Let us take care of the children 
For they have a long way to go.
    ~ Nelson Mandela



Research into Practice: Reggio Emilia

Research Into Practice Volume 4
Research in Reggio Emilia

by Laurie Kocher

Reggio Emilia is a cosmopolitan metropolis of 130,000 people in the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy. Over the past 50 years, their school system has spawned a distinctive and innovative set of philosophical assumptions, curriculum and pedagogy, method of preschool school organization, and design of environments, which, taken as a unified whole has become known as the Reggio Emilia Approach (Edwards, Forman, & Gandini, 1993). This approach to early childhood education has been widely recognized, its innovative programmes acknowledged by educators, psychologists, and researchers from all over the world as the most exceptional example of the highest quality early education that the world has ever seen (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999; Gardner, 2001; Newsweek, 1991). An exhibition of the children's work from Reggio Emilia, The Hundred Languages of Children, has toured the world, to wide acclaim.

In Reggio Emilia there is a "long commitment to, and experience in, experimentation and research and through a continual process of reform and updating, it [sic] is constantly based upon the most recent theoretical methods" (Historical Outline, 1992, p. 5). Despite widespread interest in their methods, educators in Reggio Emilia do not consider their approach a "model." Rather, Reggio educators, starting with Malaguzzi, "express hesitation over writing down the principles of their approach because they so highly value questioning, reflection, research, and adaptation" (Bredekamp, 1993, p. 15).

In several empirical studies of the early 1990s, researchers agreed that the Reggio Emilia philosophy was primarily based on relationships (Gandini, 1993; Katz, 1990; Malaguzzi, 1993a; New, 1990). Katz (1990) provided firsthand, qualitative observations and research insights in her description of the origins, educational results generated in Italy, and implications regarding successful adaptation in other cultures. She explained that Reggio Emilia preschools are part of a public system that strives to serve children's welfare and the social needs of families while supporting children's fundamental right to grow and learn in favorable environments with key relationships that include cooperative peers and caring, professional adults.

Fundamental Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach

The Reggio Emilia Approach is based on a comprehensive philosophy, underpinned by several fundamental, guiding principles. While, for the sake of clarity, these principles are presented individually, they should actually be considered a tightly woven, integrated, systemic philosophy, in which each principle reflexively both influences and is influenced by all of the other principles (Gandini, 1998). Moreover, despite their definitive use here, the key tenets of the Reggio Emilia Approach are not carved in stone but rather should be considered as essential guidelines to the underlying Reggio Emilia philosophy. The following six principles represent a synopsis of what has been named by the educators in Reggio Emilia as the philosophy's fundamental guidelines (Cadwell, 2003; Edwards et al., 1993; Gandini, 1993; Spaggiari, 1998).

I. The child as protagonist, collaborator, and communicator.

As their primary principle, Reggio Emilia schools believe that children are strong, powerful, and competent from birth. Rinaldi (1998) has described the cornerstone of the Reggio experience, based on practice, theory, and research, as "the image of the child as rich in resources, strong, and competent. The emphasis is placed on seeing the children as unique individuals with rights rather than simply needs" (p. 114). Children are protagonists with the right to collaborate and communicate with others. Their rights are manifested in curiosity, wonderment, exploration, discovery, social construction, and representations of their knowledge within their contexts. Children are not passive receptors of teacher-generated knowledge but are able to construct knowledge based on their experiences and interactions with others.
Children are also communicators, developing intellectually through the use of symbolic representations, including words, movement, drawing, painting, building, sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, and music, all of which lead children to surprising levels of communication, symbolic skills, and creativity (Edwards & Springate, 1993). These multiple forms of representation have come to be known as the "hundred languages of children," after Malaguzzi's poem (1993c) "the child has a hundred languages, and a hundred hundred hundred more."

