027: Is a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool right for my child?

This episode is the final in our mini-series that I hope will help you to think through the options you might have for your child’s preschool.
In previous episodes we looked at Waldorf and Montessori approaches to early childhood education; today we examine the Reggio Emilia-based approach with Suzanne Axelsson, who studied it for her Master’s degree in early childhood education and is well-respected in the Reggio field.  She helps us to understand how the “concept of the child” impacts how we see the child and support their learning, and what are the “hundred languages of children”…


Bodrova, E., & Leong, D.J. (2006). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (Eds.). (2012). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation.


Read Full Transcript


Jen:                                      [00:27]                   Hello and welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called Is a Reggio Emilia Preschool Right for My Child. So this is the third in our mini series about different approaches to preschool education and today’s episode is going to be a little bit odd for me because I actually know a fair bit about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, but I went out and found us a real expert to talk with and I’m going to pretend like I don’t know very much so that we can ask the kinds of questions that people here are new to Reggio Emilia might ask. Our guest today, Suzanne Axleson received her master’s degree in early childhood education at Sheffield University in England, where she specialized in Reggio Emilia language and communication and documentation as a tool to aid memory and deepen children’s learning. She has 20 years of experience teaching in a variety of early years settings including traditional Swedish preschool and Montessori. Suzanne recently worked at Filosofiska, which I hope I’m pronouncing correctly, Sweden’s first preschool with a philosophical profile where she developed an approach to use philosophy as a pedagogic tool for young children, but she recently decided to spend some time collecting her thoughts in preparation for writing a book on how to use listening to improve pedagogical outcomes. Welcome, Suzanne.

Suzanne:                            [01:39]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:40]                   Thanks so much for joining us today. I wonder if you could tell us about how you first learned about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education and what about it spoke to you?

Suzanne:                            [01:49]                   It was round about 2007 when I was working in a preschool and there were teachers talking about that this is a new approach to this preschool should take and we looked into it so we realized this was something we were going to do and so I looked more into it and realized it spoke to me because it’s more or less what I’ve been doing all the time. It was about observing the children and listening to the children and making sure that the learning was happening appropriately for them. So it felt like a natural contraction of how I was working as an educator but to deepen that, to learn more about it.

Jen:                                      [02:27]                   Okay, and what specific elements of the practice were you referring to there?

Suzanne:                            [02:32]                   When working with projects the children will find something of interest and then you will go into their interest and deepen their understanding of this by if for example, it was dinosaurs, it would not just be looking at everything that was dinosaurs and learning facts about dinosaurs. Why was it they were interested in dinosaurs and quite often it was finding out more about their fears and finding out more about how they themselves build things or created things or drew things and interacted with what was scary or it was different depending on the group of children, so dinosaurs was never – I’ve done it many different times, but he’s never been exactly the same.

Jen:                                      [03:13]                   Hm. And is never exactly the same because the children are never exactly the same. Right?

Suzanne:                            [03:18]                   They all have their different approaches. Some children have been – they’ve wanted to be paleontologists, so they wanted to go and pretend that we’re finding fossils and it’s all been about the bones and connected to the bones in their own body, so it was like an exploration of their own body through the dinosaur bones while others, It’s been definitely the fear. There’s something was those big scary teeth was what was fascinating them. There were more of the fear exploration during that time.

Jen:                                      [03:45]                   Okay.

Suzanne:                            [03:46]                   It’s always been an interesting way to… It gives us the opportunity to look at, to, to discover what children are learning, but they give me a new perspective on the same thing. So I never go and see dinosaurs and exactly the same way.

Jen:                                      [03:59]                   Mm. Yeah. Okay. Um, so I wonder if for somebody who’s never seen a Reggio classroom before, can you walk us through what one looks like in your mind? What does the room look like and what are the children doing and and how do they move through their day?

Suzanne:                            [04:13]                   In my mind, the classroom would be one would inspire learning now look around and I would know the children were interested in and know what they’ve been doing recently because there’d be documentation on the wall and that everything would be accessible for the children or most things will be accessible for the children because sometimes you can’t have everything out all at once. The children will be busy. They will be engaged. It would have freedom, freedom to move around and the classrooms from what I’m used to, when I’ve observed classrooms in the U.S. Have been more like a classroom while I’m used to the children being exposed to a whole series of rooms that they can move in and out of, so they have even more freedom here in Sweden and then what they do in the US, so um, aesthetic, it would be beautiful, but then what beautiful is, is can be quite different from preschool to another preschool because you’ve got to include your own culture and your own context.

