What sets the curriculum at Reggio Emilia schools apart? While a growing number of schools in the US today challenge traditional approaches to education and explore different approaches, what distinguishes our Reggio Emilia-inspired work is our commitment to engaging in emergent curriculum.
Many curricula today emphasize the arts, the importance of play and the inherent curiosity of children in compelling ways, contributing to early education and moving the focus where it should be – on the children themselves. So, what is an emergent curriculum?
With roots in early childhood development work of pioneers such as Loris Malaguzzi and Carlina Rinaldi, a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to building an emergent curriculum focuses on nurturing children while fostering their passion for learning. Children become active partners in developing classroom study and projects that directly reflect their interests. As Loris Malaguzzi wrote, “Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.”
In an emergent curriculum, teachers actively observe the children, drawing from their conversations and play to plan lessons and gather materials. As the children see their interests grow into curriculum within their classes, the importance of being an active member of their school community is reinforced. At the heart of our school is the belief in the power of each child.
“The cornerstone of our experience, based on practice, theory, and research, is the image of the child as rich, strong, and powerful. The emphasis is placed on seeing the children as unique subjects with rights rather than simply needs. They have potential, plasticity, the desire to grow, curiosity, the ability to be amazed, and the desire to relate to other people and to communicate,” wrote Carlina Rinaldi.
Rinaldi advised, “Observe and listen to children because when they ask ‘why?’ they are not simply asking for the answer from you. They are requesting the courage to find a collection of possible answers.”
How does an emergent curriculum work in practice?
For preschoolers, for example, the children may experience a visit to a local market. This concrete experience can lead to further investigation about community, agriculture and their environment. As the children create art, conduct research and speak with experts, the teachers carefully document this learning process. The children are photographed at work, progress is recorded in videos, and conversations are captured and transcribed. This detailed documentation encourages self-reflection and the opportunity for students and teachers to assess learning and growth while also informing plans for future lessons.
This approach naturally grows with our children. Fourth graders, for example, who have grown up within an emergent curriculum, are confident partners with their teachers and are ready to develop projects and study their world on a more complex level. At this stage of development within our curriculum, exploration sparked by a visit to a marketplace might spark conversations about commerce, civics, art history, culture and biology.
At each step of our children’s educational journey, we approach subject matter from an integrative approach. Whether our students are exploring chemistry, Spanish grammar, algebraic functions or cultural music and art, we embrace students’ natural curiosity and celebrate them as active citizens in the world.
Being heard is a powerful thing. Our children know their voices as members of our school community are valued. Through collaborating on curriculum and learning to apply their knowledge to the larger community outside the classroom, our children take pride in being active citizens.
As our head of schools, Dr. Gina Farrar, writes, “We embrace the belief that students excel if teachers nurture children’s social emotional development, as well as their natural curiosities and abilities to be creative, collaborative, inventive, and resourceful.”