In the aftermath of World World II, in the wake of the destructive forces that leveled so many European communities, a new idea in early childhood education took root and flourished.

A visionary school teacher in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia by the name of Loris Malaguzzi developed an educational experience, guided by the energy and desires of local parents in the belief that children needed a new way of learning.

Called the Reggio Emilia Approach (REA), it is rooted in the belief that children are strong, capable and resilient. They eagerly want to learn and relate to others. And children speak 100 languages, a metaphor that stems from the belief that children possess the ability to express their thinking, theories, ideas, learning and emotions in very different ways.

As an approach, REA builds communities where children are the protagonists of their own experiences.  The approach is one that imbues children, educators and even parents with a sense of the wonder and richness of life.

While the approach has been around for more than 50 years, it only gained widespread attention in 1991 following an article in Newsweek, which recognized it as one of the top educational approaches in the world. Since then the approach has flourished in the U.S. and Pittsburgh.

What the REA is not is a rigid system, curriculum or set of standards. It lives where it is and manifests itself in ways as diverse as children themselves, explains Carolyn Linder, project director for the Pittsburgh Wonder of Learning Exhibition and Initiative.

Project Director Carolyn Linder. Photos by Brian Cohen.

REA has inspired many preschools throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania that have incorporated aspects of the philosophy based on their own needs. While educators here can’t pinpoint exactly how many schools follow the approach due to its organic nature, they surmise 25 percent of all preschools in the U.S. draw on the approach.

REA draws on the earlier work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his theory of social constructivism as well as others including Piaget, Dewey, Gardner and Brunner. Children are essentially constructing knowledge for one another through a collaborative culture of shared knowledge and meanings. Educators take cues from the children in orchestrating activities. The result is each school often follows a different path in embracing the approach.

The best way to understand it is to see it in action. This July, the “Wonder of Learning—The Hundred Languages of Children Exhibition” opens at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The five-month exhibit, which runs through November and is free to the public, marks the first time the world tour of the latest Reggio exhibition will stop in Pittsburgh.

The 8,000-square-foot exhibition offers a window into the approach through videos, panels, audio recordings and artifacts of children from preschools and primary schools in Reggio Emilia. It’s the first time the convention center has taken on a show of this magnitude with an extended run.

“The exhibit will serve as a backdrop for a bigger conversation in Pittsburgh on the quality of early childhood education and what that means to our community as a whole and at each school,” says Linder, who was instrumental in bringing the show to Pittsburgh. “The exhibit will help everyone understand the enormous potential of young learning experiences as well as the powerful and lasting impact of early childhood programming.”

At the Jewish Community Center. Photo by Brian Cohen.

In Pittsburgh, The Cyert Center for Early Education in Oakland was among the first in the region to embrace Reggio as a full-school approach in 1997. The year-round school, which serves as the childcare program for CMU, was in the midst of remodeling when the first Reggio Emilia exhibit came to Pittsburgh 17 years ago at the behest of the Cyert Center.

As a result, architects incorporated what they saw at the exhibit into their design, says Carla Freund, director. Bright light pours into rooms from large windows. On interior walls, more windows sit at the eye level of children. One room flows into the next creating a sense of transparency and openness.

So how do the youngest of children, infants and toddlers communicate before they’ve even learned to speak? Educational coordinator Sandy Johns shares an example. One day, while the class was walking outside, teachers noticed the children making bird-like sounds. “Children tell us things at that age by directing their attention,” explains Johns. “Their faces lit up. This began an exploration of birds in the classroom in response to the cues of the children. In the past, the walk might have progressed without noticing that milestone.”

The Cyert Center exudes an international spirit since families and children come from a background representing 26 different countries. Another aspect important to the Cyert Center is its embrace of technology, which is a tool as important as language, music and graphic materials.

At the Jewish Community Center. Photo by Brian Cohen.

“A school’s philosophy dictates whether technology is embraced,” says Sue Polojac, director of programming for PAEYC. “For example, if children find a bug outside, they may Google it. We still want the child to think first about what that insect could be.”

In Squirrel Hill, the Early Childhood Education Center, part of the Jewish Community Center, offers yet another example of the ways the approach enriches the lives of young children. The preschool remodeled several years ago to create airy, open spaces with large windows and soft colors. A centrally located kitchen provides space where the children bake Challah on Fridays.

“Fifty percent of our children are Jewish, but our overall population is very diverse,” says Liza Baron, director, in describing the spirit of the center. “The core value is one of respect.”

While educators undergo long-term, serious study of the REA experience, the approach doesn’t require costly materials and expensive facilities are unnecessary. It can bloom wherever it’s planted. Many of the tools use repurposed materials such as a plastic tubs filled with water, clay, paint, lights, paper, drama and play. “A lot of careful planning goes into the activities,” says Polojac. “It’s not about giving children answers, but giving them the tools to uncover and discover their own theories about the world around them.”

The approach produces lifelong learners, problem solvers and imaginative, critical thinkers.

“The exciting thing about having the “Wonder of Learning” here is it will give local educators an opportunity to spend time with the exhibit,” says Polojac who hopes to visit several times herself. “For each person, (the takeway) will be very different.”

The exhibit opens July 17 and runs through November 15 and is free to public. Private group tours are available.

“Wonder of Learning” is hosted by The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh,  the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC) and the Reggio Emilia Pittsburgh Initiative. It was made possible through the support of The Heinz Endowments, Grable Foundation, The Fine Foundation, The Sprout Fund on behalf of the Remake Learning Network and The Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

In addition, this month the 11th North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) Summer Conference, “Bringing Partners on the Path of Learning,” will convene at the Senator John Heinz History Center, bringing in Reggio educators from across the country.

This article is part of the Remake Learning initiative, a multimedia partnership between NEXTpittsburgh and WQED Multimedia, Pittsburgh Magazine and WESA. Click to see their stories on Learning innovation in Pittsburgh.

All photos by Brian Cohen.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...