Suzanne:                            [05:17]                   I think when I’ve observed schools in the US, they’ve had an awful lot of things on the walls while here in Sweden and not quite so many things on the walls, so there’s huge differences in how Reggio is being interpreted, but it’s not just the beautiful classroom is not enough is how the classroom is designed to create interactions with the teacher, with the materials, with children, with each other. So it’s not so much about a beautiful looking classroom is it’s very much about a room that is created with consideration for children and consideration for their interactions and consideration for the interests and learning of the children.

Jen:                                      [06:07]                   Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I am a member of a couple of different Reggio-based groups on facebook and I think that especially the teachers who are newer to it tend to get hung up on the beauty of the classroom and it tends to be a lot of wood in the classroom and a lot of wicker baskets and I think sometimes think that if they were doing the wood and the wicker baskets, they’re “doing Reggio” and I think it’s important to remember that the beauty of the classroom is sort of a way of grounding us, but it’s not what. It’s not what Reggio is, right?

Suzanne:                            [06:38] Absolutely.

Jen:                                      [06:40]                   Yeah. I wonder if you can help us understand a bit about the origination of the Reggio approach because this is… When I’ve spoken with in a Montessori and Waldorf educators this is the point in the interview where I normally talk about certifications and school accreditation, but that, that doesn’t exist for Reggio, right?

Suzanne:                            [06:56]                   Not in the same sense, no.

Jen:                                      [06:58]                   So can you. Can you help us understand that?

Suzanne:                            [07:01]                   It started as an approach because at the end of the Second World War, they basically wanted a kind of education for their young children in Italy, the city of Reggio Emilia that would allow a more critical thinking, a more democratic approach that you wouldn’t just follow leaders blindly, they would actually question so that the children had the ability as adults to choose the right direction for their lives and not just follow. So it was always an approach. Malaguzzi was a very young man; and it was kind of surprising, I think he was only 24 when he started it

Jen:                                      [07:37]                   Oh, I didn’t know that!

Suzanne:                            [07:38]                   I know; it kind of shocked me. This was a man who was very humble in his approach because he understood that he only knew a certain amount, so he wants to learn together with the children. So it’s always been this approach of learning together with the children and the children would be his teacher and he will be their teacher.

Suzanne:                            [07:56]                   And we would be co-researchers. So it’s more of an approach rather than a method. So it’s hard to become accredited in an approach, while a method is much easier to teach. Like the Montessori method, you learn the method of learning. Then you can apply this. While Malaguzzi really did not want to method because he felt this approach will be evolving all the time, like children, like society and culture is always evolving so we can’t have something that is fixed because if it’s fixed then it’s not going to be adjusting to the needs of our time and the needs of the culture that it finds itself in. A big part of why it appeals to me because it’s a pedagogy that is evolving rather than just this is the way it is and this is the way it should be.

Jen:                                      [08:47]                   Yeah, and it also, in my mind, makes it more relevant to different cultures. I think when you go to Reggio Emilia and you talk to the teachers there, they’re adamant that you know, you don’t go in and look at their what they’re doing in their classrooms and take and take that home with you and aim to copy it in your classroom because it’s not relevant in your culture. The idea is to kind of extract the way that they’re thinking about the issue and then go and apply that in some kind of topic relevant to learning that is relevant in your culture. Is that right?

Suzanne:                            [09:20] Exactly. The view of the child not as an empty vessel to be filled with information but the child is competent and to reach their own potential and we’re just scaffolding that learning; they’re building their own education. So I also appreciate that we don’t see the children as something that we have to fill and we are responsible for in that sense, but we are responsible in supporting this child to reach their own potential.

Jen:                                      [09:51]                   Yeah. Okay. So you brought up a couple of ideas there and I think one of those is the idea about constructivism, which is sort of the opposite of the way that school exists in the U.S., where you assume that the child is basically an empty vessel into which the teacher pours knowledge. Whereas Reggio views learning as a process that is co-constructed between two people and I think the example that you gave of Malaguzzi is great. You know, the idea that this person who was really the bedrock of the Reggio Emilia approach didn’t say, you know, this is my approach and I will teach it to you. He said, children, I will learn from you and you will learn from me. It seems as though that’s an awesome example of constructivism.

Suzanne:                            [10:36]                   Yes, yes.

Jen:                                      [10:37]                   Yeah. And so the other, the other idea that you mentioned was scaffolding. Can you tell us a bit more about that? And I should, I should, I should mention to listeners, we did a whole episode back on scaffolding. I think it was about episode four or five. So if you want an in-depth understanding of it, go back and check that out. But um, can you help us understand how scaffolding is used in a Reggio-based classroom?

