As we look to incorporate more elements of the Reggio Emilia approach into Carys’ “education” (which I feel I must put in inverted commas because we’re not really “teaching” her much), one of the things I’m very keen to understand is how well it fits with the approach to parenting more generally that has been working very well for us.
On the face of it the fit seems to be a very natural one, because both define themselves as being grounded in respect.
Respect in RIE:
“Respect is the basis of the RIE philosophy” (from RIE.org)
Respect in Reggio Emilia is often described in terms of children’s place in society:
“One cannot have ideas about the first people [the adults] in the community without having ideas about the rights of the last people [the children]” – Mayor Luca Vecchi
“We recognize the rights not of a citizen of the future, but as citizens of today” – Carla Rinaldi (Pedagogical Coordinator and President of Reggio Children); both quotes from presentations to the April 2016 Study Group
Yet when we actually dive in a bit further, we see that this notion of respect plays out very differently in the two approaches.
Observations in a Reggio Emilia Preschool
One of the sessions we spent observing children in a preschool occurred partly over lunch time, and I saw the teachers transition the infant/toddlers (under 18 months) into their chairs for the meal. Many of the interactions seemed very perfunctory to me and not at all respectful. Pennie Brownlee, a New Zealand educator and author who has spent four summers studying at the Emmi Pikler Institute in Budapest (where RIE has its origins) posted a great little quiz about respect for young children on her website, which includes the following questions:
Have you ever picked up a baby or child from behind?
Have you ever picked up a baby or child without telling him or her?
Have you ever picked up a baby or child without asking him or her?
Have you ever picked up a baby or child without waiting for them to accept your invitation?
Each of these questions is followed by “Would you like to…[have the same thing happen to you]?”; there are a total of nine questions about what caregivers might have done to a child and nine about what they might want to have done to them.
In that preschool lunch room I saw a teacher pick an ~18 month-old up from behind and “dump” him into a chair with no warning to him; never mind asking him or waiting for his response, and that simple interaction fails four out of Brownlee’s nine questions right there. While that was the most “extreme” example I observed, it certainly didn’t seem as though the other teachers were all telling (or asking) the other children that they were about to pick them up and put them in their chairs for lunch either (most were old enough to be able to climb onto the chairs by themselves). So it seemed to me that while the teachers may have respect for the children’s learning, they may not necessarily have respect for the children or their bodies in the same way that RIE advocates. Obviously this is one interaction on one day in one school, but if these schools are held up as examples for Study Groups to visit then one can only surmise that the teachers are on “good” behavior for the two hours of our visit.
By contrast, it’s by now ingrained in me to the point of habit that I would never pick up Carys without asking her first. Obviously we’re around each other a lot and I don’t always say “May I pick you up now?” (although sometimes I do); mostly I just wordlessly hold my hands out and await her equally wordless acceptance (she comes toward me and tenses her body in readiness). After meals, I hold out a cloth in my hands and say “May I wipe your hands now?” and wait for her to put her hand in the cloth. If she has a cold, I don’t swoop in from behind her to wipe her snot; I hold out the tissue and ask her permission to wipe her nose. If it’s a safety or sanitary issue and she doesn’t want to give her permission then I don’t just shrug and walk away; there are definitely times when I’ve had to say “I’m going to wipe your nose now” and have wiped it even though she didn’t want me to (acknowledging with “You don’t want me to wipe your nose. I don’t want your nose to get sore, which might happen if I don’t wipe it. I’m going to wipe it now.”). If we need to go somewhere right now then I’ll tell her “I’m going to pick you up now.” But in general I try to structure our time so she can make choices about her body autonomy, and then allow her to make those choices.
I’ve recently been in touch with Pennie Brownlee in a conversation about art in preschool settings, and she commented that “Malaguzzi, Steiner, Montessori [regarded as the founders of Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, and Montessori approaches to education respectively] – each of them has no provision for the infant. (Infancy ends with the third birthday when the child’s brain has reached between 85% – 90% of its final adult size.).” I looked back to The Hundred Languages of Children to see what Malaguzzi says about “an educational approach for the littlest children” – apparently the first infant-toddler center for children under 3 years of age opened in 1970. He cites Bowlby and Spitz on the damage resulting from the separation of the mother-child pair and the Catholic resistance to the breakdown of the family as reasons society was hesitant about the role infant-toddler centers could play in the community. “Our experience with children aged 3 to 6 years was a useful point of reference was useful but at the same time not a complete answer. Rather than thinking in terms of custodial care, we argued that their education demanded professional expertise, strategies of care, and environments that were unique to their developmental level” (Hundred Languages p.39-40). He goes on to discuss how they found that children could have relationships with more than one caregiver and that children seem to benefit from interactive play with peers, but unfortunately gives no further detail on how they modified the approach they used for the 3 to 6s for the under-3s and I saw little evidence of the modification of the traditional Reggio approach in a way that would make it more suitable for the younger children.
