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?

Reggio Children Foundation - Loris Malaguzzi Center

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.

So how did these humble schools make their way to wealthy U.S. enclaves? Educators with international contacts started taking an interest in Reggio in the early 1980s, but the approach became famous in 1987. That year, the schools and government of Reggio Emilia sent an exhibit called "The 100 Languages of Children" on tour around the world. This show of art by Reggio children also explained the development of the schools, and the collectivist, humanistic teaching philosophy that Malaguzzi, the Reggio parents, and the teachers (called atelieristas) had begun to develop after the war. Around the same time, the first American teachers and principals arrived in Reggio Emilia to learn the philosophy and apply it to their own schools.

Today's U.S. Reggio schools share some unusual features. The Times reporter noted that the schools tend to be laid out around a central courtyard (a "piazza"). Many employ cooks. A typical day at an orthodox U.S. Reggio school might involve art-making -- walls are covered in student work -- a freshly cooked lunch, and hands-on projects guided by the interests of the children in each classroom. The Reggio teacher is supposed to help facilitate learning about the topics that fascinate students, rather than guiding lessons to what students "need" to learn or "should" be interested in.

This approach has detractors. Some critics of Reggio say it doesn't teach foundational skills that children need to learn before primary school. Another limitation? Cooks and specially designed buildings cost a lot of money, at least in the urban U.S.

Even the exchange model at the core of Reggio helps explain why, in the U.S. today, Reggio schools mainly serve people from privileged backgrounds: Expensive private schools are best able to afford to send their teachers to be trained in Italy. And since, like Montessori education, Reggio has an accrediting body that controls its name and method, it's hard to claim the title of "Reggio school" without having at least some teachers go through extensive (and often expensive) training.

For these reasons, as often happens with alternative schooling programs, critics have objected that a Reggio-inspired curriculum can't work in low-resource settings. That may be true of the type of name-brand Reggio popular on the Upper East Side. But Reggio also has one big advantage: Because it's an approach to children and teaching rather than a rigid curriculum or set of exercises, lessons learned from Reggio can be applied in many schools.

And if there were a way to broadly apply Reggio philosophy to public school teaching while bringing some associated costs down, its emphasis on beauty and creativity might do wonders for underprivileged kids. A few public school systems -- like the New York and D.C. public schools -- already do offer limited "Reggio inspired" programming.

There's a reason that the most neglected, highest-crime neighborhoods in the U.S. are often described as war zones. As morose as the comparison might seem, taking cues from a method designed for children of war might help teachers get through to kids from rough neighborhoods and low-enrichment backgrounds.