Suzanne:                            [10:56]                   Well instead of just telling the children how to do it or what to do, you’re asking them open ended questions to do that open problem solving. It can take little bit longer, but then the children’s learning is that own learning and they can be proud of how they achieve this. I think it’s very easy for us to fill in the gaps for them, but the idea is that the children make that leap themselves and we just kind of give them the tools to be able to do that leap, or create the safe space for that learning to happen.

Jen:                                      [11:29]                   I wonder if you could give us an example of how that might work is is there a situation that you’ve kind of scaffolded a child through recently that you could talk us through?

Suzanne:                            [11:38]                   I think a lot of things with outdoors and climbing, for me. I will not lift the child onto a swing. I will not lift the child to a climbing frame and I’m quite happy for them to be and to look at me with angry stares as if I’m the worst teacher on the planet because I know that they can do it and I will give them the tools and I will give the encouragement to keep trying. I’ll ask another child come in, I know that you can climb up here. Can you show them that the technique that you’ve used to climb there and to be with that child and to help them through that frustration until they get there and they get to the top of the climbing frame and they have this enormous pride that they have achieved this themselves.

Jen:                                      [12:25]                   Yeah. It seems to me as though you’re touching on a variety of different theories here.

Jen:                                      [12:29]                   I’m thinking about Piaget who talks about the importance of the physical experience being so important to children’s learning and the idea that yes, you could plop the child on top of the climbing frame, but what does he really learn from that he learns much more by doing the physical process of the activity himself, right?

Suzanne:                            [12:46]                   Yes.

Jen:                                      [12:47]                   Yeah. And then Vygotsky, you’re working with the social element and the fact that in a way, you’re refusing to help him, but you’re doing it in a way that encourages him to think for himself and consider his own resources first and also look around and see who else he can learn from to get to the right place.

Suzanne:                            [13:06]                   The children got really, really good at helping each other out because if they are too high because some of the frames, so they’re just too high up; they’re designed for slightly older children then they would work out how to lift each other up.

Jen:                                      [13:19]                   Oh, really?

Suzanne:                            [13:20]                   So they didn’t need an adult to help them up. They could resolve it themselves and then they worked out strategies of how no child power could get to the get each other and support and how they had to take it in turns because if they wanted to get up then they’d have to lift somebody else up so it worked out in the most amazing strategies to be able to. And that’s because I took a step back. My idea was that as a successful educator, I’m almost to the point of being invisible. I’m only noticeable when they really need me and they’ll turn to me for advice and I can hopefully give them either a question or I can actually give their answer. So it depends, but I don’t want them to always answer every question they have. The question that I have to be… there has to be some kind of interaction on a normal level and not be over pedagogical.

Jen:                                      [14:13]                   Right. And so that kind of gets to a question that took me a really long time to get my head around when I was learning about this is the idea about, you know, correct answers because when I think in the Reggio approach, when a teacher’s working with a child and just, you know, an example from my life, they might be talking about where the moon goes when we can’t see it and maybe the child says it runned away, which is what my daughter says when she can’t see the moon right now. And so my understanding is that in a Reggio based environment, the teacher wouldn’t necessarily correct the child. Is that right?

Suzanne:                            [14:46]                   It would explore why the child thought it ran away, but at same time I am not as a teacher…me as a Reggio teacher, at least I’m not prepared for them to make wild assumptions that are obviously very, very incorrect. And I will guide them within this within establishing their own series. And it was a philosophy session that we had where the children were talking about who was the leader of the forest, what animal would it be? The leader of the forest. And they were talking about lynxes and bears and wolves and all sorts and given their reasons for why. And the reason for the bear being the leader of the forest was because it could write. And I was thinking, okay, maybe writing is okay, wait, maybe scratching and how would it write? Well they pick up a pen, I was told and they start writing.

Suzanne:                            [15:45]                   And so I broke it off for a moment and I said Let’s write like bears. So I gave them all pen lids to stick on the ends of their fingers so that they had like claws and they will not allowed to use the thumbs because no opposable thumbs like bears. And I asked them if they could write. And so they all tried to write to realize it was pretty impossible to write as a bear. So then I asked, well, do you want the bear to be a leader? Because it can write with a pen knowing that the bear can’t pick up the pen. No, but they still chose the bear as the leader, but they found other reasons which were closer to some kind of truth, but there was still a childhood fantasy in the in that sense it was still their thinking about it, but it wasn’t something out there going to go around in the future and say, you know, bears are rulers of the forest because they can write with pends.

