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June 1, 2016
Nine Northwest Missouri State University students, faculty and staff members recently spent a week learning about the Reggio Emilia Approach to preschool and primary education – and their classroom was the philosophy’s birthplace of Reggio Emilia, Italy.
The Northwest contingent visited Italy March 18-25 with a larger group of more than 200 representatives of colleges and universities in the United States and Puerto Rico with the shared interest of observing and learning from the Reggio Emilia Approach.
The study abroad experience was life-changing and offered new perspectives for the three Northwest students who participated and will soon embark on their own teaching careers.
“The biggest thing was just going over there and seeing it,” said Courtney Ravenscraft, an elementary education major from Kansas City, Missouri. “You can sit and read all about it, but going over there and seeing it in person was amazing.”
Morgan Eckels, a post-baccalaureate student from St. Joseph, Missouri, majoring in elementary education and special education with a cross-categorical emphasis, and Carly Hovendick, a senior elementary education major from Beatrice, Nebraska, joined Ravenscraft on the trip.
The participating Northwest faculty and staff members were Dr. Merlene Gilb and Dr. Pradnya Patet, assistant professors of professional education; Meghan Sheil, early childhood teacher, and Cindy Rouner, director, at the Phyllis and Richard Leet Center for Children and Families; Laura King, first grade instructor, and Sandy Seipel, principal, at Horace Mann Laboratory School.
The Reggio Emilia Approach is an educational philosophy developed for preschool and primary education that encourages play and exploration as a vehicle for learning. The study abroad experience provided the participants with practical international experience to support their corresponding academic coursework.
While classrooms at Northwest’s Horace Mann and the Leet Center employ the Reggio Emilia Approach, the experience also provided the Northwest team with opportunities to examine new ways of thinking, reflecting and discerning about educational practice. The group visited world renowned municipal infant toddler centers and preschools as well as an international school that continues to be a subject of interest, research and exchange on the part of students, educators, researchers, administrators, and political and cultural figures throughout the world.
At an infant and toddler center, Hovendick took note of the how the school encouraged students’ curiosity. “The infants were interested in music and sound, so they took the harp out of a piano and tied strings and bells to it, so it was something they could move and play with on their own,” Hovendick said.
During another day, she visited a preschool and watched two children work together to build a city using recycled materials they had collected. “On this large table they had plastic bottles or metal caps or popsicle sticks and blocks and all these different things, but they were building elaborate towers on these tables,” she said. “And then they were talking back and forth about the way they wanted to do it and setting things up and manipulating light to see how the shadows were different.”
Ravenscraft, Eckels and Hovendick said they were impressed by the high level of engagement students showed in their activities. Children brought pieces of their natural surroundings with them to the schools. Doors were left open and children were allowed to move freely throughout the school building, rather than remain in an assigned classroom. Parents also were deeply involved and visible in the schools.
“The children would stay engaged in one of those projects for like 30 or 40 minutes whereas here it would be like five minutes,” Ravenscraft said, adding that Reggio educators are more concerned with fostering children’s interests and the creative process than the material result.
Throughout their visit, the group also observed abundant outside activity among families and that most residents traveled on bicycles. That culture was carried through a preschool where Eckels watched children creating items associated with their bikes. Some students were painting bikes or molding bikes out of clay or wires. A pair of boys had gone outside the school and set up their own shop where they were pretending to repair bikes.
“It was amazing,” Eckels said.” Another group was a doing a dance and music about bikes. They had some opera music they were incorporating their language with bicycles, so it was very beautiful.”
In addition to their daily tours of Reggio schools, presentations by Reggio educators informed the study group about the approach’s history as well as the special rights and resources provided to the children. Each night, the Northwest team reconvened to discuss their observations and share insights from the day.
Gilb said she hopes that, by having dialogue with the Italian schools, the Northwest students have a renewed motivation to see the rich potential in each child.
“The best compass of the future are the children,” Gilb said. “Children can – if we are able to listen to them, and if we care about and create places of listening – inspire and guide us in the right direction. Children have the essence of the future inside. They offer to us a new culture of human being.”
While the visit challenged the educators to consider their instructional approaches with children, Patet also reflected on a recurring message of the group’s visits and lectures that “the Reggio philosophy is a narrative of the possible.”
“We must seek to make possible what seems impossible, and as educators we have the responsibility not only to grow children but also ourselves,” Patet said. “The opportunity to spend time in a culture that honors children and believes that the culture of children can be a source of change for the whole culture was so powerful. I know that the students who were part of this amazing opportunity absorbed these messages, and I wish them well as they find avenues to ‘make possible what seems impossible’ for all children and families that they work with.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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