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Reggio-Inspired Classrooms in Preschool Incorporate Natural Elements

By Theresa Shorey, Lower School Faculty
This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

If you follow the pulse of early childhood education, you have heard the term “Reggio” quite a lot. It’s a term that refers to a preschool and primary educational philosophy that focuses on child-centered, experiential learning. The philosophy grew out of the experience of a town in Reggio Emilia, Italy, post World War II, where a community came together to rebuild a war-torn city and agreed that constructing schools were paramount to the city’s future. The schools would emphasize progressive and cooperative early childhood education, and the Reggio Philosophy took shape.
The Reggio approach is based on principles that value the child as a communicator and a social collaborator who is capable of constructing his or her own learning while working alongside classmates. Additionally, it identifies the teacher as an observer and researcher who provides his or her students with opportunities for exploration in order to realize that learning. Its aim is to honor the “hundred languages of children,” or the variety of ways in which children represent their knowledge and experiences, be it through art, music, drama, writing, etc.
This year, the Tower Tot and PreKindergarten faculty participated in several professional development opportunities in an effort to learn more about a Reggio-inspired classroom. We visited Reggio-inspired schools in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia and, in true Reggio form, developed relationships with fellow professionals around the country, which helped to inform our journey toward embracing this approach. Crucial to the success of this philosophy is the environment, or the classroom in which children live out these daily explorations. In fact, the environment in a Reggio-inspired classroom is considered the “third teacher.” Ideally, it is a classroom filled with natural light, open spaces and authentic, natural materials and tools that encourage real-life interactions and promote investigation.  
One of the first things we did was evaluate our current classroom space to identify ways to promote greater curiosity and meaningful learning for Tower Hill’s youngest students. Our initial actions included minimizing the amount of plastic in the room, creating a home-like coziness with natural light, plants and mirrors, and arranging spaces to invite collaboration among students. And then we invested in “loose parts,” or materials, that urge creativity, stimulate imagination and allow for flexible creations rather than prescribed end products. These items include feathers, sea shells, cork, nuts and bolts, pebbles, beans, leaves, sticks, bark, flowers—the possibilities are endless. Using natural materials in and out of the classroom offers students a variety of educational benefits. The process of simply handling different resources stimulates a child’s tactile senses, providing texture and weight to fine motor activities which, in turn, helps to strengthen hand and finger coordination. Materials can be used with no formal agenda or set out with an intention to pattern, count, sort, weigh or tell a fantastic story. As children are more exposed to these types of materials and have time to study them, they will naturally ask questions and the learning begins. The goal is always to promote discovery and inquiry, to increase observational acuity and to create a connection to the natural world. 
As newlyweds to this philosophy, we are still learning and growing, along with our students. The Reggio approach demands that we follow the lead of our children, rely less on rigid lesson plans and remain flexible to the variety of routes their learning may lead us, and document and listen with conviction to the hundred languages they share. Including the use of natural learning materials, coupled with bringing the outdoors into our classrooms, puts our students on a more engaging, authentic educational journey.