Jen:                                      [16:34]                   And the important part here, it seems to me is is that you didn’t say Don’t be silly, bears can’t write!

Suzanne:                            [16:41]                   I gave them a chance to work it out themselves. I don’t want them to go round with untruths, but the same time I don’t want to burst this creative bubble at that creating that everything is possible because I think this is where we make the most amazing inventions in the future because we have the creativity. Everything is possible and you want to encourage that, but at the same time you want to keep a reality check on it as well and how can we take these impossibles and make them possibles in this universe that we live in?

Jen:                                      [17:17]                   Yeah. Thanks for walking us through that. That was definitely something that it took me a long time to understand. I couldn’t, you know, I was watching in the classroom and hearing these conversations and thinking how do they ever get to the right answer, and sometimes it’s just, you know the teacher helping to provide and the experience the child needs to draw a conclusion by themselves rather than directly providing the answer. So yeah, that was a key learning for me. I wonder if you can tell us what are the hundred languages children?

Suzanne:                            [17:50]                   The hundred languages of children are the many different ways that children can learn. That they’re not just learning the one way that it’s taught in school with a very heavy focus on reading, writing and math and sitting down at the desk with all their senses they learn with. They learn with theater, with dance, through art, through mathematics, through reading and writing. Of course, these are just one language through listening. I think I talked a lot about listening. I think there’s very small focus on learning to listen and learning to listen to each other as children. I think there’s a big focus on children having to learn to listen to the adult, which is definitely the way you learn in school these days, but listening is more than just with ears. You listen with your eyes, you listen with your senses, you listen with your heart and your mind. So even just the listening is more than one way. So I think it’s giving every child their method or their approach to learning the opportunity to, to express themselves rather than this one size fits all learning that is in most schools around the world.

Jen:                                      [19:01]                   Yeah. I think a lot of the 100 languages seemed very art based. And it’s interesting to hear, you mentioned math as a potential language. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Suzanne:                            [19:12]                   I feel that math is one of those languages that teachers are often very afraid of because it’s taught in a very right or wrong way in school and they forget to see the creativity of math. And you know, we never, we never really get the chance to express the language of math because it’s taught in such a horrible way.

Jen:                                      [19:36]                   It’s funny that you use the word creativity around math. I actually interviewed a math tutor the other day for a project that I’m working on and he used the same word. How can you be creative with math?

Suzanne:                            [19:49]                   I think real math is about problem solving, which was all of the things that you need to be creative to solve problems. I think when I look at my children’s math books and how they’re solving problems now, it’s completely different to how I did it and even the Swedish system, they use different symbols from what I did as a child.

Jen:                                      [20:08]                   Oh really?

Suzanne:                            [20:11]                   What does that mean, oh, that means multiplied. Let’s just a dot.

Jen:                                      [20:15]                   Oh. Okay.

Suzanne:                            [20:16]                   So it’s all very. In that sense, it’s very creative because there’s many different ways to reach the same answer. And yet school is always teaching you this is the way to reach the answer. They forget that there are different ways. And then you’ve seen this wonderful things on Facebook about the Japanese ways of doing math, of adding complicated numbers together and you think, wow, that’s just sticks put together and cross crossing each other and that’s really cool and there’s so many different ways of doing mathematics that were never given an opportunity to explore. And I like doing mathematics when there’s lots of movements and when you getting down and you’re taping on the floor, are you hiding things in trees and they’re going round and catching things and adding things up and working out. That can be done creatively as well. It’s not unlearned creatively. And then explored creatively.

Jen:                                      [21:17]                   That would have been nice in school.

Suzanne:                            [21:19] Wouldn’t it? How many people would like math is the math people disliked math because it was too restricted.

Jen:                                      [21:30]                   Yup, totally get that feeling. So you mentioned a little bit already about the idea of documentation and and using what’s on the walls to understand what the children are working on and I know you studied documentation. Can you help us understand what documentation means and what it accomplishes for the child and the parents and the school and the broader community as well?

