Reggio Emilia: From Postwar Italy to NYC's Toniest Preschools
A teaching approach meant to perk up the children of war is popular at a handful of posh American schools. But wouldn't it make more sense to use it with underprivileged kids?
It's relatively rare to hear a preschool described as "luxurious." But in 2007 the New York Times used just that word in praising one on the Upper East Side. What did the reporter mean, exactly? Artisanal carob cookies? Cashmere blankets at nap time?
Not quite. The article was describing a school run on the principles of Reggio Emilia, an educational method that privileges beauty and art. Reggio, which is named after a town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, often appears in the U.S. as part of the pedagogy of ultra-elite private schools -- but it was developed to help the humblest children.
On April 25, 1945, Allied forces in Italy, and their counterparts in the country's transitional government, declared an end to the Mussolini regime. Some Italians marked Liberation Day by throwing parties or pouring out into the streets. The residents of one small village near Bologna celebrated by founding a school.
The town of Reggio Emilia and its surrounding villages had been flattened by years of bombings and ground warfare. The Germans, who had retreated through the area, left behind tanks and ammunition in fine condition, but these were of no use to the townspeople.
Conversely, everything of quotidian value had been destroyed. The Emilia-Romagna region of the country had been a major agricultural producer for most of Italy's history, but Fascist policies and the war had destroyed a good deal of farmland, along with the traditional pace of life.
As the news of liberation spread across the country, the residents of the tiny working-class village of Villa Cella, just outside Reggio, picked up stones and bricks from destroyed buildings and began building a school for their children. To buy what they couldn't salvage for the school, they sold materiel and horses abandoned by the German army.
Loris Malaguzzi, a young teacher living in the area, biked to Villa Cella to see the construction site for himself. Watching the citizens of the town build a school with their own hands, he had two jarring thoughts:
That the idea of building a school would even occur to ordinary people, women, laborers, workers, farmers, was already traumatic enough. The fact that these same people, with no money, no technical assistance, authorization or committees, no school inspectors or party leaders, were working side by side, brick by brick to construct the building was the second shock. ... It turned logic and prejudice, the old rules of pedagogy and culture upside down. It set everything back to square one.
Malaguzzi, who had lived under Fascist rule from the age of two, went to Rome in 1946 to attend one of the first postwar child psychology classes. When he returned to Reggio, he helped the parents of Villa Cella run the 25 April school -- and began founding other preschools in the area as well. (Today, the overwhelming majority of Reggio-inspired schools serve children only up to about age 6.)
Malaguzzi and the parents succeeded so well that the first government-run school for preschool-aged children did not open in the town until the 1960s. Thirty years later, the city had around 20 preschools in total that used the approach of the original Reggio preschool. Born out of a desire to provide children with an enriching environment, the Reggio schools came to emphasize art and the beauty of the classroom. Children were encouraged to pursue their own projects and to use materials from nature in their work.
Maybe because the parents developed their first teaching methods ad hoc, Reggio Emilia never developed a specific curriculum. More than anything, the schools were designed to bring color and activity into the lives of children of war. Teachers who came to the schools after their founding often brought university educations and a theoretical approach to teaching with them, but when applying their training they became eclectic, drawing on a number of thinkers (Dewey, Vygotsky) and testing their ideas to find a combination that seemed to work for students.