The 2014 North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) Winter Conference

By Meg Fitzgerald and Colin Reynolds
Founding Team, Bennett Day School

The North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) Winter Conference is an opportunity for early childhood educators to gather and learn about the world of early childhood education inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.  This year’s conference was hosted at First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Educators from 24 states and 6 countries congregated to hear some of the leading educators from the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia explain the values of their approach and process of learning as it manifests itself in the mind and body of young children.  

The words of the Paola Cagliari, Director and Pedagogista of Reggio schools, reminded us why these unique schools were first formed: following World War II, parents in the municipality of Reggio Emilia wanted a school that was new and different for their children.  This message rang true for the Bennett Day team in attendance because it echoed the “Founder’s Story” of CEO and co-founder, Cameron Smith.

The lectures and presentations that followed shared samples of documentation and research from Reggio as well as American schools and classrooms inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to learning. This was a wonderful opportunity for members of the Bennett education team to learn and discuss ways of adapting this progressive approach to our West Loop neighborhood in Chicago.  

As we toured the First Baptist Church Kindergarten and Infant/Toddler program we observed  the world of Reggio Emilia come to life in an American context. Listening to Paola Cagliari and Angela Barozzi for two days provided the pedagogical backdrop to viewing the school and classrooms. Documentation wallpapered the classrooms and hallways. This documentation focuses not on the end result, rather the process and reflection that occurs as children engage with materials and their environment. Each day teachers interpret their observations and develop provocations in order to adapt to the context in which the children are working. Developmental skills and conceptual knowledge are displayed and captured within these contexts of learning. We were able to see and hear firsthand how teachers document learning and provide a responsive curriculum when they have time devoted to staff collaboration, research and reflection.  Hearing from classroom teachers about the school’s commitment to professional development affirmed the importance of Professional Development Fridays at Bennett Day School.

Each classroom, hallway, and corner of the school conveyed the message, “This space belongs to the child.” Mirrors hanging from bamboo sticks projected sparkling rays of lights across the floor of a two year old classroom. Jars filled with sand, lentils, beans, washers, packing peanuts, buttons and more are organized by properties of classification: color, size, texture. From these natural, everyday materials, the children have constructed their knowledge by knotting, gluing, painting, tearing, and building — constructing their learning.

Walking through one kindergarten room was a challenge as the entire floor was the foundation of a massive city built out of blocks marked with signage of various landmarks: movie theater, school, children’s homes. These signs are handwritten using age appropriate inventive spelling. The progression of development and learning was evident through the works of the children. Using the languages of wire, light, shadows, clay, watercolor, blocks, and music, the children at First Baptist Church collaborate with both teachers and peers to develop a sense of accomplishment, confidence, and new knowledge. Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia schools reminds us that, “Children’s hands are thinking hands.”

As the walls are being put up at 657 W. Fulton, we have a blank canvas for which the children will be our resident artists to express their knowledge, understanding and learning.