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Post date: Tuesday, 3 October 2023

Children as citizens: A Blackwell Fellow’s experience in Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia is many things – a beautiful town to the northwest of Bologna, a wider region that the town sits within, and a world-renowned philosophy of early childhood education.

For Rose Coppen, a Margaret May Blackwell travel fellow, Reggio Emilia is also a source of inspiration – and the focus of her travel enabled by the fellowship.

Rose and her colleague, Jocelyn Kidd applied for the fellowship in 2006, when they were senior teachers for Kidsfirst Kindergartens. With the Reggio Emilia approach not widespread in New Zealand at the time, she saw an opportunity to learn more about one of her favourite things teaching passions – making learning visible through pedagogical documentation. 

“They are quite famous for this, and as a great fan of making learning visible it was a great chance to see inspiring examples of it.”

“The Reggio approach wasn’t at that time was not something that was hugely evident in New Zealand early learning services – but we broadly understood it as a philosophy, or approach and were curious to go and see it for ourselves. When we happened upon this fellowship, this exciting opportunity to it created an exciting opportunity to go and actually see Reggio in action.”  

“The proposal itself focused on the Reggio philosophy and learning environments, we wanted to take the opportunity to see them first hand. We believed the Reggio approach could inform teaching and leadership, and provide some experience that we could relay back to others through our roles as senior teachers and within the wider early childhood community in Christchurch.”

What to take (and take back)

As it happens, one thing Rose realised on the tour in Reggio Emilia was we shouldn’t expect to “cut and paste” the Reggio approach onto Aotearoa.

“The intention going over there was to learn, and apply aspects of their approach that were relevant, rather than import it wholesale here”.

“That’s because the approach is socio-culturally located – you can’t superimpose an early learning approach borne out of a specific Italian locale onto the Aotearoa context and expect it to work.”

“There are also rules when visiting centres– for example, we couldn’t take photos of the spaces. There’s a clear respect for the early learning centre as a small version of the wider community – of course we’d love to have photos from that, but the beauty of the place – those visual memories are still so clear to me.”

While the entire Reggio approach might not be applicable in Aotearoa, Rose adds that many elements of it can prove incredibly useful here.

“I truly am still using things I learned over there in my own practice and in work with other practitioners – a whole 16 years on. I take a lot of notes – I can’t bring myself to dispose of them– and I just have so many quotes and ideas that came from Reggio Emilia that I have often revisited have since.”

I admire how they view children as citizens – it's incredibly powerful. When a child has a question, the teachers don’t give the answer. They “enlarge the question” and support the child to create their own working theory. There’s a big focus on helping children articulate and then critique their own thinking, which I really love. There’s such great respect for the way children think, and allowing them to create their own frameworks.”

While she did not wish to bring the approach back wholesale, there was plenty Rose hoped to apply to the Aotearoa context to shift the dial on prevailing ECE philosophies – and there was plenty she learned in this regard.

“Rich in possibility and competent in living”

Core to the Reggio Emilia approach – and core to many of Rose’s learnings – was the distinct articulation of the relationship between teacher and child.

“They’re so poetic in the way they talk about their children, it’s really inspiring. They describe the child, for example, as rich in possibility and competent in living, and see their role as to help children articulate and critique their own thoughts. It’s a beautiful approach, so thoughtfully communicated. They see the children almost as researchers, and work alongside them to develop their thinking rather than instructing them.”

Rose recalled their respect for children’s art. “The centre would have an atelier – a resident artist to teach art to the children. Not an ECE teacher, a local artist – again, treating the children as citizens and having them co-create with the adults. Many early learning services had an art room, with all the tools you need to be an artist. Art was so important there.”

Additionally, the Reggio approach was one rooted in place, a sense of community that shone through in Rose’s experience.

“Some of the early learning services there, have a piazza in the middle of the building – so it’s like a microcosm of the community or city it sits within. It really reinforces the children as citizens theme, and they have some amazing projects activities to help bring that to life.”

One project included a guide to the city – one produced by the children, with their advice on everything from where people always ride bicycles to the best spots for feeding ducks.

“Another thing that has stuck with me it the importance of the way the environment is designed – I'm a tutor now, and one thing I often say to students is that welcoming begins at the carpark. Your first experience of a space is a lasting one – how easy is it to get inside, who does the space welcome and communicate with, what subliminal messages are conveyed. It fits in a way with the Māori perspective, the māuri of a space – it's something that, while not exactly the same, is incredibly important in the Reggio approach.”

Advice for future fellows

For those considering an application for the Margaret May Blackwell fellowship, Rose has some sage advice.

“Tack on a holiday! We planned one for ourselves, made the most of our time away. Our minds were  full from all the listening and learning in Reggio Emilia, so getting to see Rome and Florence in addition was wonderful.”

“We found a presentation on our return was a good way of delivering our findings too. It’s something I am quite used to doing, so once we had written up our findings we presented a workshop to the Kindergarten Association, and advertised and presented a little more widely too.”

“One thing I focused on there, that I don’t think I have mentioned yet, is how much the Reggio approach places importance on every member of society, from the cook to the cleaner – they all have an important role to play. Spaces had big windows so children could see food being made, they would go in and help prepare food, and then everyone would eat together.”

“Again, it was the focus on children as citizens and researchers that has stuck with me and had an influence on the way I worked with children. I think it’s important to bring out the child’s natural curiosity, help them develop their own theories and watch them flourish.”

Rose is grateful for the support of the Margaret May Blackwell fellowship and (her employer at the time) Kidsfirst Kindergartens for making the Reggio Emilia tour possible.

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