“Education is not preparation for life;
education is life itself.”
So often we are led to believe that learning and life are seperate things. There is a common view that learning takes place in the classroom or educational institute, when in fact the most meaningful learning comes from lived experiences.
When I was 16 I enrolled in a psychology degree at university. I was told that although academically I had everything that was needed for entry, I would not be accepted because I didn’t have enough life experience.
At the time I didn’t understand, I thought “why do I need life experience? I’m enrolling to learn”. After many years it finally began to dawn on me. Some things can’t be taught, they have to be experienced. You can’t sit down in a class to learn about life, to learn about people, about connections, relationships and behaviour. You have to live it. You have to experience it.
I believe the same applies to children and their education. How can we possibly teach them about something that they have never experienced?
We could try, but it would never compare to the real thing. We could describe what the ocean is, show them what it looks like in a picture and provide information but does that really hold the same value as being there and experiencing it? Breathing in the smell of the sea, hearing the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore and the seagulls over head, tasting the salty air, and feeling the warmth of the sand between your toes as the sun beams down on your face. Children need real life encounters. The emotions that we connect to these lived experiences create memories which last a life time.
“Learning is a real process of participation, where learning and loving is connecting. Learning and loving are part of the same deep roots.”
Learning is life. Learning is not seperate to life, it is the experience of life. You can’t stop living so that you can learn. It is something you need to participate in. Learning is the act of exploration and discovery. It is the building of relationships. Relationships with each other, relationships with nature, relationships with objects, relationships with the world. As we build a relationship with something or someone we develop a connection. A connection built on love.
“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson."
I have come to understand that the best schools are not seperate from life but are a reflection of life itself and it took a visit to a small town in Italy for me to truly realise this.
Reggio Emilia is known for its influential and innovative approach to early childhood education. Inspired educators from all around the world travel to Reggio for a glimpse into what is truly possible. My last visit was back in 2010 but I still remember it well.
My Experience of Reggio Emilia
It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when you arrive in a country that is so different from your own. You feel like a child again, everything is so unfamiliar and there is this incredible urge to venture out, explore and discover as much as possible.
Arriving in Italy was magical. The landscape was captivating and we took the first opportunity we could to tour the city, encountering a world that felt so historic, it was like travelling back in time.
Tall, old buildings lined the cobbled roads and fashionable men and women huddled in small groups chatting happily. Young mothers walked by in their elegant heels with matching accessories, while fathers strolled beside them, hand-in-hand with their young children.
I noticed suited businessmen conferencing with their hot espressos, mature citizens debating life from a park bench, young couples carting along grocery bags and men propping themselves up against shop walls.
The way of life felt very social and relaxed. In the Piazza (public square), people gathered at the market stalls hoping for a bargain, dogs trotted about with their owners and the preferred from of transport was the bicycle equipped with its own antique bell or of course walking.
The hustle and bustle of the town centre was surprisingly busy and without hesitation we were amongst the masses, roaming like the locals. Although there were many things happening and large crowds of people, it was very clear that children were a significant part of this community.
I spent a week in Reggio Emilia and during that time I got to know the area well. I was given insight into their way of life, I had opportunities where I was able to meet locals, other educators and even connected with complete strangers. In the very short time that I was there, this small town made quite an impression. I was learning, not only from my time conferencing at the international centre and visiting the schools but also from the people and the town itself.
“All of life is education, everybody is a teacher and everybody is forever a pupil.”
While visiting the schools I found myself making comparisons. Comparisons between the life of the schools and the life of the town and I found a strong connection between the two.
“The schools mirror who they truly are and who they will become.”
Louise Boyd Cadwell
The Reggio Approach is an attitude, a part of the human identity. A way of thinking and developing relationships, where people are respectful of their the local community, of the environment, nature and the reciprocal act of learning and loving.
I found the schools were a reflection of the town, the schools were the child’s town, the child’s home and within them I discovered these same values. A strong image of the child, teacher, and parent. A place of respect and authentic communication, where education is the right of all children, and the responsibility of the community. A community that makes time for children, a community that supports and respects the natural development of each child, a community with a shared understanding.
The design of the early childhood centres in Reggio Emilia represent that of a traditional Italian town, with their own memories and their own life. There is a welcoming area for sharing and discussing which flows into the main Piazza in the centre. This is the place where the child’s world of school and home meet. It is a homely area that caters for this transition and provides space for children and families to interact, much like the Piazza I encountered within the town.
“The Educators of Reggio Emilia view the school as a living organism. A place of shared relationships among the children, the teachers and the parents. The school produces for adults, but above all for the children, a feeling of belonging in a world that is alive, welcoming and authentic.”
A young boy once said to me “our preschool is a home for lots of children”. This is a comment that has stuck with me for a long time. A preschool or school is a home for children, it’s where they spend most of their days. In Reggio Emilia their philosophy is evident in everyday life, or more so, their philosophy reflects the values of their community, of their lives. This thought impacted greatly on my understanding and in this moment a profound realisation came to me. Education is life, learning is life and life is learning.
Image of the Child
While sitting in the Piazza I took a moment to pause, observe and take it all in. Life was unhurried. As I watched the children playing I got a sense of freedom. Children were being children. They were given time and space to live, to be present and to experience their surroundings. They were laughing, running around, climbing on the stairs and the statues, playing games, singing, exploring and occasionally you would hear someone getting loud and it was all accepted. There was a complete understanding of what it means to be a child, of what childhood is, and it was embraced by everyone. Each child was allowed to just ‘be’.
I find that often there is this expectation that while in public children need to be adults, they have to behave. ‘There is a time and a place to be a child’. So often children are required to fit into an adult world, but in this moment it was like I had been invited to see what it was like to be part of a child’s world, this world was the child’s playground.
