WHAT would preschoolers do if they suddenly found a plump,
purple eggplant on the table? The staff at the Model Early Learning
Center (MELC) in Washington, D.C., hoped they would dive for their
crayons. Instead, the children barely glanced at the eggplant.
"Oh, they drew a bit, but there was no excitement around it,"
the head teacher, Sonya Shoptaugh, recalls. So the staff changed
tack. Before school opened, they filled a bowl with lemons and hung
three more from the ceiling.
That did it. The sight was both familiar and unusual enough to
spur six three-to-five-year-olds to draw, paint, and reproduce the
lemons in papier-mache; to smear them with paint and roll them over
paper; to slice them, squeeze them, chop them; to raid the shelves
for yellow objects and use them in collages; and finally, to scout
the yard for a branch and decorate it with their artifacts.
The lemon-tree project is more than play: It illustrates an
educational approach that has gained worldwide attention. Even
before Newsweek magazine, in December 1991, chose a preschool in
Reggio Emilia, Italy, as the best in the world, many progressive
educators in the United States and Europe knew of the 32 preschools
and infant-toddler centers in the northern Italian city.
They had also heard of their founder, Loris Malaguzzi, who
received both the 1992 Lego Prize for his "tenacious, pioneering
work" and, in April 1993, the Kohl International Teaching Award in
In June, Mr. Malaguzzi came to the US again. "We choose an image
of the child as strong, filled with resources," he told more than
400 people at a conference in Washington, many of whom are used to
viewing children as fragile and at risk.
"I think he's probably right," says Fredericka Phelps, program
specialist for early-childhood services for Fairfax County, Va. "We
do so much for the child and then assume he's weak.... If we look
at the child as strong, then we'll change our expectations."
Educating the child whom Malaguzzi postulates requires teachers
who don't simply transfer knowledge and skills. These teachers fuel
children's investigative impulses, allow them to explore, listen to
their theories and encourage them to test them, and intervene only
to introduce a new tool or challenge.
This is central to the Reggio "approach," which is different
from a "model" or "method" such as that used in Montessori schools,
says Carlina Rinaldi, who has worked with the Reggio schools since
1970 as an educational coordinator. She explains: "Montessori
schools use identical materials and unchanging methods. We are
conceptually different. Ours is an approach; it entails entering
into an attitude toward life and relationships."
To Ann Lewin, the founder and director of MELC, this means that
"at Reggio there's a true practice of theories we in America give a
lot of lip service to. Specifically, the constructivist theory,
which says we all construct our own intelligence; social
constructivism, which holds that intelligence is constructed in a
social setting; and multiple-intelligence theory, which says we
have intellectual thumb prints as different as our physical thumb
To live these theories, Reggio teachers rely primarily on
practices they call "documentation" and "emergent curriculum." The
latter is, Malaguzzi explains, "a curriculum that emerges from the
children, allowing them to enter and become part of the process."
To build this curriculum, teachers listen, watch, transcribe
children's conversations, videotape their activities, take endless
photographs, place tape recorders in strategic locations.
Lest they misread a child's development, teachers work in teams
and set aside time to review events. …