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Documentation, Reflective Processes and The Crowd Project

Prof. Carla Rinaldi presents some of the key features of the Reggio Emilia approach to early years education

[This article is reproduced from The Hundred Languages of Children (pp.121-5) ed. Edwards, Gandini and Forman, with permission]

This page is part of a resource collection: Tuning in to children’s musicality - nurturing children’s ideas

Some key features of the Reggio Emilia learning philosophy:

  • Relationships, communications and interactions sustain our educational approach.
  • The emphasis is placed not so much on the child in an abstract sense, but on each child in relation to other children, teachers, parents, his or her own history, and the societal and cultural surroundings.
  • All knowledge emerges in the process of self and social construction.
  • Documentation influences the quality of relationships

Documentation offers the teacher a unique opportunity to listen again, see again, and therefore revisit individually and with others the events and processes in which he or she was co-protagonist, directly or indirectly. This revisiting with colleagues helps create common meanings and values. Moreover, because planning involves, above all, making hypotheses and predictions (or “projections”) about contexts, materials, tools and instruments, opportunities pertinent to the learning process at hand and the children’s desires, documentation becomes the heart of each specific project and the place for true professional training of teachers.

With regard to children, documentation offers an opportunity for revisiting, reflecting, and interpreting. It provides occasion for self-organization and group organization of knowledge. Documentation supports the children’s memory, offering them the opportunity to retrace their own processes, to find confirmation or negation, and to self-correct. Documentation allows for children to make comparisons with others and hear comparisons by others. In a sense, it invites self-evaluation and group evaluation, conflict of ideas, and discussion. It is important to remember that this takes place in a very supportive environment, created by the spirit of collaboration that is fostered all along in the daily life and experiences in the schools.

Documentation provides an extraordinary opportunity for parents, as it gives them the possibility to know not only what their child is doing, but also how and why, to see not only the products but also the processes. Therefore, parents become aware of the meaning that the child gives to what he or she does, and the shared meanings that children have with other children. It is an opportunity for parents to see that part of the life of their child that often is invisible. Furthermore, documentation offers the possibility for parents to share their awareness, to value discussion and exchanges with the teachers and among their group, helping them to become aware of their role and identity as parents.

Sharing documentation is in fact making visible the culture of childhood both inside and outside the school to become a participant in a true act of exchange and democracy.

The school is not isolated from society but an integral part of it. The school has both the right and the duty to make this culture of childhood visible to the society as a whole, in order to provoke exchange and discussion. Sharing documentation is a true act of democratic participation. Indeed, this thought was one of the most extraordinary and forward-looking insights of Loris Malaguzzi, and part of the vision behind the exhibition The Hundred Languages of Children.

A project, which we view as a sort of adventure and research, can start through a suggestion from an adult, a child’s idea, or from an event such as a snowfall or something else unexpected. But every project is based on the attention of the educators to what the children say and do, as well as what they do not say and do not do. The adults must allow enough time for the thinking and actions of children to develop.

An example of one of the projects is called “The Crowd” (a project carried out at the Scuola Diana, documented by Vea Vecchi, overseen by Loris Malaguzzi). It began at the end of a school year in a classroom of 4- and 5-year olds. The teachers, in preparation for the long summer vacation ahead, discussed with the children the idea of saving memories and fragments of their upcoming experiences during the holidays. Although the summer marks an interruption of the school year, our commitment to the children remains in force and we try to find ways to keep their interest in learning alive during the vacation months. So the teachers discuss ideas with children and also propose them to parents. In this case, each family agreed to take along to their vacation sites a box with small compartments in which their child could save treasures, be it a shell from the beach or a tiny rock from the mountains or a leaf of grass. Every fragment and every piece collected would become a memento of an experience imbued with a sense of discovery and emotion.

In the fall, therefore, when the children returned to school, the teachers were ready to revive those memories with questions such as: “What did your eyes see?” “What did your ears hear?” and so on. The teachers expected to hear stories about days spent at the beach or hiking, and to learn about the sight of boats, waves, and sunsets, but instead the children in this classroom brought a very different perspective. Because the children could express themselves vividly, and because the teachers could ask the right questions, an adventure in learning began quite unexpectedly. What happened was this:

A little boy, Gabriele, sharing his experience said, “Sometimes we went to the pier. We walked through a narrow long street, called ‘the gut,’ where one store is next to another, and where in the evening it is full of people. There are people who go up, and people who walk down. You cannot see anything, you can only see a crowd of legs, arms, and heads.”