While watching I could see adults and children spending quality time together. The value of time was truly evident within the city and I found it very special to witness. Families would stop, watch, listen, explore and discuss together. I observed as two ladies both walking their dogs began to cross each other’s path. They noticed the interest the dogs had in each other and stopped for a moment so the dogs could meet.
Within the schools the rhythm and pace of the child is given importance and value. Children work together on projects which can go on for months. They are gifted as much time and as many opportunities as needed to pursue interests, to express, reflect and gain understanding.
The Environment as the Third Teacher.
In Reggio Emilia the learning environment is viewed as the third teacher, with the first teacher being the parents and the second being the teachers.
Children learn from their surroundings and within the schools careful attention is made to the spaces, materials and provocations offered to ensure they are flexible, responsive and reflect the interests of the children, the intentions of the investigations and promote purposeful learning opportunities. Children are provided with multiple ways in which they can express themselves. These multiple forms of expression are referred to as ‘languages’.
“We don’t offer children many languages because we are generous, but to give them the opportunity to move in the world, so children are enabled to discover meaning for themselves... What’s important is not to give the child information, communicate in a different way. What the children need, is to know, and what to do with what they know. You might know a lot but if you don’t know what to do with that knowledge, you don’t give it meaning. Language is in your brain and in your heart.”
Not only are the schools a place of learning but learning is also taken out into the city. Children are not restricted within the school environment and have the opportunity to explore and gain real life experiences within the local community. Groups are often seen in the piazza, the park, the theatre, the recycling centre (ReMida) and other areas of the town. The children have built a relationship with the town and with it they have also created a dialogue with the natural world.
I felt a large importance placed on the environment, nature and the outdoors. This is illustrated by the beautiful public gardens in the city centre described as being "an oasis in the centre of the town. A small forest where life slows down, where the intense green of rare, majestic trees (some astonishingly large) allow taking time out for oneself. It allows a pleasant escape from the tempo of everyday life, a beneficial immersion in nature".
Often around lunch time the gardens were full of people meeting to enjoy lunch together. Most of the town was closed over the lunch period for “siesta” and many residents took the opportunity to have a sleep on the grass or took time out to relax on the park benches.
The outdoor environments in the Reggio Emilia schools reflect nature as it was intended. There are no big plastic eyesores or fancy equipment. The advantages of being outdoors are utilised encouraging exploration, curiosity, discovery, challenge, and positive risk taking. Children are provided with opportunities to shout, run and climb. To observe the clouds, the sky and the rainbows. Witness the ever changing plants and trees. Explore with all senses the feeling of grass with bare feet, the hardness of rock, the cool waters, trickling sand and they develop ways to interact and care for the living world.
“If you start from the needs, you start from a weakness. If you start from the rights, you start from a strength. Children have the right to encounter. The right to imagine, to get excited to dream and to learn. The right to feel air, something that exists but cannot be seen. The child has a right as a person, in the present to live and learn. The right to understand and build competence. The right of time, and having time to encounter the space, time to wonder and time to discover.”
The Culture of Reggio Emilia
I found Reggio Emilia rich in culture. It was clear that this small town values and respects children and their way of learning. It was evident everywhere we went. The town had been transformed by the children and there were traces of learning visibly displayed throughout the parks, shop windows, theatre, and footpaths. Displays and examples of the children’s work, their learning, investigations and projects were spread throughout the city. Children were not just viewed as children but as equal members of the community that make valuable contributions to society.
The parents involvement and community support contribute to the life of the child and are vital components to the schools of Reggio Emilia. Included in the documentation within the centres, I often saw pictures of parents and children out in the community. It was visible that the children, teachers, parents and community collaborate and have a great deal of respect for each other.
“The culture of the city has changed by the influence and presence of the children. Children teach us about things our eyes no longer pay attention to. We are borrowing from the children a lens in which to look at the world.”
During our tour of the city the guide shared with us some of the history and significant aspects of Reggio Emilia. This included the function of historic buildings such as the Town Hall. Our guide enlightened us on how it is open to the community as a whole, not just the councillors. Their strong belief that everyone should be invited into dialogue, given the opportunity to have a say and have the right to be heard, made visible their value for communication and collaboration within their community culture.
While walking back through the Piazza we stopped by the markets. I felt drawn towards a beautiful hand-made scarf. When I approached the man with my best Italian to ask for the price, we began talking. He asked if I was there to learn about the schools and the children and he wanted to know where I was from. He had small children himself and I could tell how much the schools meant to him. He insisted that I take the scarf as a gift and I was overcome with gratitude. Not only did this man have a huge amount of respect for his children's teachers but he truly valued all teachers and appreciated that we had travelled so far to learn about guiding our next generation.
Our culture is very different to that of Reggio Emilia, our priorities, values, and interests. I wonder what it would be like if we placed such value on childhood. If collectively we shifted our perspective; reflected on our values, our environments and how we view the child, parent, teacher and community. Imagine if we established a shared understanding where children, parents teachers and the community were all on the same page and part of the same team. In a society that makes children the priority, that makes our future the priority. I wonder what our world would look like if instead of teaching children we let them teach us?
Reggio Emilia lights the way and shows us what is possible. The greatest thing I took away with me is that the educational environment that we provide for children, whether it be at home, preschool or school, should mirror who we are, who we want to be, as individuals and as a community, our true nature, and our values.
For this to happen we must first do some soul searching. We must think deeply about who we are and what we value. We must reflect on where we have we come from, and envision where we are going?
“Education begins the moment we see children as innately wise and capable beings. Only then can we play along in their world”.