THE CITY of Reggio Emilia, 35 miles north-west of Bologna, in northern Italy, used to be known as the birthplace of Ludovico Ariosto, parmigiano, lambrusco, and of the Italian flag, but in recent years it has become increasingly famous for its municipal pre-school and infant/toddler day-care programme and its peculiar educational philosophy. This is largely the fruit of the work and commitment over 45 years of one charismatic individual, Loris Malaguzzi, and a small group of teachers and educators he trained and with whom he developed his methods.
An ever-increasing number of teachers and education experts from all around the world have come to study Reggio's unique methods and apply them in their own countries. The programme relies heavily on home/school relationships, advocating a partnership among parents, teachers and community members. Great emphasis is placed on creating an intricate fabric of relationships.
On a winter's day two years ago, wandering around the classrooms inside Diana, one of the city's municipal pre-schools, Malaguzzi told me how it all came to pass. Five days after the end of the war, a strange rumour started circulating in Reggio: some peasant women had started to build a school on the outskirts of town. Malaguzzi, then a teacher in his twenties, heard the news and jumped on his bicycle to go and see with his own eyes what was going on.
'These women were cleaning bricks near the river, so I asked them what they were doing,' he remembered. ' 'We're making a school,' they answered, and that's how it all got started. The women asked me to look after their children. 'Our children are just as intelligent as the rich people's children,' they said proudly, asking me to teach their children enough to give them a better chance in life,' Malaguzzi recalled with a smile. 'I told them that I had no experience, but promised to do my best. 'I'll learn as we go along and the children will learn everything I learn working with them,' I said.'
Back in the early days, all the children's parents, and especially the women, were directly involved in running the school. The women would arrive at all hours bringing eggs, a rabbit, all sorts of things for the school. Everyone contributed whatever they could to gather enough money to keep it running. In time, other schools were opened and all struggled to survive until, responding to popular demand, the town council of Reggio Emilia established the first municipal pre-schools, in 1963.
Today, there are 13 municipal infant/toddler centres and 22 pre-schools serving, respectively, 34 per cent of all children under the age of three and 48 per cent of all three-to-six-year-old children, while virtually all children in Reggio Emilia (98.7 per cent) attend pre-school in one form or another.
Pointing at a small table, Malaguzzi explained his teaching philosophy. Little shoe-prints had been traced on strips of paper. The table measured six and a half shoes lengthwise and three across. 'The children wanted a new table just like this one and decided they would take the measurements to give to the carpenter. At first, they used their fingers, then to make things easier, a span, their feet and, finally, their shoes.' Soon, they realised that by using different children's fingers, hands or shoes, the measurements kept changing, so they agreed to use only one particular shoe.
'Instead of us teaching the children using a slow and boring step-by-step process, we try to let them begin and solve complex problems on their own,' Malaguzzi said. 'We must credit the child with enormous potential and the children must feel that trust. The teacher must give up all his preconceived notions and accept the child as a co-constructor.'
This means, Malaguzzi said, 'a willingness to question all your own abilities, your knowledge, to become humble. Only then will you be able to listen to the child, to set off on a common search, to 'educate each other together'.'
A visitor to any one of the so-called asili-nido, literally 'nests' for infant/toddlers, or of the pre-schools or scuole materne, 'maternal' schools for children up to the age of six, will notice immediately that the people inside are enjoying themselves.
Each 'nest' has an atelier, a large studio/workshop-like artroom, and an atelierista, an art teacher, who works with the children and their teachers. Instead of taking formal art lessons, the children learn to develop various symbolic languages, drawing, painting, constructing as a way of learning to understand the world around them and of expressing their own ideas. The children are encouraged to use their imagination to express their view of the world around them.
Loris Malaguzzi was greatly respected and even venerated by all who worked with him. He embodied the best of Italian virtues: commitment, creativity and that uncanny ingenuity that permits his countrymen to make do in any situation, even with the least of materials.
During his lifetime, his work received universal academic recognition, even though his accomplishments were ignored by the public at large both in Italy and abroad.
In 1992 he was awarded the Lego prize, bestowed to individuals and institutes, in any part of the world, that have made an extraordinary contribution to improve the lives of children, and in 1993, in Chicago, he was rewarded by the Kohl Foundation for his pedagogical work.
Malaguzzi had little time for 'success' or awards; his was a labour of love. Although he had retired in 1985, until the day he died he dedicated all his energy to the school system he had helped create, participating in conventions, meetings with parents, teachers and local administrators and lengthy visits to Reggio's pre-schools, on an almost daily basis, even after the death of his wife, Nilde Bonaccini, six weeks before his own.