Too often, children must adapt to learning experiences that are built for them without them. Reggio Emilia can offer teachers a way to universally design learning spaces and experiences that promote equity and inclusivity by centering each child’s abilities and interests.
VIEW CHILDREN AS ACTIVE LEADERS IN THEIR LEARNING
I was co-teaching in an inclusive preschool classroom 20 years ago when I led my first professional development workshop (the project approach). The aim was to show teachers that children could co-construct their learning experiences when they were invited to do so. Two groundbreaking Reggio Emilia books came to mind—Shoe and Meter and Everything Has a Shadow Except Ants. These inspirational books were part of a series published in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Education called “The Unheard Voice of Children.”
The series recognized children as active leaders of their learning and endeavored to document the process of learning through children’s learning experiences. I divided the faculty into two groups to read one of the two books, and I asked them to consider the following questions as they read:
- What is the proposed project?
- How did this project develop or come about?
- Were these projects child-directed or teacher-directed?
- What role did children’s questions play during the course of the project?
- How did the teachers plan?
- How was the active investigation addressed and/or facilitated?
- How did the project conclude?
I then organized our time together in groups of four to five educators to kick-start individual and collective thinking about equitable design and inclusive learning experiences based on the books we read. We discussed how each project idea came about, the role of “experts” in each project, and the role of documentation in each project.
BEGIN WITH A REAL-LIFE PROBLEM
Unlike traditional teaching models where curricular areas may be predetermined (e.g., September—apples; October—pumpkins), the Reggio Emilia approach encourages teachers to observe and explore children’s interests in their everyday environments in order to identify a focus of study with them. In Shoe and Meter, kindergarten-aged children are presented with a real-life problem: The school needs another identical work table. In Everything Has a Shadow Except Ants, children ranging in age from infant to school age are observed trying to touch and interact with their shadows. In both, children are called upon to be developmental detectives to solve real-world problems.
Presenting young children with concrete and relatable real-world dilemmas is one way to facilitate developmentally appropriate problem-solving skills in everyday environments. One concrete way for young children to consider equity and inclusivity may involve examining the physical accessibility of a designated learning space.
Initiate the codesign process with young children
Codesign challenges traditional power structures and hierarchies in education by bringing together adults and children of all abilities to consider and design what will work best for all. Embracing children as codesigners of learning spaces and experiences may necessitate a shift in thinking from teachers as “experts” and children as “learners” to teachers and children together as a design team.
Teachers can begin the transition to a codesign culture by listening to children as experts in their own environments. For example, teachers can invite children to consider the physical accessibility of a learning space by moving through it in different ways (engagement), documenting their movement experiences in different ways (representation), and expressing what they see and experience in different ways (action and expression). Embedding universal design principles within the active exploration of the learning spaces empowers children (and adults) to build awareness of self and others. Teachers can reinforce this foundational process of learning by scaffolding children’s observational skills.
Before designing any improvements to the physical accessibility of a learning space, teachers can do the following:
- Invite children to move through the space. Provide multiple opportunities and ways for children to document their movement experiences and opinions. For example, provide materials in the writing center to create simple picture books, engage children in creating a picture wall, or audio- and video-record conversations. Then, post documentation in places where children can independently and collaboratively access and reflect on them.
- Invite children to move through the space again but in a different way and with different materials.
- Encourage children to observe one another and document what they experience and think.
- Reflect with children individually and in groups on documentation from initial and later explorations—what was the same or different, was anything (else) needed, what didn’t help, what was helpful?
- Allow children to extend their learning by continuing to explore and document movement experiences and thoughts.
As children build critical observational skills for codesign, teachers can start to establish expectations for what codesign will look and feel like. In the preschool classroom, this process will involve inviting children to recognize and allow multiple realities and possibilities to coexist.
Teachers can facilitate these expectations in the following ways:
- Encouraging children and other adults to express what they like and do not like (i.e., preferences) about the designated learning space
- Documenting similarities and differences in children’s and adults’ verbal and nonverbal expressions as cues for preferences as they move through the space
- Inviting children and adults to consider who else needs, uses, or would benefit from the space that hasn’t yet had an opportunity to explore or experience it
- Empowering children to share their stories to capture and compare individual preferences and experiences
In order to be able to design flexible solutions that will improve the space for all, children and teachers must be able to examine and reexamine an issue over time. Documentation is a powerful medium that can preserve the perspective and experience of a child at a given time across multiple contexts.
Reggio Emilia embraces documentation through narration-in-the-moment to empower individual and group voice, reflection, and learning. This type of documentation, when explicitly taught to young children, can promote each child’s participation and belonging by acknowledging the variety of ways they engage with others and their environment to represent and express their learning.