II. The teacher as partner, nurturer, guide, and researcher.

Reggio Emilia-inspired educators fill the simultaneous roles of partner, nurturer, guide, and researcher (Edwards, 1998). As stressed by Loris Malaguzzi (1993b), founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach, teachers must have a positive image of children and their vast capabilities. Bredekamp (1993) explained that "the teacher's role derives from and cannot be separated from the image of the child" (p. 16). It is essential that teachers see themselves as partners in the co-construction of knowledge with the children. Teachers do not view themselves as leaders who are in front of the children, or as following behind, being by, near, beside, or close to the children. Rather, they are with the children, exploring, discovering, and learning together. The whole classroom community understands that each contribution is valued. This, in turn, makes children more powerful contributors to their own education.
Teachers are also researchers who must constantly readjust their image of children and learning. To be effective researchers, teachers continually hone their observations and listening skills. Educators decide what to teach by "listening, observing, asking questions, reflecting on the responses, and then introducing materials and ideas children can use to expand their understanding" (Rosen, 1992, p. 82). As researchers into children's skills and abilities, teachers create learning environments that encourage both reflection and examination of their own personal beliefs about what children can and should be doing within educational settings.

III. Cooperation as the foundation of the educational system in Reggio Emilia.

Reggio-inspired teachers are partners with their colleagues. Cooperation among staff members is an essential tenet in this philosophy, and collaboration at all levels is a powerful tool in achieving educational goals. In the city of Reggio Emilia, a head administrator reports to the town council and works with a group of pedagogista, the curriculum team leaders for the teachers of five to six centres. Each school contains an atelierista, a teacher specifically trained in the arts, who collaborates with the classroom teachers in planning and documentation. The atelierista "makes possible a deepening in the instruction via the use of many diverse media" (Edwards et al., p. 10). All auxiliary staff members are viewed as part of the educational experience, and cooks and custodial staff are often included in planning, implementing goals and field trips (Borgia, 1991).

All classes contain two teachers, allowing for one systematically to observe, take notes and record conversations between the children (New, 1992). Teaching pairs plan experiences for the classroom and collaborate with teaching colleagues and staff members. Traditional isolation is viewed as an obstacle; teachers consider themselves partners in learning. While they strive for individual autonomy where curriculum is concerned, they also work on communication, collegiality, and professionalism (Edwards et al., 1993).

IV. The environment as the "third teacher."

The educators in the preschools schools of Reggio Emilia place high value on the physical environment of the school, often referring to it as the "third teacher" or "third educator" (Gandini, 1998, p. 177), in conjunction with the two classroom teachers. Created from, but going beyond mere physical space, an environment is seen as a living, changing system. Greenman (1988) states that the environment "indicates the way time is structured and the roles we are expected to play. It conditions how we feel, think, and behave; and it dramatically affects the quality of our lives" (p. 5). Wien (1997) refers to pedagogista Tiziana Filippini, who, when speaking of systems theory, describes the school as a "living organization, involved constantly in interchange, self-nourishment, and adjustment" (p. 31).
One example of the creation of environment from physical space is the atelier. The atelier, or art studio, is a "workshop or studio, furnished with a variety of resource materials, used by all the children and adults in a school" (Edwards, et al., 1993, p. 313). A vital part of every Reggio Emilia school, the atelier contains a wide range of media and materials for fostering creativity and learning through projects. The atelier provides a place for children to use a variety of techniques, it assists the adults in understanding processes of how children learn, and it provides a "workshop for documentation" (Edwards, et al., 1993, p. 121). It is equipped with easels, paints, markers, small objects for collage, items from the environment (shells, leaves, nuts, twigs, etc.), a light table to view the transparency of things, clay, wire, transparent containers for viewing and a multitude of other materials (Borgia, 1991; Edwards et al., 1993). Mini-ateliers are present in many classrooms for small projects. Equipping classrooms with an interesting variety of materials provides rich environments for both spontaneity and project revisitation.

V. The Parent as Partner.

Children, teachers, and parents are three equally important components in the philosophy's educational process. Parents are encouraged to be active contributors to children's activities in the classroom and in the school. Considered essential in Italy, parental participation is manifested in daily interactions during school hours, in discussions regarding educational and psychological issues, and in special events, field trips, and celebrations. Curricular and administrative decisions involve parent-teacher collaboration, and parents also serve as advocates for the schools in community politics.

