Sunday, April 21, 2013

Exploring the Reggio – Museum Connection

Reggio is a network of more than 30 centers and schools for young children from a few months old up to 6 years (and soon expanding) in the municipal schools of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. Reggio is also a body of evolving pedagogical thought and practice infused with cultural values that take preschool into a public square.

Reggio Children

I was going to write about documentation, a Reggio-inspired practice that is attracting greater interest in school and museum settings in the US and world-wide. A spiraling, iterative, reflective process of following children, documentation involves gathering and interpreting traces of children’s work and words to give visibility to their thinking and discoveries that are present but we are not yet seeing. Using dialogue and collaboration, documentation is a tool to make us think again and deepen our consideration of what children are thinking and how they make meaning. I intended to place documentation in a museum context and explore its potential for giving visibility to children’s thinking, look at what’s working, and consider ways to support and extend their explorations.   

The writing process, however, has been messier and more of a tangle than usual. Tromping through the tangle to investigate has uncovered some important missing pieces. For starters, documentation is hard to encapsulate briefly. Note, for instance, the density of the “quick” overview in the previous paragraph; while long and involved, it barely unpacks what is significant about documentation. It is precisely the complexity of documentation that makes this rich, layered, generative cycle of observing, reflecting, interpreting, and revisiting a powerful tool for learning for children, teachers, and parents. A tool that “brings to light what usually escapes the eye,” according to Carlina Rinaldi is unlikely to be summed up in 5 or 10 words.

Adapting documentation to museum settings is also a challenge; fortunately an attractive one. But at the core of this tangle is making the connection between the Reggio-inspired approach and museums and their practices. Documentation is a set of practices embedded in a tightly connected pedagogy that is integrated in a system of public schools that have emerged from a community in a region in Italy over the last 60 years. Work to unpack those elements has to precede exploring documentation.  

Country, Culture, and Context
Adapting the Reggio approach from a northern Italian region to another country is less of a stretch than it
might first appear. These schools have evolved within their own historical and cultural context and are responsive to changing social needs. While internationally known and admired and an inspiration and source of energy for educators and parents in schools, childcare, homes, nature centers, community centers, and museums worldwide, the Municipal Infant Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia can only be in Reggio. They are rooted in a particular time and place; they cannot be replicated and cannot be transplanted wholesale to another city, Italian or otherwise.

Museums likewise value the rich web of local community and cultural references, relationships, and traditions and are grounded in their communities. Local context and priorities are expressed in missions, content, collections, and community engagement strategies. Occupying a public space with some prominence, museums are increasingly pursuing opportunities that grow their public value and are responsive to their community’s assets and needs.

A Tightly Connected Pedagogy
Reggio’s philosophical underpinnings are not new to museums familiar with Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Early on, educators in Reggio Emilia read these same theorists and philosophers whose views are an inspiration for understanding learning as an active process, one in which learners construct knowledge through participation in activities, and one that occurs in a socio-cultural context.

While museums share these underpinnings, there are differences. Teachers in Reggio have not been bound by these theories but instead have used them to construct their own perspectives. They have, for instance, widened the idea of “language” stressed by Vygotsky to what they call the hundred languages of children, multiple symbolic and expressive forms of conveying thoughts and feeling. Significantly, the ideas of these philosophers and theorists are more fully embodied and made visible in Reggio practice than in museums and schools in the US and most countries. Practice with a high correspondence to theory is a function of, among other things, implementing the pedagogy and practices over 60 years with rigor and depth.

Image of the Child
Reggio Children
Reggio pedagogy also reflects a whole-hearted trust and confidence in children, their capabilities and potential. An image of the child as competent, rich in abilities, and motivated to engage with the world right from birth is at the very heart of the Reggio philosophy. The schools reflect and support the child’s curiosity and interests in developing relationships and investigating everything they encounter. Teachers prepare the environment, frame projects and support extended explorations where they are also partners in learning. So primary is the view of children as capable that it extends readily to an image of teachers and parents as competent. Children, parents, and teachers are partners in a community of learners.

Museums play out related ideas. Visitor-centered museums value the experiences, interests, and expectations of visitors and learners. Participatory museums view their audience and community as collaborators, experimenting with participatory design and exploring innovative uses of social media. In fact, many museums are exploring and experiencing a shift from viewing visitors, learners, and community members as consumers to co-creators of content and experiences.