The teachers immediately caught the word crowd, and asked other children what it meant to them. By doing so, they launched an adventure in learning, a project. The word crowd turned out to be fantastically rich, almost explosive, in the meanings it contained for these children. The teachers immediately apprehended an unusual excitement and potential in this word. Here is what some of the children said:

Stefano: “It’s a bag full of people all crowded in.”Nicola: “It’s a bunch of people all attached and close to one another.”Luca: “There are people who jump on you and push you.”Clara: “It’s like a congested place when it is a holiday.”Giorgia: “There are lots of people who are going to see a soccer game... who are going to see the game, really they are all boys.”Ivano: “It’s a bunch of people all bunched up together just like when they go to pay taxes.”

After the group discussion, the teachers asked the children to draw their thoughts and words about the crowd. However, looking at the children’s drawings, they observed that the level of representation in their drawings was dis¬crepant from the level of their verbal descriptions. The project was put on hold fora couple of days, during which time the teachers asked themselves what was going on. How could they help the children to integrate their different symbolic languages? How could they make the children become aware of their own process of learning? So the teachers waited for a couple of days and then gave the children a chance to listen to their earlier comments (which had been taped and transcribed, so they could be read aloud, while they looked at the drawings and commented on each others’ work).

The teachers now noticed a further growth in the children’s vocabulary as they expanded on their stories, and the images prepared in a second set of drawings became more elaborate and detailed. For example, Teresa, thinking back on her memory of the “crowd,” said, “It goes left, right, forward, and when they forget something, they go back.” But Teresa then confronted a puzzle: She noticed that her statements did not match her drawing, for the figures on her paper were all facing the same way (outward toward the viewer). She seemed uncomfortable, and then before all her friends, came up with a marvelous explanation: She said that in the drawing she had shown only a piece of crowd with people who did not forget anything, and that is why they were all walking forward. Federico also had a problem with his drawing because in it everyone faced forward except the dog, which was in profile. He admitted he was only able to draw dogs this way. Ivano expressed concern about his drawing, saying that if people kept walking forward, as he had drawn them, they would smash against the wall.

At this point, there was a unanimous desire expressed by the children to learn more about how to draw people from rear and profile. The teachers’ role was to sustain and support this process. They asked one girl, Elisa, to stand in the middle of the room surrounded by small groups of children placed at different vantage points where they could observe her, describe her body and position, and draw her from four angles: front, back, right, and left. Through this process, the children learned a great deal about the difficult concept of point of view. One child concluded: “We put ourselves in a square, and Elisa has four sides just like us.”

The teachers also wanted to take the children outside the school—a typical step in our project work. Children and teacher went to the centre of town where they observed and photographed people coming and going in the busy streets. Children mingled with the people, becoming, once again, “the crowd.” A few days later, the slides of that day were projected on the classroom wall, and the children enjoyed those images, moving through their reflections. Then they made more drawings, and Teresa proudly came up with a picture of herself, her boyfriend, and a dog, all in profile! At this point, the teacher suggested to the children cutting out the figures to add, as in a collage, to their earlier drawings. This evoked many questions: “Can we put together in a crowd people undressed for the beach and people dressed up for the promenade?” “Can we put together people of different size?” In this latter instance, children remembered that they had used the photocopy machine to reduce drawings and they decided they should now use it again to make people bigger or smaller so they could look “normal.” The teachers also encouraged the children to use the cutout figures for puppet play, dramatization, and shadow play. They also sculpted figures from clay. Finally, the children concluded their exploration with a collective project in which they superimposed many of their figures in a box to create “a crowd” just as Teresa had said, “that goes left, right, forward and when they forget something, they go back.”

Looking at this one example of the extraordinary capacity of children, it will be understandable how in my work with children, I have come to the conclusion that it is very important to have the capacity to grow with them. We reinvent and reeducate ourselves along with the children. Not only does our knowledge organize theirs, but also the children’s ways of being and dealing with reality likewise influence what we know, feel, and do.