Thursday, August 27, 2015

Seeing Competent Children

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning more about the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education. This summer, I attended an excellent two-day workshop called “Revisiting the Environment for Young Children”, which focused on creating meaningful learning environments in preschools.

One of the things that sometimes disappoints me about discussing “Reggio” with other teachers, or looking for resources online, is how quickly teachers zero in on the aesthetics of the environment and reduce the entire discussion to decorating ideas. “Where did you but those wicker baskets?” “Look at the ideas for paint storage I saw on Pinterest!” “I’m throwing out everything made of plastic and switching to wood!” But Reggio is more than decorating. A child centered, child focused, meaningful classroom environment isn’t just about beautiful baskets, natural light, and the color of the walls. It’s about the essential view that teachers hold about children.

It’s about viewing the child as competent.

Once we get past the beautiful, artistically arranged environment of Reggio-inspired classrooms, we see the messages that the environment is sending. The classroom environment is set up to support children’s choices. The baskets full of items that can be easily spilled, and easily mixed up send a message that the children are trusted to choose what they want to use, how they want to use it, and to be able to put it away again. The fragile fabrics, plants, lamps, and arrangements of natural materials send a message that children can figure out how to move through this environment without causing damage, or, that if things are broken or knocked down, the classroom community is capable of repairing them.

The arrangement of tables, chairs, and materials and the schedule of the day suggests that children are capable of managing their own time, decisions, and movement through the physical space, but also through the daily routine. I’ve so often heard teachers use phrases like “good classroom management is putting out fires before they start”. Reggio-inspired environments don’t view children as potential fire starters, or as objects to “manage”. They assume that children are competent to make decisions, and that the teacher is there to work alongside the children, not to stand above “managing” them.

As I set up my classroom for the new school year, thinking about materials, routines, and rules, I’m well aware of the limitations of young children. But instead of focusing on the many things that young children can’t do, or that aren’t safe, or that might be frustrating to them, I’m creating an environment that supports what they can do, as competent children acting on the world around them.

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