Suzanne:                            [21:53]                   I think in a way there’s two kinds of documentation. The documentation that’s on the wall and it’s just there, but then there’s the pedagogical documentation where the information that teachers are observing and recording and the photographs are being used by the teachers to learn more about the children are being used together with the children, for the children to learn about what they are doing and learning and again, the teacher to learn even more from the child and then again a way of learning together with the parents. The parents can then add comments and interact with this pedagogical documentation too and give what they are seeing in that home and adding another dimension to so it’s a whole child rather than the school child and the home child. A child never stops learning. They’re learning all the time, so documentation is an important part of that. The stuff that’s up on the wall is kind of a publication of the documentation. Now they put up on the wall and now we’re sharing our final thoughts. So this is what we’re doing at the moment. There’s not as much openness and what’s being that unless is being invited for the children to, to look at it and say, come and explore this with me. Can we talk about this?

Jen:                                      [23:16]                   Yeah. I’m just thinking about some documentation that’s on the wall in my daughter’s preschool. I actually uh, went into the classroom recently because the children had been super, super interested in ice cream, as all children are. And on the playground there was a little window in the play structure and they’d been having their own ice cream store and they’d been selling it to each other and just pretend ice cream. So I thought, well why don’t we go and make ice cream? So I took some mangoes in and they helped us measure the ingredients and turn on the blender and turn on the ice cream maker. And so there’s a series of photographs of this process. And the reason that I love this idea so much is because it directly built on something that they were already interested in. And then after the class they actually made ice creams out of cotton balls and some cones out of paper and kind of extended their and their play through that. And it seemed as though it was a very, uh, sort of a way of extending their own interest beyond just play. It sort of brought it into the real realm. And the documentation helps us to remember that and look back on it and say, Oh, do you remember when we did this? And what was it like when the ice cream was churning and where you excited? And we get to talk with the children again and again about that. So that’s one way I’ve seen it work in a classroom is not just about, you know, we finished a project, we stick a picture on the wall, is it?

Suzanne:                            [24:45]                   Yeah, it allows the children to revisit rather than just remember that I remember is you kind of, oh, that’s what happened. But if you revisit, you actually go back with your emotions at the same time. I’ve had children who’ve looked at images like this and they remember that they weren’t in that room at that time. They were in a different room and they were doing this, that and the other so they could revisit the picture and work out what they were doing and how it related to that photograph. So it’s really interesting when you start analyzing more and seeing and giving children the time to revisit these images and even funnier when you read back to them what they said a few weeks ago they said “did I say that?!”

Jen:                                      [25:33]                   We’ve noticed that as well. Coming home and in our documentation we get a weekly email of what the children have been talking about. Not every single thing, but the teachers will transcribe certain conversations and at Chinese New Year, which happened recently and the children were talking about noodles that I guess are traditionally eaten and they’re all talking about the different kinds of noodles they enjoy and my daughter speaks up and says “I like meat.” And I don’t deny she’ll probably remember that a few weeks, but yeah, it helps them to understand what they were thinking at the time. Right?

Suzanne:                            [26:09] Absolutely. Yeah. When I was doing last few sessions with my preschoolers, I documented every single conversation and dialogue that we had.

Jen:                                      [26:19]                   Wow.

Suzanne:                            [26:19] Verbatim, so it wasn’t just a case of doing this and writing down their correct thoughts. It was getting old and mistake, grammatical mistakes, enunciation mistakes, so that I can see over this period of three years their language development. I can see their idea developments. I could see how they were interacting as well and the best part of it is going back because I would ask the same certain times of the year, like Valentine’s Day instead of doing whole Valentine thing, I would explore what is love, what does love mean to the children, and so I would ask the same question each year: What is love or what color is love, or what color is Christmas instead of actually what is these things. And then I would repeat to the children what they’d said three years ago, two years ago, one year ago, so that they could remember what they’d said and what they’d done and whether they still felt this way and why had they changed their minds and saying when it was really fascinating and the children thought it was absolutely hilarious. They had such great humor and generosity with their own thinking of. Because some of them was absolutely, you know, off the planet thinking at the time and you just accept it and then when the children go back to it, they kind of look at me, why did you let me think like that? But I said now you can see you’re learning. This was your idea then and then it was this and now you have this idea. You can see how you’ve learned and then kind of, Oh yeah, now I understand why you let me think like that.

