A Place Where Pinocchio, Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Louis Vuitton, Maria Montessori And Reggio Emilia Coexist. I Visited That Place…Italy.
I was invited to speak at NETQ6 EARLY LEARNING NETWORK in Padua, about our developmentally appropriate ipad projects and how we listen to children’s voices through their drawings by documenting their thoughts and emotions at Podar Jumbo Kids. I accepted the invitation and then searched for Padua with the help of Google uncle. I realized it is a small town in Italy and I was elated, not because it was a small town but because it was in Italy. For me Italy was every early childhood educator’s ultimate ‘pilgrimage’. A country where Montessori started her first school and a country where the educational approach of Reggio Emilia was born.
Thanks to Dr. Podar, I was able to travel extensively from Venice to Padua, Verona, Florence, Pisa, Milan and Rome, meeting early childhood educators, parents and children. My trip started with Venice; I wonder how they keep all that water clean! I met up with some young children going to school in little motor boats; what a wonderful start to the day, going to school and not encountering road traffic but having the cool breeze on your face. Italy is known as the land of pizza but I would say it should be called the land of the Piazza. It was a Sunday in Venice and I spent time at the Piazza. It is a kind of a square in the city where people sit, chat, drink coffee, tea, or lick ice-cream cones and kids can play, elders can walk and youngsters can cycle. Italy is dotted with these in every city and I now understood the importance of a piazza in every Reggio center. Spend some time in a Piazza and you will get the flavor of each city and its people.
My next stop was Padua where the conference was schedule. I have written a separate blog on my learnings at the conference. The conference was at Padua University. It is the university where Galileo taught, and it has one of the largest and oldest operating galleries to teach medical students. Each participant at the conference spoke in their own language and we had translations through headphones. This is one of the most important things about these countries that I have visited; no load on the children of learning English too early, everyone is comfortable in their language. In India our kids are burdened to learn a foreign language before they even speak their mother tongue.
Every street in Italy has Louis Vuitton stores, one of the most expensive and fashionable brands in the world. In India Louis Vuitton has become a ‘class’ symbol whereas here I saw that it was a mere fashion statement. Isn’t that how it should be?
The schools I visited in Milan, Rome, Florence and Verona (fantastic primary school that teaches math and science through Robotics) followed no major philosophy or approach but they had one thing in common- they were extremely child centric. I visited public and private schools and I was elated to see the classrooms with ‘children’s voices’. Children were given many opportunities to draw, paint, create, and that is indeed natural. After all, this is the land of Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and many others. This is seen in the architecture and paintings around Italy. You are automatically forced to use words like gigantic, mammoth, awe inspiring, impressive, as words less than these would fail to describe the architectural genius that you see in the buildings.
The presence of fountains in each city helps you understand how architecture was used to create spaces where people can mingle, sit and get sounds that are soothing and close to nature. I wish today’s architects around the world would get over their obsession with steel and glass.
Reggio Emilia was next on my agenda and I was indeed excited to be at this little town where Loris Mallaguzi and others created a new approach to early childhood education and care, aptly called Reggio Emilia. The museum and Loris Malaguzi International Learning Center were worth a day spent exploring how different mediums like light, shadows, textures, and sounds can also be included in early childhood centers as learning experiences for young children to help the hundred languages of children. Reggio Emilia is not an approach that can be copied; one has to be immersed and inspired by it, and then each one can take back their inspirations to adapt.
It was very difficult to find Maria Montessori’s first school in Rome; everyone knew about Casa Dei Bambini but that is what most kindergartens are called there. But no one knew about the location of her first school. Again Google uncle was a great help as I chanced upon a blog by another traveller who was kind enough to give the name of the street. It is Via dei Marsi in San Lorenzo, if any of you would like to find it. It was an emotional experience to visit the first school set up by Maria Montessori. Emotional because it is tucked away in an obscure corner and no one knows about it. I know there is much comparison between Reggio and Montessori but I think a true early childhood educator would understand that just like Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter and inventor, similarly Reggio and Montessori are expressive arts and intelligence fused together. It should not be either/or but the best of both that should inspire every good teacher.
I would have loved to visit Pinocchio’s little town but it was enough to see Pinocchio pencils, key chains, and magnets all over Italy. Pinocchio, one of the most path breaking stories for young children was also born in Italy. Dante has written about purgatory and the 7 deadly sins and I think at a basic level, moral learnings are abundant in this wonderful story. The Disney version has a song, ‘Let your conscience be your guide’. That should be the anthem of every child. The statue of David was indeed a reminder that children should grow up viewing and revering the naked human body rather than learning about it as vulgar and porn.
Italy has so much to teach us about early childhood education: piazzas so that children learn about social development and community spirit face to face and not only on Facebook, architecture and paintings that help kids understand about beauty, space, and design, fountains and water taps around the city help kids explore the sight, sounds and feel of water. Fashion is just there and does not overpower. Pinocchio and David help children learn about values and morals and valuing the human body and emotions. Montessori and Reggio quietly help parents and teachers understand that children need more than just learning to read and write but need a philosophy and an approach that is grounded in child centric research and values. They say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and I would like to add that early childhood inspirations are in every city. If we only look at cities from the point of view of children and their hundred languages.