Reggio Emilia Provocations (or, The Value Your Kids Get Out Of Playing With Stuff That’s Free)


When I started my research on how on earth I was we were going to raise this kid, I discovered the RIE approach to parenting for the under-two set (I say “I was” because, really, I’m the one doing the research here).  RIE advocates a respectful way to parent even the smallest babies, but its recommendations end at around age two – when the toddler is rather more able to stick up for herself, and when perhaps the parent doesn’t need reminding quite so often to be respectful (perhaps because the toddler is talking back and demanding it by now?:-)).

I discovered Reggio Emilia about a year ago and put it on hold for a while because Carys wasn’t really old enough but, folks, the time has come.

Reggio Emilia Provocation Sticks Stones Pine Cones

Reggio Emilia  isn’t so much about parenting generally (as we already have our foundation on that front, even if RIE will shortly officially ‘run out’), but rather an approach to preschool and primary education.  A teacher named Loris Malaguzzi in the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy, developed it shortly after the Second World War as part of a shift toward child-led education, and it has since become quite popular in many places around the world.  There is no Reggio Emilia Training School by which all official Reggio teachers must be certified – rather, it is a concept that anyone can use and apply in whatever way is most applicable to them.

Kate over at An Everyday Story has a really nice detailed description of what Reggio is (and isn’t); the essential components most relevant to us are:

  1. Children are capable of constructing their own learning.  This was a big thing for me to get my head around – I’d always worried “How on earth will I teach Carys what she needs to know?  How will I even know what she needs to know”  The answer is that she will tell me what she wants to know, and together we will go about understanding it.  The adult does not ‘pour knowledge’ into the vessel of the child; knowledge is co-created.  In the short term this means I set up activities on topics that I know she’s interested in, which includes sticks, beans, and fabrics, and I’m trying to figure out how to do something with moss as she loves it so much she always tries to kiss it.
  2. The environment is the third teacher (after the child and the adult).  Natural light (we struggle with this one in the play room), order, and beauty are all important.  We create organizational systems to keep things tidy and to enable Carys to both access and put things away by herself.  The materials in the room are neutral in color and natural in nature to allow the focus to be on the activity at hand rather than the room itself.  (A play room tour will be the feature of a future post; it’s still coming together at the moment.)
  3. An emphasis on documentation.  We keep the pictures Carys draws (she’s still very much in the scribbling stage at the moment) and hang them in an area designed for temporary art rotation.  We just ordered a replacement photo printer (our old one went kaput, darn it!) so we can print one-off photos of finished projects before disassembling them into their component parts.  When she is a little more verbal, I plan to keep journals of her questions and thoughts so we can come back to them and re-investigate them in the future.
  4. The Hundred Languages of Children.  Kate says this better than I could; the Hundred Languages of children is: “the belief that children use many many different ways to show their understanding and express their thoughts and creativity.A hundred different ways of thinking, of discovering, of learning. Through drawing and sculpting, through dance and movement, through painting and pretend play, through modelling and music, and that each one of these Hundred Languages must be valued and nurtured.These languages, or ways of learning, are all a part of the child. Learning and play are not separated.The Reggio Emilia Approach emphasises hands-on discovery learning that allows the child to use all their senses and all their languages to learn.” (from An Everyday Story)

A provocation is basically an activity that is designed to extend the child’s knowledge of something in a non-prescriptive way.  Whereas Montessori (as I understand it) uses the concept of  ‘didactic materials’ to show that there is a right way of undertaking an activity, I prefer to use a less structured approach and instead aim to convey the concept that there is no single right way to complete many tasks, and indeed there may be many ‘right ways.’

Our provocations will become more involved as Carys gets older and more verbal and I can use her questions as a jumping off point for setting up activities; for right now I’m simply trying to offer her a variety of materials with which she can engage in whatever way she finds most interesting.

I wanted to share a variety of our current provocations to give you some ideas to develop your own.  This is by no means The Set Of Provocations For Eighteen Month-Olds; it’s simply a collection of things we’ve found and made (and occasionally bought) in and near the house that Carys enjoys.  You might notice an emphasis on natural and found materials, which can be great catalysts for play.Reggio Emilia Provocation Drawing

Reggio Emilia Provocation Fabric Squares

I just made a few squares to start (cut 5″ squares from fabric left over from other projects, iron a 1/4″ hem, repeat (to fully enclose the cut edges), stitch).  I laid them out like this and Carys had fun stacking and gathering them, and asking nanny Meg to tell her the names of the colors.

Reggio Emilia Provocation Fabric

Then I made a few more fabric squares and put them all in a big stack.  Today Carys got them off the shelf along with the silks and pushed them all together, then sorted them all into the two containers by herself.

Reggio Emilia Provocation Cotton Balls Oats Beans

We have a friend who nobly ‘takes one for the team’ by downing Talenti gelato specifically so we can have the containers.  (Tip: the tubs are not dishwasher-safe).  Cotton balls, oats, and beans offer a sensory contrast for feeling (weight; the objects moving inside the jars), sound, and visual contrast.

Reggio Emilia Provocation Ribbon

Provocations can be as simple as you can imagine.

Reggio Emilia Provocation Beans

Scooping beans is another current favorite.  Cups in different sizes and materials make different sounds and feel different in the hand.

I’ll post more in the future about how we are developing our Reggio approach as Carys gets older.

If you’d like some more inspiration for your own provocations, I’d highly recommend taking a look at the book Loose Parts: light on instruction but heavy on photographs, I found the book to be an invaluable source of ideas for ways to set up groupings of materials to support many forms of learning, all in a non-prescriptive “let’s see what comes out of this!” kind of way.


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