Jen:                                      [27:53]                   That must be a very profound experience to be able to look that far back and have someone tell you what you said and and understand in your own mind, how your thinking has changed,

Suzanne:                            [28:05] Especially because some of the children went because there were only two when they first started having these philosophical dialogues and they always wanted to participate, but they couldn’t think of anything, so they would just describe somebody’s T-shirt on either side of the room and I would write in brackets what it is they’ve done so I could tell the child that this is why you said this is because the person on the other side of the room was wearing a bear T-shirt. So it’s definitely a powerful moment seeing the children, seeing that they catch on to their own learning and the more chance they are given to give the argument, which is very much this Reggio approach of coming up with ideas, sharing ideas, building on each other’s ideas that they then become very expert of arguing their case in a very respectful way. We have an outdoor museum in Stockholm called Skansen and the children wanted to go there and the reason we wanted to go was because time we’d visited, it’d been really, really windy so that the boat trip there, we got really, really wet because the waves splashed us, and one of the children was away, so they thought we need to go on this boat trip so that this child can get wet too.

Suzanne:                            [29:20]                   And I kind of looked at them thinking, well, it was a huge excursion to go to Skansen. So I didn’t really want to do it, but I gave the children the opportunity. If you can find out a way, connect this to the learning and a good reason for going, I can change my mind. And so they all said, well, we need a thinking pause because that’s what I tell the children to do. If you to work on something, have a thinking pause. As one of them piped up and said, you know, at the moment we’re learning about Leonardo DaVinci and he learned about animals and how to draw them. So we need to go to Skansen to look at the animals that so that we can practice drawing animals like Leonardo DaVinci. And I thought, OK, sold.

Jen:                                      [30:04]                   So you were convinced.

Suzanne:                            [30:06]                   So we went to Skansen and we drew with lots of paper and drew lots of images of animals so they could practice and they could see their own learning and getting better at drawing birds.

Suzanne:                            [30:17]                   So it was an amazing and they felt so empowered because I listened to them, but they had to give me a good argument. I’m not going to just listen and do something just because they’ve said it, but because they have a good argument, they can share something that’s meaningful

Jen:                                      [30:37]                   Yeah, for sure. And did they get to go in the boat and get the other child wet?

Suzanne:                            [30:41]                   It was not a windy day.

Jen:                                      [30:42]                   Oh no!

Suzanne:                            [30:44]                   It was just as well, because that child did not like getting wet anyway.

Jen:                                      [30:48]                   So it worked out for the best in the end. So I wonder if you can talk to us a little bit about whether and how children learn to read and write in a Reggio based classroom reading and writing.

Suzanne:                            [30:59]                   I think this one of those paths of communication where there’s too much focus in the American school system and the British school system, and even in the Swedish school system that the children need to read and write, but when you look at communication as a whole, reading and writing is very small percentage of communication. The biggest part is listening and speaking. So the focus should be encouraging the children how to listen and encouraging how the children to speak so that they can build their ideas. They know how to communicate with each of those. And if you think about teaching children to write phonetically and they still haven’t got full pronunciation abilities in their mouth, how can they write correctly? Because phonetically there is that they’re not capable. I mean the, the sound is “th,” I think it’s six, seven years old before you actually fully capable of making that sound because the mouth muscles and not fully developed. So I think the focus in the beginning needs to be on allowing the children to learn through play, to strengthen their hands, to strengthen the mouth muscles so that everything’s ready. And as soon as they’re interested in reading and writing, you said giving them the little tasks and activities that will encourage it. I mean the fact that I wrote down all the words all the time and the philosophy sessions made the children always really eager to know what was being written and that their words that they were saying verbally became symbols on a piece of paper, a computer. So there was always this interest. It was literacy around them.

Jen:                                      [32:48]                   Yeah. I think that’s a really profound understanding to get to, isn’t it? I. I visited one Reggio based preschool where they had a sign up sheet for the swing. There was only one swing and if a child wanted to use it and somebody was already on it, they could put their mark on the board, and obviously it didn’t have to be actual letters, but they would put their mark on the board and, and an adult we’ll keep an eye out for when the swing was available and look for the next mark. And, and so the child could understand, oh, making my mark helps me to get something done that I want to do.

Suzanne:                            [33:17]                   Yes. Children really, really wanted to make sure the parents didn’t forget something that we’re going to do something like go to Skansen. Parents can absolutely not forget we need a packed lunch with us on Thursday, so I would help the children write down messages to the parents so they wouldn’t forget because this was meaningful for them. It was also they the youngest children, because we have children as young as one and two in preschools in Sweden. That is…learning their own letters, learning that own names, and then suddenly finding those letters at their parents’ names begin with and suddenly all of these one and two year olds, they know every single name in that group and recognizing the word and also the names of all of the children’s parents, both parents and the grandparents and knowing which letter in the alphabet belonged to all of those parents. So children will do it if it’s meaningful and interesting, but just this idea of learning to read and write by rote. Then it’s not meaningful.

