What is Reggio Emilia? The Reggio Approach and Children’s Ministry

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Children's ministry and Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood education that began in and around Reggio Emilia Italy after World War II under the leadership of Loris Malaguzzi.  It is based in an understanding that children have an innate sense of curiosity and wonder about their world. Rather than being seen as a target for instruction, children are treated with deep respect and as constructors of knowledge.

This approach to education has spread worldwide and has been contextualized in many different environments.  These environments are often referred to as reggio inspired.  To make an important distinction: Reggio Emilia is a place, reggio inspired is the application of the educational principles that come out of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

There are many reasons to apply the principles of Reggio Emilia to your children’s ministry context and I want to explore a few connections that will add value and meaning to your christian education environment.

Reggio Emilia approach to Children's Ministry
Children pursue learning with joy and wonder. Play and learning in childhood are deeply spiritual activities. How can we nurture the potential of the child and connect them to a Biblical understanding of God’s character and actions in our world?

Values of Reggio Emilia related to faith development and Christian worldview

The Reggio Emilia approach pushes us toward reflection on why we do what we do, how we view children, how children were created to learn, and how we can best support their learning.  The respect given to children and what they have to offer the world around them is an idea the church should be advocating more.  After all, if we believe children are made in God’s image and that Jesus welcomes children into fellowship with Himself, then we need to see children as God sees them and teach them in a way brings out what God is already doing in their hearts.

At a minimum, we need to take the time to articulate our view of the child and think critically about how our ministries reflect our view of the child.

View of the Child

The reggio approach begins with the view of the child.  Children are seen as constructors of knowledge, not passive participants in the learning process.  What does this mean?  Essentially, children’s interests are respected and taken seriously. The Reggio approach also recognizes the relational needs of children and the connection between relationships with other children and adults to learning.

Our image of children no longer considers them as isolated and egocentric… Instead our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and, most of all, connected to adults and children. Loris Malaguzzi

Children are recognized for the potential they have to offer the community.  This is a shift from seeing children as people with needs that can only be provided by adults to seeing their rights as fellow members of the community.  When we truly believe in what children have to offer to the community, we listen more, we work to help them express themselves, and we create an environment that encourages creativity and innovation.

Reggio Emilia View of the Child
In children’s ministry, We need to take time to articulate how we view children and allow a deep theological understanding of childhood inform our curriculum and programming.

Implications for children’s ministry…

Those of us in children’s ministry often find ourselves acting as advocates for the rights of children and defenders of their place in the church.  Many who are not involved in daily interactions with children forget the beautiful way children interact with the world and the joy they bring when they share their perspectives of God’s world with us.  Are we not reminded  by Jesus in scripture…

“Truly I tell you, He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.… Matthew 18:3

It sounds like God values childhood and child-like expression! No one should have a higher view of children than people who believe God specially designed children with purpose, placed in them a desire to know and worship God, and created them with passionate curiosity that propels them toward developmental growth.

We need to take the time to develop a rich theology of childhood that defends children’s rights in the kingdom of God and serves as a foundation for ministry and programming decisions.

Reggio Emilia and the 100 Languages of Children

Children are more similar to adults in their ability to experience emotion than in their ability to express rational thought.  There is a lot going on inside a child, but a child faces limitations in their ability to express themselves in the same ways an adult can express themselves.

When provided with opportunities for creative expression, children are often able to put language to what they are experiencing in ways they cannot do with words alone.

Art, music, movement, play, story….these are just a few representations of what is referred to as the 100 languages of children and refers to the POTENTIAL of the child.

The wider range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences. –Loris Malaguzzi

The principle here is that when children are given more ways to express their thinking, they are better able to communicate that thinking.  As we listen and observe children’s thinking and experience, we will be better able to provide more experiences to challenge and deepen their understanding of the world.

Reggio Emilia applied to children's ministry
This child pursued building and without any guidance created this scene. Her comment, “The people have nowhere to live. so the person (the one with the red scarf) let them come warm themselves by the fire.” Creating with building materials allowed this child to express compassion and show her heart for others.

Implications for Children’s Ministry…

Spiritual formation is largely subjective and discipleship cannot happen by only offering objective learning opportunities.

Additionally, children often experience God’s presence and power in ways they have trouble putting into words.  When we provide children with opportunities for creative expression–it opens the doors and windows to their soul.  We are better able to SEE what is happening there!

