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Reggio Emilia Inspired; What does that mean exactly…

As consultants who have worked with the Reggio Emilia approach for years, we hear this question often. Along with "how do we buy this curriculum," "how can we become a certified Reggio School, or "what sort of Reggio class can I take". They ask these questions because they know the Reggio Emilia Approach is considered one of the best early childhood approaches in the world and they want to improve their own practice. However, few understand what it truly means to be Reggio Inspired, because the answer to these questions are very complex.

To fully understand the approach, you must continually study it, be in dialogue with it, and practice it. No one article, book, workshop, or class will ever be able to fully explain it to you; nor can it tell you how to be Reggio Inspired.

Being Reggio Inspired isn’t as easy as just adopting a curriculum like High Scope or the Montessori approach. There is not a curriculum and certainly no “one way” to be Reggio Inspired. This makes it both more accessible, but at the same time can make it more difficult to understand and incorporate into your program. At the time of this blog post Reggio Children, the educational arm of the approach in Italy, has not developed a structure or way of receiving a “Reggio Emilia Inspired” stamp of approval. Though they may do this in the future, it will never be as simple as just adopting a curriculum it's too complex.

So, why can’t we just buy a curriculum or open up a “Reggio Emilia School?" To understand why, you must understand where the approach comes from and how it is different. First, the foundations of the Reggio Emilia Approach draw from the work of John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, David Hawkins, Lev Vygotsky, and other well-known and respected educational philosophers. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, drew from these educational philosophers when he developed his approach to working with young Children in Reggio Emilia more than 60 years ago. So, the basic educational underpinnings of his approach are not unique. Many schools follow these educational philosophies and do not consider themselves Reggio Emilia Inspired. What makes the Reggio Emilia Approach different is how they combine these philosophies with the Italian culture and context of their city. It truly is a unique and wonderful approach, because it is uniquely Italian and uniquely Reggio Emilia. This is why you cannot open or own a Reggio Emilia School outside of Reggio Emilia; you simply do not possess the deep culture, context, and history of Reggio Emilia. You can only be inspired by it.

Perhaps it will help to understand this complexity, if we share the story of another city in Italy called Pistoia. Pistoia is a small city around 100 miles from Reggio Emilia. It has a very similar child centered approach to working with young children believing they are strong and capable citizens of the world. They too draw from the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner to frame their educational philosophy. Pistoia, like Reggio, has a strong sense of community, which has led to them creating some very unique community-based programming. So, you might think Pistioa would consider themselves "Reggio Inspired", but you would be wrong. Each city in Italy has their own way of working with young children based on educational philosophies and the unique culture and context of their city. So, Pistoia doesn't consider itself Reggio Inspired, because it simply has its own approach to working with young children which is based on the cities unique culture and context.

Pistoia developed its own way of working with young children and you will do the same. If you decide to embrace Reggio Inspired practice or even Pistoia inspired practice (Read Bambini, its actually written about Pistoia), you will need to examine the culture and context of your school and determine what is truly important to you. For example, you might decide that a strong skills-based focus most reflects the culture of your school. If so, then you will probably realize that Reggio Inspired practice is not for you. In fact, you might discover it is contradictory to the culture and context of your school. Once you have a clear understanding of the culture and context of your school, then you will study the Reggio Emilia Approach and decide how to integrate elements into your school. In the end, if you decide being Reggio Inspired is right for you, you will likely fall somewhere on a continuum. Some schools have studied the approach for a long time and have the capacity to be extremely Reggio Inspired (The Boulder Journey School is an excellent example of this). Other schools have more constraints as they work to change practices where they can. The key to embracing the approach is to fully understand your culture and context, to be diligent in your study of the approach, and to fully commit to making changes to your practice no matter how long that may take.

Though the process of studying the approach can at times seem daunting, many teachers and programs continue to take on that challenge. You may have already started to study the approach by reading articles or blogs online. Just be warned there can be pitfalls to this method. Unfortunately, much of what is online and in unapproved Reggio books totally misses the mark in their understanding of the approach. Pinterest for one, has completely skewed the understanding of the Reggio Emilia Approach. It distills it down to pretty environments and putting wicker baskets in your classroom, which is TOTALLY inaccurate. Because of the reputation of the Reggio Approach, you will find plenty of websites claiming to be Reggio experts. Unfortunately. many of these have very little knowledge or experience working with and studying the approach. In fact, Reggio Children are the only true experts on the Reggio Emilia Approach itself.

So, avoid these pitfalls if you can. Read only approved Reggio Children books, go on a study tour to Reggio Emilia, Italy, or even visit some well-respected Reggio-inspired schools near you. However, perhaps the most successful way of working towards being Reggio Inspired is to work with an experienced and knowledgeable consultant. They can help programs and schools embrace Reggio Inspired practices within their school's culture and context. They can support the faculty in developing their knowledge, support changes to the environment, support changes in practice, and help develop a collaborative leadership practice in your programs. Again, this approach is complex and a knowledgable consultant can help your program navigate the complexities and make real change.

Choosing the Right Consultant for You

Cultivating the Early Years (CEY) has been doing this work for a long time, but we are not the only knowledgeable and experienced consultants. You should look for consultants with expertise in supporting Reggio Inspired practices specifically in your context. A minimum of fifteen plus years studying and working with the approach is important. The approach is complex and changing so you need someone that understands the intricacies and changing nature of the approach. Choose someone who continues their own study of the approach and continues to attend new study tours. For example, CEY ; coordinates and attends new study tours every year. We have coordinated 16 study tours to date. We feel the knowledge we gain in these study tours is invaluable. Also choose someone who has an exemplary record of teaching adults. These are very complex concepts and a consultant needs to be able to help adults understand them. It is this kind of in-depth knowledge and experience that will help your faculty study and grow in their understanding of Reggio Inspired practice.

Tips for what to look for in a consultant

1) Years of experience studying the approach, a deep understanding of the approach

2) Proven ability to teach and work with adults

3) Direct knowledge of the Reggio approach through repeated visits to Reggio Emilia

4) Proven record of consulting, references upon request

To ask about consulting through Cultivating the Early Years click here.

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