Jen:                                      [34:27]                   Yeah. For the sake of reading or writing.

Suzanne:                            [34:29]                   Yeah, I mean I as a British person who now lives in Sweden, it was kind of terrifying to think that my children would not start school until they were seven, so reading and writing’s not formally taught until the age of seven here, when they start first grade, which was kind of against what I’ve been brought up when you go to school at the age of four and five, but what I saw was my daughter started and they were reading and sounding out C-A-T in the August and by the time they got to the following June, one year in school, they were reading Harry Potter in both English and Swedish.

Jen:                                      [35:08]                   Really?

Suzanne:                            [35:08]                   Yeah, because they were ready and it’s about waiting. There’s other children who you need to wait longer and you need to resist and say if you make my child read now they’re going to hate reading, but if you wait until it’s meaningful, then they’re going to actually be able to do it. And it is about waiting. It’s about not hot housing those poor children when they’re four and five. So that they can remember my children when they came back to the we came and did an excursion or weeks holiday in England for awhile, for a week, it was, and they spent a whole week in English, school at the age of 11.

Jen:                                      [35:49]                   What kind of holiday is that?!

Suzanne:                            [35:51]                   You know, it’s what happens when your mother’s a teacher. They thought it was really exciting. The whole idea of wearing a school uniform and, and going to a school. We spent a week off and we spent a week at school and I observed schools and I observed the same school in the early years at the same time. But yeah, the girls were together with other 11 year olds who had started school at the age of five and my daughter started learning to read and write at the age of seven. And yet there were exactly at the same standard of reading and writing. There was no difference in their abilities except my girls could do it in two languages and not one. So doesn’t have a huge effect except for between the ages of five and eight to maybe. And then it all evens out, just close to doing it earlier, it doesn’t mean it’s better, it just means you’ve done it earlier and often you killed off a lot of learning joy that some children should have been busy playing just waiting until they were older and then it would have happened more naturally and they would have been a lifelong reader rather than a lifelong heater of reading.

Jen:                                      [37:02]                   Yeah, I, there’s a lot of research out on this right now and I want to let my listeners know that I’ll put a report in the references for this episode that specifically addresses the exact topic that Suzanne has been talking about, which is the idea that if you push reading too early it can have very detrimental effects on long term learning. And if you just wait, it does even out in the end there is, there is a scientific literature now that backs this claim up.

Suzanne:                            [37:27]                   And I’ve seen it with my own children.

Jen:                                      [37:29]                   For sure. So I’ll be sure to include that in the references. So I wonder if you can help us understand, are there particular kinds of children that do well in a Reggio based school and are there any that might thrive better in a different environment?

Suzanne:                            [37:43]                   I think if the Reggio preschool is being run according to the real Reggio approach, then all children’s should technically thrive in this approach because you are meeting each child as they are, encouraging children to interact with each other in small groups and the large groups. The child is never just an individual. It’s how a child works within a group too which I think we all need that. So technically Reggio should be suitable for all children. The problem is are all Reggio preschools doing it in this way?

Jen:                                      [38:27]                   And so I guess the logical conclusion there is that possibly not. And because there is no accreditation system for Reggio based preschools for the reasons we’ve already discussed, it can perhaps be a bit different difficult for parents to tell whether their school is doing it well or not.

Suzanne:                            [38:45]                   The best way is to go in and ask the teachers at each preschool what their attitudes towards ensuring each child is learning appropriately.

Jen:                                      [38:57]                   What are some good questions to ask because I imagine if you asked the teacher what is your attitude towards learning that you might get a strange look back, so what are one or two questions that parents going to have to try and get to the heart of that do you think?

Suzanne:                            [39:09]                   I think they only need to ask questions about how what, how do they see in an inclusive environment and I think is not just about children with disabilities or maybe autism or other kinds of learning difficulties. It’s also about how to make an inclusive environment for all children, but all different learning approaches because if they were talking about and approaches focusing on 100 ways, hundred languages, 100 ways of learning, how are they incorporating that? Because if there is these hundred ways of learning, then there should be enough room for each child to learn in their own way.

Jen:                                      [39:54]                   Yeah, and the phrase hundred languages of children is a very, very common one; it’s the title of a book actually that is very widely read here in the U.S., and so I think it would be a good sign if, if the teachers and the administrators knew what the hundred languages of children were and could help to articulate what some of the ones are that they support in the school. Is that right?

Suzanne:                            [40:17] Absolutely. And I think if you ask them about the hundred languages and how they incorporate that into their daily routines, then I think you will find out very quickly whether the preschool is suitable for your child.

