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An Introduction to the Reggio Emilia Approach

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

This is the third of a series of three blog posts, looking at the main principles of the most well known child-led educational philosophies today. You can read the post on Montessori here, and on Steiner/Waldorf here.

Today, the Reggio Emilia approach...

In my opinion, I have saved the best for last, as this is the philosophy that resonates most closely with our family values, although there are aspects of Montessori and Steiner/Waldorf that I love and respect very much too. There are, in fact, many similarities, and at the centre of them all is the child.

What is the Reggio Emilia approach?

The Reggio Emilia approach is named after a city in northern Italy, where psychologist Loris Malaguzzi (1920 - 1994) developed an innovative, child-led approach to education, in collaboration with parents in the surrounding villages. The approach is centred around a unique view of the child, as 'beautiful, powerful, competent, creative, curious, and full of potential and ambitious desires' (Hewitt, 2001), and it pioneered the concepts of the 'environment as a third teacher' and the '100 languages of children', detailed below.

5 Key features of the Reggio Emilia approach...

1. Learning is child-led

Children's learning is based on their own interests. The Reggio Emilia approach views children as capable of acquiring knowledge within themselves through their natural curiosity and creativity. They are capable of constructing their own learning. There is no curriculum, as such, more a cycle of inquiry. A provocation is presented. This may be a child's question, a teacher's question, a class experience or a broad theme. There follows a period of hands-on exploration, ideally in a small group with an interested adult. This can take the form of a trip, a story, a project, an experiment etc. and can last from 10 minutes to a good few weeks. The teacher listens, engages with the children, and then carefully and thoughtfully documents the learning that is taking place, by the children AND the adults, through photographs, annotated work, recorded conversations and finished pieces. The learning takes place in the process. There is then a period of reflection, when teachers and children work together to discuss and critique what has taken place, and then to set a new direction of inquiry.

2. Teachers and parents are co-learners

'Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.

Loris Malaguzzi

Instead of leading the learning process, teachers and parents act as collaborators. Rather than the child asking a question and the adult offering the answers, the search is undertaken together. The role of the adult is to listen, observe, engage when invited, document and encourage children in whatever it is they are interested in doing. Teachers and parents also work together to define some broad themes and areas of study for the children.

3. The learning environment as the 'third teacher'

'The environment should act as an aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and culture of the people who live in it'.

Loris Malaguzzi

The learning environment in Reggio Emilia settings is recognised for it's potential to inspire children. 'An environment filled with natural light, order and beauty. Open spaces free from clutter, where every material is considered for its purpose, every corner is ever-evolving to encourage children to delve deeper and deeper into their interests. The space encourages collaboration, communication and exploration. The space respects children as capable by providing them with authentic materials & tools. The space is cared for by the children and the adults' (Kate at

4. Documentation

'Documentation is not pretty pictures of engaged children. Rather, it captures the thinking process. What motivated the child to begin, continue, change direction? What were the breakthroughs, the pivotal remarks or actions? How did they solve the problem? The goal is to enable whoever reads a panel to understand what the child attempted and how they went about it, to see stimulus, process and outcome'

A Lewin-Benham

Careful, thoughtful and respectful documentation of children's learning is a key feature of the Reggio Emilia approach. It supports the teacher's role as researcher in the classroom. Displays of the process of children's art communicates to children that their work is valued, and that this is their space. Through documentation and display, children see their own ideas and images having an impact on the physical space around them. Classroom displays that honour a child's family and home life, and the local community communicate a powerful message of being and belonging.

5. The 100 languages of children

The '100 languages of children' is probably the most well-known principle. It values the 'endless number of ways' that children learn and are able to express, explore and connect their ideas, thoughts and feelings. Through drawing and painting, music and song, dance and imaginative play; each of these 'hundred languages' are valued and nurtured. There are 'multiple ways of seeing and multiple ways of being'. Learning and play are united. Within Reggio Emilia settings, children are presented with many materials, methods, instruments, activities, ideas and tools, that they are able to access and use freely, with no criteria for success.

Which, if any, of the Reggio Emilia principles resonate with your family values?

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