EARLY CHILDHOOD IN CROSS-NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE - Italian Early Care and Education: The Social Construction of Policies, Programs, and Practices

Article excerpt

U.S. policy makers and educators would do well to seriously consider the widespread Italian opinion that multiple interpretations of high- quality early childhood programs are both feasible and desirable in an increasingly pluralistic democratic society, Ms. New suggests.

THE SCENE is a recently opened scuola materna (maternal school) on the outskirts of Naples, one of the few large cities in Italy yet to achieve full enrollment of its 3- to 5-year-olds in preprimary schools. The director has proudly shown us the cheerful and busy classrooms, as well as the newly renovated atelier, where children's art projects are displayed. We have now come to a child-size kitchen area, where members of the review team from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will sit and talk about the city's challenges in obtaining both funding and local support for its preprimary schools.1

As we move to the table, carefully set with espresso cups and platters of biscotti, I notice an array of crudely labeled wine bottles, replete with "DOC" (abbreviation for the Italian for "local origin guaranteed"), on a low shelf. "E' proprio vino?" (Is that really wine?) I ask. The director laughs and explains that the children had, indeed, made the "wine" and labeled the bottles during a recent project based on the community's tradition of wine making. She pulls out a photo album filled with pictures of children de-stemming and then gleefully stomping on the grapes in a large wooden barrel, carefully pouring the "wine" through funnels into bottles, and then labeling the bottles with a design of their own making. The last image she shares with us is of the children "toasting" one another with paper cups filled with their own vino production. Standing by are proud parents and nonni (grandparents), some of whom are helping to document the event with cameras and camcorders.

I ask about the incentive for this curriculum project. The director explains that embedded in this activity are numerous goals for the children, including learning how to estimate, measure, and collaborate in early symbol-making. She then goes on to explain that the wine project was initiated primarily as a means of involving grandparents in a curriculum activity and to reassure them that the scuola materna is, indeed, a good place to send their grandchildren.

The message is one that will be conveyed throughout the year, by documenting children's experiences with photographs and video recordings and by inviting community members to culminating events linked to curriculum projects. Yes, the city's young children will be learning new things in some new ways in this early childhood setting, but what and how they learn will also promote rather than diminish their relationships to their families and the values and traditions of their community.

As is the case throughout the world, early childhood policies and programs in Italy are linked to the culture's enduring values as well as to its contemporary beliefs regarding the optimal aims of children's learning and development. Among the values reflected in this vignette are the central importance of early childhood and the notion of children's well-being as a socially constructed and shared responsibility.

The wine-making project, unimaginable within the U.S. context, reflects an Italian interpretation of developmentally appropriate practice that is based less on theoretically driven guidelines supported by research and more on a particular decision-making process regarding children's early learning experiences. This process includes an exploration of the multiple possibilities for children in preprimary settings as well as the active participation of family and community members in helping to determine the qualities and characteristics of those settings. This linking of children's early educational experiences with the values and goals of the local community is one of the key features of early education in Italy. …