Jen:                                      [40:30]                   Yep. Thanks for that. That’s really helpful. So I’m thinking about the transition from preschool into school and as far as I know, the only Reggio based school itself is the one that’s attached to the Loris Malaguzzi Center in Reggio Emilia. So I’m curious about how children transitioned from this environment in a preschool where they really get to think for themselves into a system, at least here in the U.S. where knowledge is held by the teacher and poured into the children’s minds. How does that work?

Suzanne:                            [41:01]                   I think we have to hope that the foundation has been given by a Reggio approach is broad enough to support the ongoing learning. There was…and I’ve forgotten his name now. There was a Nobel winner in, I think it was 2009 or something and he was brought up in Italy. He had an American mother and an Italian father and the father abandoned them, and the mother was arrested during the end of the Second World War, for her involvement in the resistance and so basically from the age of three, he wandered the streets and he was a street child from the age of three to the age of nine. And he was then found his mother, found him again at the age of nine. Then we went to America and the rest of his education happened and he got Nobel prize and he was asked how could you possibly get a Nobel prize when so many years of schooling were missed?

Suzanne:                            [41:59]                   And he said, well, my first three years was with my mother and she gave me the best foundation of learning that I could ever have. And I think is about this. If we give children the best foundation to explore and to discover all these voices, all these hundred languages, then they have that as their resources as like that extra pocket in life that when they get the chance to put their hand in their pocket and pull out these resources that they can do school maybe not giving them the chance but they will be there and once they do get the time. So I don’t think it’s wasted. I think maybe it’s a little bit frustrating for them in the beginning not to be able to continue to express themselves, but I think it will give them an upper hand in life that’s coming on because we don’t know what the future’s going to hold anyway. We need to give them the possibility to use all hundred languages because we never know which of these hundred languages is going to be the most useful, possibly 80 of them.

Jen:                                      [43:08]                   Yeah. And that’s a really powerful thing to understand that even even though they’re learning in school is very different from the learning in a Reggio based environment that it can still be useful. And I think my personal philosophy is leaning towards homeschooling and why even get yourself into the situation where you’re in that very behaviorist based learning environment and the teacher is pouring the knowledge and, and why not just continue with something that allows for much more self expression.

Suzanne:                            [43:37]                   I would do that here, but it’s illegal in Sweden.

Jen:                                      [43:42]                   Oh it is? Mmm. Yeah. I Germany is the only other place I know that it’s illegal. I’m sure there are one or two others, but we’re lucky in the US there are varying degrees of requirements at the state level. Some are more stringent than others, but it’s legal in all 50 states. So yeah, we are lucky in that regard. So. Okay. So as we wrap up here, I’m wondering if you can tell us maybe some of your favorite resources to direct parents towards who might be interested in learning more about whether Reggio Emilia could be a good fit for their family because we mentioned the hundred languages of children book, but it’s a little bit dense for the first time a readers on the Reggio approach. So I maybe wouldn’t recognize, recommend that as kind of a starter text,

Suzanne:                            [44:19]                   I think there’s a lot of web pages and blogs and things like that can be very interesting to read. But then there’s just going directly to Reggio Children; their actual page can tell you a little bit more about it. The NAEYC will tell you about the Reggio Emilia approach and there’s the North American Reggio Alliance. There’s were plenty of information on there from an American point of view because I read quite a lot of Swedish books and it was um, two Swedish women who went to read your million the beginning and started off the whole thing on it getting bigger in the world with the first study tour and exhibition. Not The wonder of learning; the first one that they had. It’s gone from my head. But there’s an awful lot. I mean they, the whole, I think going and googling and finding what is your own appropriate way of finding… Because most of my resources are in Swedish rather than English and there books and the other media kinds of approaching the Reggio Emilia approach, but definitely the North American Reggio Alliance website, parents should check that to see what they expect the teachers to be doing and what they expect and how they support preschools in America, I think it would be the most relevant.

Jen:                                      [45:56]                   All right. Well thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today. I know it’s late in Sweden and getting close to dinner time, so I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us.

Suzanne:                            [46:04]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [46:05]                   And listeners can find all the references for today’s episode on YourParentingMojo.com/Reggio Thanks so much for listening. Talk again soon.

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. Deb on June 17, 2018 at 11:49 AM

    Thank you for this podcast! I was wondering where the reference to the research you mentioned about how pushing children to read when they are not ready leads to children disliking reading and not developing a love of reading.
    Thank you.

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