On an international study tour to Reggio Emilia 20 years ago, a question boldly crossed the screen in the first lecture. KAREN SZYDLIK, the Professional Learning Coordinator with Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE), reflects on her first encounter with the Reggio Emilia project and the questions it continues to pose.
Who is the child?
I wasn’t sure I completely understood what the question was actually asking when it appeared on the screen during my first study tour to Reggio Emilia, organised by the Reggio Emilia Information Exchange (REIE). What did they mean: ‘who is the child?’
I had already been introduced to the term ‘the image of the child’ through workshops with REIE (now REAIE). My colleagues and I had begun to use some of the language and terms of the educational project of Reggio Emilia and Loris Malaguzzi, the theorist and founder of this project, in our workplace. For example, we were now talking about the child as ‘competent, rich, powerful, full of possibility’ and yet this question was still a provocation for me.
Who is the child?
I think it is always valuable to go back to the beginnings of ideas, and particularly in this case, as now the term ‘image of the child’ and even statements such as ‘rich, powerful and competent’ are becoming so common place that I wonder if the people who are making these statements are even connected to the words. Do they understand fully what this means to hold an image of a child who is rich in possibilities?
If they do hold this image of the child, is it reflected in the environments they create for children? Is it reflected in the conversations they have with and about children? Does the child feel this when they are in relationship with the adult? Is this image of the child as ‘full of possibilities’ enacted in the way educators listen to children and record their thinking, theories, beliefs and imaginings?
Malaguzzi, in order to open educators’ eyes to the actual child before them, told them to observe the children and notice anything that surprised them, made them wonder, intrigued them. In this way the educators would come to know a child who existed outside of the theoretical child of developmental milestones, a child who lived in a space that pushed the limitations of developmentally appropriate practice, a child who dreamt, imagined, theorised and wondered. This is the child about whom Malaguzzi wrote a poem, a child with hundreds of ways of expressing themselves in the world—if we gave them the opportunity.
So, who is the child you see before you? Do you see and know the child, full of their complexities? Is this a child who is censoring themselves, already familiar with the unspoken rules of the adult-child dyad, or is this a child who shares their thinking, theories and wonderings with you? When you ask them a question, is it to find out what they think, or to test their knowledge? Does the child before you dare to tell you what they really think or are they giving you the answer they think you want to hear? Are you providing this child with the conditions to extend their thinking and to then express their ideas?
Twenty years ago, the educational project from Reggio Emilia stated that ‘Image of the Child’ was one of the principles of their approach to education. In a very deliberate act, this has been reflected on and reworded to: ‘The child as an active participant in their own growth and development’. This declaration, like everything in this educational project, is a considered move. This wording shifts the focus back to the child as they are, not just the way we see them. Educators in Reggio Emilia understand children to be culture makers, not just simply culture consumers. They talk about a child with rights from birth. This child can make changes in the world. This child can transform.
Do we see this child?
We are working and living in a time in education when knowledge is being reduced to the quantifiable; to the measurable. The child in Reggio Emilia with the hundred, hundred, hundred ways of expressing themselves, is a child with poetry, a child with imagination, a child who is numerate, a child who is creative, a child who is literate; culturally literate, graphically literate, digitally literate, and is a child with hope. This is a child who is an active participant in their own growth and development. Do we see that child? Do we value all these languages?
The educational project of Reggio Emilia is a dynamic project that views the educators as researchers alongside the children who are also seen as researchers. The entire educational project of Reggio Emilia ‘holds a mirror up to itself’ through continual revisiting and reflecting on guiding principles. This revisiting occurs in relationship with the ever-changing world, both local and global. There are always additional wonderings about knowing, beliefs, teaching, learning, thinking, language, environments, documentation, materials, ethics and aesthetics … the educators in Reggio Emilia make intentional choices around the different languages they use to describe what they have come to know. The approach to education in Reggio Emilia is not a static approach.
What does your philosophy statement say? Have you revisited it lately? Does it reflect your changing understandings? Does it reflect what you value and who the child is before you? Does your practice reflect your beliefs?
In the book, The perfume girl-child (2013), from the school at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre, the educators say:
On an educational level we believe it is very important for children to feel capable of giving legs and concrete shape to their own ideas. And it is equally important that they be able to do this not in a sketchy way, not with materials that have little appropriateness or meaning, but on the contrary by studying different possibilities, having available a range of different fascinating, complex, previously untried materials that give a real, possible and interesting shape to the ideas and the project (p. 19).
This one paragraph says so much about who the child is in Reggio Emilia and also who the teacher is.
This is a respected child.
This is a child with ideas.
This is a child that can research multiple possibilities.
This is a child who can experiment.
This is a child who can express their ideas in many ways.
This is a child who is a culture maker.
This is an intelligent, responsive, listening, thinking, creative, respectful teacher.
What is your image of the child? Who do you see before you?
And what is your image of yourself as the teacher? Who do you see in the mirror?
Karen Szydlik, REAIE Professional Learning Coordinator
Karen Szydlik has worked in the early childhood sector in many capacities over many years. She taught 3–5 year olds at Bialik College before, during and after the Early Learning Centre became aware of the educational project from Reggio Emilia. She returned to study for a Grad. Dip in Movement and Dance and then began teaching dance to mothers and babies and young children. When Karen returned to teaching at Bialik, she became aware of the place ‘Reggio Emilia’, and after a study tour in 1998 began writing and speaking about Reggio Emilia through her involvement with REAIE and as a committee member. She began teaching in the tertiary sector in 2003, working at the Gordon TAFE and University of Melbourne (CEIEC), and taught in the B.Ed. at Melbourne Polytechnic (formerly NMIT). Karen is a doctoral candidate at MIECAT where she is studying arts therapy. Karen is the Professional Learning Coordinator at REAIE and was co-leader of the In-Depth Study Tour to Reggio Emilia in 2017.
Manfredi, F., & Tedeschi, M. (2013). The perfume girl-child. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.
For more information about REAIE visit booth 93 at the ECA National Conference or go to their website www.reggioaustralia.org.au.
If you would like to encounter the educational project from Reggio Emilia in more depth, visit ECA Learning Hub to explore the online professional learning package, developed by Early Childhood Australia (ECA) and the Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE), in collaboration with Reggio Children, Italy.