VI. Documentation as communication.

Documentation serves many functions and is an important tool in Reggio Emilia-inspired programmes. Gandini (1996) wrote "teachers routinely take notes and photographs and make tape recordings of group discussions and children's play" (p. 82). Documentation of the children's projects is carefully arranged, using transcriptions of children's conversations and remarks, photographs of ongoing work and activities, and the products that have been produced by the children to represent their thinking and learning (Gandini, 1993). Teachers' commentaries on the purposes of a project, along with transcriptions of children's verbal language, photographs, and representations of their thinking are provided in accompanying panels or books designed to present the children's learning processes. The documentation shows children that their work is valued, makes parents aware of class learning experiences, and allows teachers to assess both their teaching and the children's learning. In addition, dialogue is fostered with other educators. Eventually, an historical archive is created that traces pleasure in the process of children's and teachers' learning experiences (Gandini, 1993).

This spiralling of experiences and symbolic representations characterizes not only children's work but also the work of the teachers in Reggio Emilia. Teachers utilize various forms of knowledge representations. They depend upon sketches of children's work as part of their field notes, photographs of classroom experiences, and audio tape transcriptions of conversations with children to represent and communicate their knowledge about children's meaning making. The teacher's observations and transcribed tapes are also taken to colleagues for group reflection.
As teachers engage in "collaborative reflection (so that outcomes are often in the form of collective understandings)… they socially construct new knowledge as they investigate, reflect, and represent children's construction of knowledge (New, 1992, p. 17). This aspect of Reggio Emilia's work expands upon current understanding of teacher research and development and is consistent with key principles of social constructivism. As Rinaldi (1998), pedagogical consultant for the pre-primary schools in Reggio Emilia, writes:

Through documentation we can preserve the most interesting and advanced moments of teachers' professional growth. It is a process in which teachers generate hypotheses and interpretations of theories that can modify the initial, more general theories. Documentation makes it possible to create knowledge not only for teachers but also for researchers and scholars (p. 121).

The role of the teacher as an observer is extended to documenter and researcher. Observation is an important skill for most early childhood teachers but the educators in Reggio Emilia have taken observation a step further. Observation, for them, is only the first step in collecting the data that are used to develop pedagogical documentation that captures the story of the children's experiences in the classroom as well as the progression of the teachers' own developing understandings. Documentation becomes a tool for teacher research, reflection, collaboration, and decision-making.

The documentation process has great potential for improving pre-service teacher education (Elliott, 2000). An effective documentation process provides a chance to examine the role of the teacher, because the purpose of the process is to help teachers reflect on an experience and then summarize and organize the experience for further learning (Sussna, 1995). For example, by documenting children's words and their own questions, and by photographing learning encounters and revisiting the learning experiences, pre-service teachers become aware of how the teaching and learning process occurs, and how their questioning strategies create responses in the children (Hong, 1998). Therefore, they will make a conscious effort to ask questions that make the children think. Furthermore, there will be conceptual changes in their view of the purpose of the documentation process, the revisiting of, and the making of documentation panels (Hong, 1998). Creating documentation panels gives teachers the advantage of revisiting their observations of children's learning as well as their own teaching skills. As documenting children's learning processes, analysing the documentation, revisiting, and creating a documentation panel enhance reflective thinking for teachers (Moran, 1998), it is worthwhile to study how the documentation process can enhance both pre-service and practicing teachers' development (Elliott, 2000; Hong, 1998; Moran, 1998; Sussna, 1995).

The following summarizes some features of documentation, which are further described in the publication, Making Teaching Visible: Documenting Individual and Group Learning as Professional Development (2002). The ideas stem from research by investigators at Project Zero, Harvard, and collaborations with North American teachers as well as with educators from the Reggio Emilia preschools. As a summary, this information provides only the outlines of a more complete picture of documentation.

