Supporting early childhood professionals worldwide in
their efforts to craft thriving environments for children and adults.
By Lella GandiniGo to page: 1 2 3 4
When you enter a school for young children, you get an instant feeling about the children and the teachers. Their voices, their clothes, their motions all carry messages about who they are. But all too seldom does the physical environment carry these same kinds of messages. From one preschool to the next, from one child care center to another, you see similar kinds of activity centers, familiar educational materials, the same toys, and the same decorations on the walls - be it Santa Claus, Smurfs, or fall leaves. In other words, even though we may value individuality in children and adults, we rarely build environments which have personality.
One of the greatest challenges in designing institutions is to transform a physical plant into a human environment. One part of this transformation has to do with discovering ways to make impersonal rooms and hallways reflect the lives of the children and adults who spend so many active hours in that space. Who are they as people? What are their lives like outside of this building? What are their daily experiences? What are their homes like? What do they bring to a center from their culture? What is the history of their center or school?
Last year, while traveling in Italy, I discovered a program where teachers and children have found a wealth of ways to make rooms, halls, and familiar activity areas reflect their personal and cultural histories. The space that surrounds them has, across a number of years, become a particular space belonging to that particular group of children and adults with a unique history and cultural background.
The program is found in the Commune of Reggio Emilia, a town of 130,000 inhabitants which sits in the fertile plain of the Po Valley, located in the northern and economically better developed part of Italy. In Reggio Emilia, there is a strong preschool program which originated in schools started by parents at the end of the Second World War. The city now runs 20 schools for children between three and six years of age and 12 infant centers for children under three; it services respectively 47% and 35% of the children of those ages.
The philosophy underlying this preschool program has evolved through the years. Part of this dynamic growth has come from a partnership between teachers,parents, and educational advisors. Among the ideas which have come from this collaboration is the educational significance of thoughtfully designed physical spaces.
Loris Malaguzzi, a leader of education for young children in Italy, talks about the importance of space in this way: "We value space because of its power to organize, promote pleasant relationships between people of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity, and its potential for sparking all kinds of social, affective, and cognitive learning. All of this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children. We also think that the space has to be a sort of aquarium which mirrors the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of the people who live within it."
A Sense of Personal Space
The schools of Reggio are astonishing. The rooms are simply beautiful. There is attention to detail everywhere: in the color of the walls, the shape of the furniture, the arrangement of the simplest objects on shelves and tables. Light from the windows and doors shines through transparent collages and weavings made by the children. Healthy, green plants are everywhere. Behind the shelves displaying shells are mirrors which reflect the patterns which children and teachers have created.
But the environment is not just beautiful - it is highly personal. For example, in one of the halls, a series of small boxes made of white cardboard creates a grid on the wall. On each box the name of a child or a teacher is printed with rubber stamp letters. These boxes are used for leaving little surprises or messages for one another.
Walking a little further, you see a display of pine cones placed in order by size, and next to them a series of round, polished pebbles arranged in rows by shades of color from white to dark grey. The natural beauty of these found objects, along with their form, texture, color, and size, is highlighted by the careful attention with which they have been arranged on a lighted shelf just at children's eye level. This display, like others throughout the school, records a recent event in children's lives. The display contains the treasures which children picked up on a special walk through the woods to the bank of the river.
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