Walkabout in Reggio Emilia

Resident Gallery Atelierista

 

Working as an artist, creative practitioner and atelierista for different galleries, children's centres and schools across the North of England, I have often referred to the Reggio Emilia approach within both my research and also on a practical level for guidance and inspiration. The wealth and depth of documentation, publications, seminars and academic papers from the schools in Northern Italy have underlined its influence as an exemplary education model where theory is tightly woven into practice.

Since the Whitworth re-opened in spring, I have been developing and delivering the weekly Early Years Atelier . This has provided the opportunity to observe a dynamic atelier space in action each week. The atelier runs in the Clore Learning Studio every Monday as a free, drop-in space for children aged 0-5 years. The fundamental difference being of course that in contrast to the Reggio Emilia atelier, our atelier is situated in an art gallery with a flow of different participants of mixed ages, dropping in throughout the day, rather than it being a space inhabited by one small group within a nursery or pre-school classroom. It is perhaps more informal too, in that there is no teacher present. Operating within the context of learning and interpretation within a gallery environment, there are also no Early Years Foundation Stage learning objectives to be monitored and assessed, although that doesn't mean that we aren't achieving the learning goals.

Since opening, a range of materials and immersive spaces have been set up to form each atelier, inspired by key artworks and exhibits as starting points. Atelier themes have included black & white, natural materials, indoors-outdoors, geometric patterns and movement, light and dark, heavy and light. As the images below show, a range of materials have been used in both conventional and unconventional ways as children have brought their interests and imaginations to the space:

Reggio Emilia - impressions of a town

 

Having run the atelier for over six months, I decided it was time I visited the town of Reggio Emilia to research atelier spaces at the International Loris Malaguzzi Centre.  I was also keen to see whether there was something about the town of Reggio Emilia itself that reflected the work that was going on within the world-renowned schools. It is impossible to visit the schools without signing up to a paid research study trip, so this time I wanted to get a feel for Reggio Emilia as a place beyond the schools.

On a fast, cool train from Bologna, we arrived at an ultra-modern and rather deserted high speed rail station just outside the town of Reggio Emilia. The light and shadows cast by the extraordinary white beamed 'ceiling' above the platform were highly impressive and once in the main atrium below, each time a train passed over at high speed the building was filled with an immense burst of sound. Already our senses were alive in the sweltering heat! It was here at a vacant information desk that we also discovered that Reggio Children have created the Children's Park at Milan Expo 2015 , which runs until the 31st October.

Taking a bus into the town centre from the high speed station, Reggio Emilia felt like a typical, sleepy little Italian town with tree-lined stradas, useful for people to find shade under in the intense 37-40 degree heat. It was also clear that the recession has taken a bite even in a prosperous town like Reggio as, upon asking for directions from a friendly Nigerian man, we were told that many people were struggling with long-term unemployment as jobs in the town were hard to come by. This perhaps explained the number of men hanging around in the shade in the parks and outside the train stations at midday.

As with most hot countries, in the the afternoon, the town seemed to become completely deserted as the heat intensified. However, night time in Reggio was a different matter as the streets were filled with activity. A number of free, large-scale, outdoor, cultural events took over the piazzas in the centre as live musicians played in the street, DJs took their decks outside, ballet companies performed on temporary platform stages in the central square, and tango dancers and circus acts entertained the crowds. In one small square, some local women had brought out vintage toys and games for families to play with as children stayed up well past the average UK child's bedtime. It was also really impressive to see the huge crowds of unsupervised teenagers and young people welcomed in the street for the events. Here there was a sense of the whole town community (young and old) coming today as people set up fun, free, DIY, pop-up interventions.

 

The International Loris Malaguzzi Centre

 

After absorbing the tastes, sights, sounds and atmosphere of the town, we took a day to visit the Loris Malaguzzi Centre. Named after the visionary educator and founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, the centre showcases different aspects of the movement in a large, former Locatelli warehouse. It was well worth visiting the centre in mid-July as the building was virtually empty, so we were able to take in all the displays, images, videos and spaces in our own time. Perhaps the week earlier would have been a different matter though as the website had advertised a study visit and conference for educators.

Upon entering the building we bought a swift americano and biscotti to wake us up. The first stop was the Pause cafe - one of the designated areas of the Atelier of Tastes. A nice touch to this area was the open-ended materials placed in a small children's area in the corner of the cafe, giving a taster of the Remida creative recycling project. Here, different samples of materials, image flashcards and words in different languages provided an insight into the way Reggio have worked to create a local, creative, recycling, resource centre, receiving industrial waste materials which are then sent on to the local schools to be used as open-ended resources in the classroom and ateliers.

Moving into the exhibition display areas, long, detailled documentation boards charted the history of Reggio Emilia as a partisan town whose citizens bravely resisted fascism duing WWII. A long timeline charts the influence of this progressive, forward-thinking town, whose inhabitants wanted to insure that such atrocities would never happen again. This strong sentiment led to the decision to create the Reggio schools and the displays illustrate how the visionary education approach came to be. To mirror this progression, in another corridor, a rich documentation board describes the way children were consulted in the development of the current Children's Park at Milan Expo - which focuses on engaging children with the theme of sustainability through interactive, sensory exhibits, games and activities. The boards document the ways Reggio schools worked with young children to develop ideas and content for the Children's Park.

The main reason I visited the centre was to get an insight into the way Reggio set up their atelier spaces. Both the digital and light ateliers are really worth visiting as they are huge rooms set up to demonstrate the numerous ways children can encounter and question light, transparency, translucency, shadow, reflection, objects, images, landscapes, projections, film, colour, rainbows, refraction, etc. in thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. Provocations and open-ended questions line the walls alongside the exhibits, and for further insight into how the ateliers in the schools would work, a Reggio atelierista runs a paid guided tour for visitors. Unfortunately, taking photos in the centre was strictly forbidden, so I spent much time taking notes and watching extensive video footage of children in the Reggio schools, exploring the world of natural materials, pens, mark-making, etc. 

You would need at least a day (if not longer) to explore the Loris Malaguzzi centre as there is a lot to see and absorb, such is the nature of the approach. Hours passed quickly as we focused on the detailled displays, documentation and discourse. There is also a bookshop in the centre which sells all the publications which provide further extensive information to carry away. AND the Pause Atelier of Tastes restaurant is really worth a visit too, especially if you have a starving husband in tow. He was happy to return to the centre for Day 2, on the condition we return to the restaurant which is run by friendly, talkative chefs and seemed to be the place where all the Reggio staff spent their lunch hour - in true Italian style. 

Unfortunately, there were no children to be seen though, as it seems most were either out in town or on holiday. The centre is more for educators and professionals to meet up and learn more about the thinking behind the approach. Reggio Children had also taken over part of the subway underneath the railway lines nearby as further documentation showed how adults and children had illustrated bicycles through drawing, wire and bike parts - quite apt as numerous adults and children zipped past as I took photos, in the region of Emiliano Reggiano - known to be the most progressive, bicycle friendly region in Italy.

All in all, I definitely think a return visit to this town and region is on the cards again soon. Hopefully along with a trip to Milan before the end of October!