Aesthetic Codes in Early Childhood Classrooms: What Art Educators Can Learn from Reggio Emilia

By Tarr, Patricia | Art Education, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Codes in Early Childhood Classrooms: What Art Educators Can Learn from Reggio Emilia


Tarr, Patricia, Art Education


The visitor to any institution for young children tends to size up the messages that the space gives about the quality of care and about the educational choices that form the basis of the program.

(Lella Gandini, North American"liaison for the Reggio Emilia preprimary schools, 1998)

In this article I will compare the messages contained in the physical environments of early childhood classrooms in Reggio Emilia, Italy, with typical early childhood settings in Canada and the United States from the perspective of the "aesthetic codes" (Rosario & Collazo, 1981) embodied in these spaces. I will discuss how these codes reflect each culture's image of the child, cultural values, and broad educational goals. I will conclude with the implications these codes have for art educators. For clarity, I will focus on the North American kindergarten that is specifically for year-olds in the year prior to entry into first grade. Many aspects of this discussion also apply to preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. While I will focus my description on kindergartens in the North American context, classes for year-olds in the Italian context are an integrated part of their preprimary schools that serve children from ages 3 to 6 years. (The Municipality of Reggio Emilia also funds infant-toddler centers for children under 3 years of age that operate under the same educational philosophy.)

The term "aesthetic codes" comes from Rosario and Collazo (1981) who looked at the kind of children's artwork valued by teachers in two preschool classrooms. Rosario and Collazo drew on Pierre Bourdieu's work on the sociology of perception in which Bourdieu described aesthetic perception as a social construction that is learned consciously or unconsciously (Rosario & Collazo, p. 74). My purpose is to explore how these aesthetic qualities, or codes, operate within these early childhood classrooms and what these codes might be teaching children both formally and informally. Here, "aesthetic" will refer to both the visual qualities of objects and the environment and to those experiences that permit deep feeling (Flannery, 1977). Flannery decribes coming into aesthetic behavior:

As one allows one's attention to focus intensely upon the multi-- faceted, multi-layered presence of feeling-visual feeling, tactile feeling, olfactory feeling, kinesthetic feeling,gustatory feeling, and emotional feeling-- one comes into aesthetic consciousness and into aesthetic behavior. (p. 19)

I would also like to extend Efland's (1988) notion of "school art," art that exists only in schools and is "an institutional art style in its own right" (p. 519), to include the classroom environment as also an institutional style in its own right. I will argue that while all classrooms may have their own school art style," North American early childhood classrooms are more distinct aesthetically from other social contexts than are classrooms in Reggio Emilia.

North American Early Childhood Classrooms

I will begin with examining the classroom environment of a typical North American kindergarten. Of necessity, the descriptions will be generalized and do not reflect all classrooms. In both Canadian and U.S. programs there is a strong value for preparing children for future life in schools. For example, in Alberta, the Kindergarten Program Statement (Alberta Education, 1995) specifically states that kindergarten is to prepare children for grade 1 as well as for the future. This strong relationship to first grade, reinforced by the kindergarten's location within the elementary school, plays a strong determining factor in the aesthetic codes that operate within the classroom.

As we enter the school there is traditionally a corridor for human traffic to move through and into self-contained classrooms as quickly and quietly as possible. The classroom space is a discrete entity that is subdivided into "centers" including art, writing, sand/water, reading, math, manipulatives, blocks, science, and a domestic/house or dramatic play area.

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