I wish had been able to spend more time observing the care of infants in Reggio Emilia; most of the ones in the room I visited were at least nine months old and the majority were closer to 18 months, and they were wrapping up their morning activities by the time I got to their room. It seems to me that while RIE represents an incomplete approach to care for the post-two year-olds (and while the principles of respect remain relevant at any age RIE practitioners do not attempt to convince us of its complete applicability for older children), Reggio represents an incomplete approach to care for pre-two year-old children. Respect for children goes far beyond respect for their interactions with materials and based on my (admittedly limited!) observations in a Reggio classroom this respect for the youngest children can sometimes be lacking in a Reggio environment.
Leading the child’s educational experience
One of the questions I went into the Study Group with was “How much leading of the child’s educational experience is OK?” and the Reggio-based answer I came out with is “actually, quite a lot!”.
In RIE, we show respect to babies by not interfering in their play: by trusting that they are competent people who can meet their own needs. Magda Gerber (who founded the RIE approach) said “Children learn all the time, from the day they are born. If we refrain from teaching them, they learn from experience. What we need to do is not interfere, step back, and allow learning to happen” (Gerber, p.xiv). See the videos here, which show parents allowing children the time and space to reach for toys themselves (rather than putting the toy in the baby’s hand), and allowing babies the opportunity to get themselves out of (what seem like to us) difficult situations rather than simply solving the problem for the children.
We also don’t show children how to play: see the video here, of a boy playing quite contentedly with a stacking toy – nobody ever shows him the “correct” way to use it; he simply invents his own way of playing with it. The same holds true in many other situations – I am quite happy to let Carys climb the slide (as she’s just learned how to do), because I believe there’s no one “correct” way to play on a slide – except when others are waiting, in which case she does need to learn that she can’t monopolize the slide when others want to use it in a different way. I don’t show her how to use the slide; she understood that she could climb up a slide by observing other children doing it and then by trying it herself (and I was pretty surprised when she made it to the top the first time she tried it). When she (infrequently) receives a new toy I don’t show her how to use it and instead prefer to let her interact with it in whatever way she chooses, whether or not that’s the way the manufacturer intended.
By contrast, in Reggio Emilia I saw plenty of documentation (the photos and narrative that the teachers maintain to describe and understand the children’s work) with pictures of teachers showing children how to do things like stack blocks and roll balls.
I saw a video where teachers introduced children to a big sheet of corrugated cardboard and marker pens. The RIE approach would be to let the children experiment with these materials in whatever way the children saw fit – which may or may not include ever taking the tops off the markers!
In the video, the teacher shows a child that if you drag your fingernail down the corrugations, it makes an interesting sound. So then the child drags his fingernail down the corrugations and it does indeed make an interesting sound.
The teacher thinks it would be interesting to lie down on the sheet of corrugated cardboard to see what it feels like and encourages the child to do the same.
One child climbed onto a big roll of paper and another child wants to get up as well but is much smaller than the first child. RIE would say that if the child can’t get up by himself, it’s not safe for him to be up there. The Reggio teacher lifts the child onto the roll of paper – where he is quite happy – but the video cuts away before the child needs to figure out how to get down.
A conversation on the intersections between RIE and Reggio Emilia
After I saw that video I posted in a Facebook group that had been set up by and for the Study Group attendees, asking if anyone with experience in both Reggio Emilia and RIE was at the event and would be willing to chat. Cynthia Evans, who teaches at a Reggio-inspired preschool in Massachusetts and writes the blog TheRisingAction.me volunteered to chat. Below I summarize portions of our conversation, with her permission.