Five Features of Documentation

1. Documentation involves a specific question that guides the process, often with an epistemological focus (focus on questions of learning).
2. Documentation involves collectively analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating individual and group observations; it is strengthened by multiple perspectives.
3. Documentation makes use of multiple languages (different ways of representing and expressing thinking in various media and symbol systems).
4. Documentation makes learning visible; it is not private. Documentation becomes public when it is shared with learners-whether children, parents, or teachers.
5. Documentation is not only retrospective, it is also prospective. It shapes the design of future contexts for learning.

Recommended Reading

Giudici, C., Krechevsky, M., & Rinaldi, C., (Eds.) (2001). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children srl

Edwards, C., Forman, G., & Gandini, L. (Eds.) (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education - Advanced Reflections. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing


Borgia, E. (1991). Impressions of Reggio Emilia (Report No. 141). University of Illinois. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 338 386).

Bredekamp, S. (1993). Reflections on Reggio Emilia. Young Children 49 (1), 13-17.

Cadwell, L. (2003). Bringing learning to life. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer Press.

Edwards, C. (1998). Partner, nurturer, and guide: The role of the teacher. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach - Advanced reflections. (pp. 179-198). Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Edwards, C., Forman, G., & Gandini, L. (Eds.) (1993). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Edwards, C., & Springate, K. (1993). Inviting children into project work. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 40, pp. 9-12.

Elliott, E. (2001). Changing perspectives in early childhood education: Recasting the Reggio Emilia approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee.

Gandini, L. (1993). Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Young Children, 49 (1), 4-8.

Gandini, L. (1998). Educational and caring spaces. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman, (Eds.) The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education - Advanced Reflections. (pp. 161-178). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Gardner, H. (2001). Introductions. In C. Giudici, M. Krechevsky, R. Rinaldi, (Eds.) Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. (pp. 25-27). Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children srl

Greenman, J. (1988). Caring spaces, learning places: Children's environments that work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

Hong, S. (1998). Documentation panel making and revisiting using technology to enhance observation and instruction skills in student teachers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts.

Katz, L. (1990). Impressions of Reggio Emilia preschools. Young children, (45), 11-12.

Katz, L. & Chard, S. (1996). The contribution of documentation to the quality of early childhood education. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. ED 393 608.

Malguzzi, L. (1993a). For an education based on relationships. Young Children, 49 (1), 9-17.

Malguzzi, L. (1993b). History, ideas, and basic philosophy. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. (pp. 41-89). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Malaguzzi, L. (1993c). No way. The hundred is there. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. (p. vi). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Moran, M. J. (1998). Reconceptualizing early childhood pre-service teacher education: A Pedagogy of collaborative inquiry. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. NH: University of New Hampshire.

New, R. (1990). Excellent early education: A city in Italy has it. Young Children, 45 (6), 4-10.

New, R. (1992). The integrated early childhood curriculum: New interpretations based on research and practice. In C. Seefeldt (Ed.), The early childhood curriculum: A review of current research (pp. 286-322). New York: Teachers College Press.

Newsweek. (1991, December 2). The best schools in the world. Pp. 60-64.
Project Zero; Cambridgeport School; Cambridgeport Children's Center; Ezra H. Baker School; John Simpkins School (2002). Making Teaching Visible: Documenting Individual and Group Learning as Professional Development. Cambridge, Mass: Project Zero.

Rinaldi, C. (1998). Projected curriculum and documentation. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach - Advanced reflections (pp. 113-125). Norwich, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Rosen, I. (1992). Reggio Emilia: A model in creativity. Scholastic Pre-K Today, 7(2), 81-84.

Spaggiari, S. (1998). The community-teacher partnership in the governance of the schools: An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education - Advanced Reflections. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Sussna, A. (1995). The educational impact on preschool teachers of an adaptation of the Reggio Emilia documentation process. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts.

Wien, C.A. (1997). A Canadian in Reggio Emilia: The May 1997 study tour. Canadian Children, 22(2). 30-38.