project is that there is a deep tradition in Reggio Emilia about the importance of community. A child can only ever be okay if other children are okay.
Participation is fundamental to ensuring this.
Reggio Children (2017) Charter of Services of the Municipal Infant-toddler Centres and Preschools.