WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - If you care about young children, you might want to learn one word of Italian:
It's short for Reggio Emilia, an Italian city that experts around the world see as the Shangri-la of early education.
In beautiful, light-filled rooms, babies nap in floor-level "nests" so they can crawl out and explore when they awaken. In preschools, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds spend weeks on projects, generating artwork and analytical thinking that stun Americans with their sophistication.
The Reggio philosophy challenges some of our culture's basic assumptions about young children, from the way we shape their minds to the pace at which they move through their days.
A Reggio exhibit this summer at the SciWorks museum in Winston-Salem, N.C., exposed American parents and teachers to a new way of seeing children.
Americans are likely to ask two questions: What's the Reggio formula in a nutshell, and what kind of results does it produce?
There are no easy answers. The Italians aren't big on measuring early learning through test scores, and the Reggio philosophy is that anyone who has a formula isn't doing it right.
The exhibit's title, "The Hundred Languages of Children," offers a clue to the Reggio philosophy: All children have a natural ability to learn about their world. A teacher's role is not to force-feed children right answers, but to help them explore their ideas in myriad ways - painting, drawing, words, drama and music, to name a few.
In Reggio's preschools, children, parents and teachers are partners in planning projects. Adults don't lay out lesson plans by themselves, as American teachers do.
More than 50 years ago, in the rubble of a war-blasted village in northern Italy, the mothers of Reggio Emilia vowed to rebuild a good life, starting with a school for young children. They teamed up with a young teacher named Loris Malaguzzi. The village became a city of 130,000. The partnership between parents and preschool teachers flourished. City government took over the preschools in the '60s, and added infant-toddler centers in the '70s. The world started taking notice in the '80s.
Malaguzzi's philosophy, combined with dedicated parents, a supportive city and a culture that values beauty, produced schools that captivated people across the globe.
Projects are at the heart of the Reggio approach. Teachers start each year with ideas about what they might be, but children shape the final choice. The best way to understand the nature of these projects is by example. Once, for instance, a little boy spotted a shadow bird on the floor, cast by a paper cutout on the window. Later, he saw it had moved. That can't be, his classmates argued. The children drew a chalk cage around the bird and, sure enough, it escaped. What is going on here, the teachers asked. What is a shadow, and why does it move? As the children talked, the teachers recorded their ideas.
In the days that followed, the children explored shadows. They used flashlights to see how they could change a shadow's shape. They painted and sketched what they saw. They looked at light coming through colored glass. They wrote and performed a play.
The detailed notes on children's conversations are part of how Reggio teachers decide on their next steps and keep families posted.
For more information on Reggio Emilia, see the book "The Hundred Languages of Children," edited by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Foreman (Ablex).