Scott Hankley helps 3-year-old Brody Martin with a paper sculpture at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center. photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
December 14, 2011Morgan Miller's eyes lit up as she dropped a ball into a ramped 10-foot pipeline and ran to the opposite end to catch it.
The 3-year-old took part in building the cardboard cylinder and wooden ramps as part of a preschool project to learn how objects roll.
At Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center, Miller and her fellow students – not their teachers – are leading the learning. The unique approach is part of the school's Reggio Emilia curriculum, an educational philosophy where the child is in control of the learning, their teachers are co-learners, the environment is considered the "third teacher" and parents and community members are part of the process.
"The child is empowered by teachers who talk with them, want to know their ideas and be in the moment with them," said Brenda Fyfe, dean of the School of Education at Webster University in Webster Groves.
Fyfe first learned the educational approach 20 years ago in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Over the last decade, she has led local educators in implementing the philosophy in St. Louis area schools – from head start programs to colleges in Maplewood, Clayton and Webster Groves.
Reggio Emilia Approach
This mural made by students hangs in the common area of the preschool. photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)
The Reggio approach was launched six years ago at Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center, at 2801 Oakland Ave. in Maplewood, through Webster University.
The educational initiative was funded with a grant from Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS), a St. Louis not-for-profit strategic funding management agency. Maplewood has 130 preschool students, with about 20 children per classroom.
Because the Reggio curriculum focuses on the child's experiential learning, significant preparation must be completed by teachers.
"It's much more complex than teaching a written lesson plan," Fyfe said.
Maplewood Richmond Heights preschool teacher Katie Nauman has been at the school since it adopted the Reggio curriculum in 2005.
"We are meeting the state standards, but in a more purposeful, meaningful way," she said.
When Nauman's children transferred from a traditional school to Maplewood Richmond Heights, she said they blossomed.
"It meshed well with their way of expressing themselves," she said.
Unlike traditional schools, facilities that have adopted the Reggio approach have scrapped tests, lesson plans, desks and the idea that the teacher must lead learning from the head of the classroom.
With the Reggio style, teachers observe the child's experiential learning through their five senses and their interactions with fellow students as well as their environment.
"We can support and scaffold them and guide them toward experiences, but they need to reflect and explore to understand," Fyfe said.
Maplewood Richmond Heights has teachers observing children's experiences in five home spaces featuring large tables with chairs, area rugs, lounge seating, performance stages and activity sections – all geared toward collaborative learning among the children. But students only spend a small portion of time in the home spaces. The bulk of their day is experienced in multiple exploration areas, from an art studio and performance stage to a construction site, mail room, house and campsite.
Outdoors, a garden, barn, playground and miniature village featuring small buildings, such as a market and a fire house, allows for further exploration.
The exploratory areas allow the children to express themselves in a variety of ways, then learn through those experiences, Fyfe said.
"When learning is hands-on, there is a greater potential for understanding," said Jennifer Strange, the school's pedagogista – mentor to Maplewood Richmond Heights' teachers.
The children's work – such as weaving, architectural designs and performance photos – adorns the walls of each exploratory area. Some of their projects include self-portrait paintings, comedic plays and clay sculptures. Other work, such as letters in the mail room and posters about how different objects work, is exchanged or discussed among students.
Putting children's work on display allows them to review, discuss and expand on what they have learned, Strange said.
It also offers parents and community members a window into what the children do at the school, which sparks more discussion and learning for the children, she added.
In her role as pedagogista, Strange reviews the documentation completed by the teachers and develops project intentions for the year. The documentation is used to study how the children are learning, rather than just informing them about their performance.
Instead of recording test scores, significant projects and moments in the children's educational careers are documented. These documents are then reviewed with children's parents during several hours of meetings with the teachers each week.
In addition to meetings, parents are involved with their children's learning through tours of the facility, school events and field trips. During these activities, parents are asked to interact, question and explore with the children instead of simply acting as a safety guide, Fyfe said.
The Reggio approach also calls for the school to reach beyond its campus. Maplewood Richmond Heights promotes community visibility and learning by taking students through surrounding neighborhoods on nature walks and visits to local businesses.
"Teachers negotiate between the child's interests and what their community wants them to learn," Fyfe said.
Sarah Hilton is one of several Webster University graduates who have learned the Reggio approach through the college's graduate school classes and gone on to teach the philosophy.
Rather than teachers telling the children the meaning of something, they are allowed to use their imaginations to come up with ideas, talk amongst themselves – and even disagree, Hilton said.
"It's really powerful to see what children are thinking," she said. "We are respectful of their ideas, critical thinking and different ways of learning."
In response to the success of the Reggio approach at the Maplewood Richmond Heights preschool, school officials have incorporated aspects of it into other grade levels and expect the philosophy to spread throughout the elementary school over the next several years.