The Environment
Reggio Children
In Reggio pedagogy a belief in the powerful influence of surrounding space is expressed as the environment as the third teacher. Children create meaning and make sense of their world in the context of the physical setting and through their constant interactions with it. Thoughtful preparation of spaces considers arrangement, the presence of natural light, use of color, objects, and materials, and attention to beauty to invite and support unhurried exploration, sustained engagement, communication, and changing relationships between people, ideas and the many possibilities for expressing novel connections.

Museum environments are valued as rich, dynamic environments full of information from objects, media, and people, released through social and physical interactions. At their best, they are convivial spaces as described by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock that welcome and make people comfortable, foster relationships and inspire action. The contextual model of learning proposes that the individual’s museum learning experience depends on the physical and temporal as well as personal and social contexts.

Relationships in Reggio are integral to the dynamic of learning and to the pedagogy itself. Relationships among children, between teachers and children, between home and school, between school and community form a system of connections that is dynamic and allows complexity. Reggio educators are quick to point out that the value of relationships is not limited to a warm and protective wrap. Instead, relationships operate actively, robustly, throughout the system, and towards a common purpose.     

For museums, relationships are an important and basic although less visible element of the dynamic. The powerful relationship between people and objects is often recognized as distinguishing museums from other settings. Museums also cultivate relationships with stakeholders and partners deliberately and effectively. Few museums, however, explicitly consider deep and sustained relationships as central to their purpose. Likewise, many museums focus on family learning, yet few view the relationships between family members as an object of engagement or support.

Reggio schools value creativity as a characteristic of thinking, knowing, and making choices. Confident in children’s curiosity and motivation to explore and in the role of a supportive and engaging environment, Reggio educators view creativity as constructing new connections between thoughts and objects. Emerging from daily experience, creativity happens all the time and is not relegated to a creative hour of art. Creativity is more about the art of thinking than about art.

Interest in creativity in museums is also strong although with perhaps another emphasis. Creativity in museums appears to be more closely associated with art and less with learning. For children, creativity in museums is more likely viewed as art education or making art rather than as part of learning in a broader sense. Play often involves creativity but is typically viewed as imaginative play rather than as the construction of meaning.

Expressions of the tightly connected pedagogical philosophy and the interplay of ideas come through in countless other ways such as the atelier or studio spaces; projects that are extended explorations of themes and ideas; display of children’s work and words; and the power of documentation.

Where Differences Emerge
Overall, the alignment and resonance between Reggio pedagogy and museums is strong, from foundational theories to specific practices. There are, however, structural differences between the schools in Reggio, in fact any schools, and museums that affect how fully and in what ways this body of pedagogical thought can be adapted.

Schools are places children go everyday, usually 5 days a week for 9 months of the year. Museums are places children and adults visit occasionally, or if frequently, then irregularly. In a context where social and physical relationships are paramount as sources of encounter, connections, and communication among children, with the environment, between children and teachers, and between school and home, lively, regular, deep, and sustained engagement is limited. There is, as the Italian educators say, little or no continuity. Many practices such as projects and documentation rely on or significantly benefit from the continuity of daily relationships.

At the same time, museums offer another type of continuity–families visiting together. The parent-child relationship valued in the Reggio schools is well represented in museums. In many museums, 50% of visitors come in family groups. Many are members returning multiple times each year. For families visiting together, the web of relationships connects family members–often including grandparents–and the museum experience with home.

This structural difference is not insignificant nor is it insurmountable. The Reggio approach can be and is valued and implemented in museums. The spirit of the pedagogy can and does inspire practices across a variety of settings.
  • There are also networks like the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota, a community of educators, parents and citizens who share an interest in the philosophy of the
 municipal preschools and infant-toddler centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy that is focused on growing the community of learners in schools, homes, and throughout the community.

This is a rich and generous pedagogy. It is rich in its thinking, in examples of constructing new perspectives from existing theories, and as a model of rigor and depth in its practice. It is generous to its learners viewed as strong, competent, and full of potential, whether they are children, teachers, parents, or the community. This community of educators in Reggio Emilia is open in sharing the unfolding educational project and in inviting others to join.

Other Resources


  1. August 19, 2013: Find out more about a special study tour opportunity to Reggio Emilia for museum teams:

  2. There is perhaps space to think about these issues beyond the urban laboratories that rely on technology for their data, and instead in the spontaneous, day-to-day cultural and political actions and experiences of citizens.
    Strategies of Community Engagement