Cynthia says she used to use RIE more than she does now, partly because she feels that the approach can sometimes be dogmatically applied. She instead prefers to follow Magda Gerber’s own advice to take from it the most useful parts: Gerber herself said “RIE’s philosophy is not a dogma or a set of hard and fast rules. Rather, it is a resource for parents. You don’t have to agree with everything. You can incorporate into your family’s life what you find useful” (Gerber p.11).
She follows a RIE approach to eating with young toddlers – they don’t have to eat at a set time, but they must sit at the table if they want to eat and the meal ends if they leave the table (she gives preschoolers who have well-developed eating skills some more flexibility). She also uses RIE thinking on body autonomy by allowing children to do what they feel capable of doing, and not physically assisting with what they’re not capable of doing.
One of Cynthia’s notable departures from RIE is on the issue of conflict resolution. RIE prefers a typically hands-off approach; blocking one child from hitting another if necessary and but otherwise generally allowing children to sort out conflicts themselves. Cynthia notes that especially as children get older, they don’t always have the tools to resolve conflicts and that adult support can help them to find creative resolutions that they can also reuse later. She gave an example of a situation that happened in her childcare center: one boy wanted to sit on a pile of blocks, while another wanted to build with them. Cynthia used the RIE “sportscasting” tool, reflecting back what each boy was saying to the other as they heatedly discussed the issue for a fairly lengthy period of time, but neither boy wanted to shift his position. Cynthia suggested that they might seek out a peer who could help them to mediate the conflict, which both boys agreed to do. The mediator suggested that they set a timer for the boy who wanted to sit on the blocks for a few more minutes, and after that both boys could build – and the mediator would build with them. Both boys agreed to this solution and abided by the decision. The boys had reached a point where just sportscasting through a dispute was no longer useful and instead some “scaffolding” (a term I’ll return to over the coming weeks) by the teacher helped them to achieve a mutually agreeable solution.
On reading a draft of this blog post, Cynthia pointed out to me that the video I describe above doesn’t so much depict the teachers showing the children the right way to interact with materials, but instead getting to know the multitude of ways a material could be used. She says that “There is often a build-up of how children see, use, and think about various materials and this starts at a very young age with the idea in mind that as children develop a strong relationship with the materials, they will be better able to use the materials as tools to aid them in their learning.” This does make a lot of sense to me, and it’s likely one of those things for which my approach needs to shift as Carys grows and changes and needs support from me in different ways.
Cynthia also noticed (which I did not) that the project shown in the video was a part of either the school’s (or the teachers’ – she’s not sure and I don’t know!) research on exploring the idea of offering young children materials normally reserved for older children. While I do see the applicability of scaffolding here as well – the teachers were helping the children to see new uses for materials – I think that the very fact that the children hadn’t seen or used these materials before argues for an approach where the teachers take a step back and see what the children might do before offering the teachers’ own suggestions. After all, who knows what the children might have come up with if the teachers had been less involved, and wouldn’t that have been a more interesting outcome for the research project anyway?
Overall it seems as though there was a good amount of dovetailing between the RIE and Reggio Emilia approaches both in theory and as I plan to practice them, even if I felt that the interactions I observed in a Reggio Emilia school were a little lacking in respect from a RIE perspective. I will acknowledge (again) that I’m not a Reggio expert – or even a RIE expert, although I do have the benefit of 18+ months of practice on that front. If any experts on either approach would like to weigh in on my thoughts – even if you think I’ve misunderstood something – I’d be most grateful if you would do so in the comments below or reach out to me via email. I would genuinely like to understand this issue better and welcome your thoughts.
If you’re coming to this blog post from a Reggio background and would like to know more about RIE, I’m offering a free summary of Magda Gerber’s Your Self-Confident Baby to people who sign up to receive my blog updates. Just enter your email address at the top of the page and the summary will magically find its way to your inbox.
In upcoming posts I’ll explore more about how we’re going to manage this transition between RIE and Reggio Emilia, attempting to address questions like: “Whose responsibility is it to keep children’s motivation for learning high?,” “What are we attempting to achieve when we create situations to inspire learning and what do we achieve?,” and “What is the value, if any, of scaffolding by teachers and peers?”
Edwards, C., Gandini, L, and Foreman, G. (Eds) (2012). The Hundred Languages of Children (Third Edition). Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger. (Affiliate link)
Gerber, Magda (1988). Your Self-Confident Baby. New York, NY, John Wiley & Sons. (Affiliate link)
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