For some reason the modern day church has a weak connection between faith and art and our understanding of children’s worship is often limited to children singing praise and worship songs.

What if the church became a place where children’s creative potential was nurtured and challenged and seen as an expression of worship?  What if children’s ministry leaders became intentional about providing children with a wider variety of ways to express their creative potential?

I would also add that the 100 languages are not limited only to art activities. Serving others can and should be considered one of the languages of children and when children are offered opportunities to serve, they are deeply motivated and inspired.

Environment as third teacher

In the Reggio Emilia approach, the classroom environment is called the third teacher.  The spaces are beautifully designed to value simplicity, nature, exploration, and collaboration.  The space where children learn is meant to communicate and shape the values of the child.

The spaces are neither cluttered or bare.  The are cared for and change to reflect the needs and interests of the children.  They are designed FOR children–Low shelves, materials that are easily accessible, chairs and tables that fit the children.

They are materially rich.  Children are provided with quality materials arranged in beautiful ways and children are given TIME to work with what is there.

Here is a look at my Pinterest board regarding classroom environment.  While not strictly reggio, this board provides inspiration for creating material rich learning spaces.

Implications for children’s ministry…

A good starting point is to take a look around the children’s department in your church.  What do the spaces communicate about how children are valued in your church?  Are your learning spaces a dumping ground for old toys and outdated decor?  Are they bare and uninviting?  Do they offer possibilities for exploration?

Creating meaningful learning spaces doesn’t have to be crazy expensive….and I actually don’t think investing thousands of dollars in Worlds of Wow theme type designs are what children really need.

A minimalist approach can actually yield better results and help children focus in your learning environment.  This coming from a self-professed hoarder—I STRUGGLE to keep my classrooms uncluttered!

The thrift store has been my greatest resource as I have transformed our learning spaces.  I am always looking for materials to support art exploration as well as props for telling Bible stories and baskets to display all the great materials we have added to our learning environment.

What can you take away from your learning spaces that isn’t really needed?  What can you add that would help support the Biblical values you are teaching the children in your setting?  What types of toys/ resources are open ended enough to be used for a variety of purposes?

Role of the Teacher and Importance of Documentation

The Reggio Emilia approach emphasizes autonomous and child-led learning.  Teachers become partners in the learning process and intentional observers of the learning that is taking place.  This does not diminish the importance of the teacher, but it does change their role.  Rather than teachers being the holders of information and finding ways to disseminate that information to students, Teachers become guides in helping students discover and learn from their own experiences and discoveries.

We need to produce situations in which children learn by themselves, in which children can take advantage of their own knowledge and resources autonomously, and in which we guarantee the intervention of the adult as little as possible. We don’t want to teach children something that they can learn by themselves. We don’t want to give them thoughts that they can come up with by themselves. What we want to do is activate within children the desire and will and great pleasure that comes from being the authors of their own learning.— Loris Malaguzzi

One aspect of the Reggio Emilia approach that is important to note is the emphasis on documentation and display.  Because of the emphasis on observation, reggio teachers take time to communicate the process of learning, not just the product.   They use photographs, written records, video and audio recordings, art displays, etc. to share the children’s learning with parents and the greater community.   For each child, learning is celebrated, growth is recognized, and their personhood is valued.

Reggio Emilia Documentation at church
Following our Vacation Bible School, children’s projects were displayed for the church community to help document what was learned and so the community could share in the children’s experience.

Implications for children’s ministry…

A lot of improvements have been made in Christian Education curriculum to include hands on activities, but without a deep understanding of why these activities are important to children’s learning, the value of these activities is lost (they just become fun ways to learn) and we tend toward what is easiest to prepare (and clean up).  When we don’t understand the learning that takes place as children play and create, it is hard to recognize the growth that is taking place and these activities are seen as optional.

An underlying issue in how we approach Christian Education that needs to be addressed is our sense of fear that we aren’t doing enough to pass on Christian values, Biblical truth, and the practices of the church.  We look at how a generation has already left the church and we know we need to do things differently, but we really don’t know where we went wrong in the first place.  As a result we are kinda shooting in the dark when it comes to the discipleship of children and teens.

Even though we know we need to help kids own their faith, there is a part of us that still feels like we need to cram these kids full of truth and tell them exactly how they are supposed to live out their Christian walk.  We also try to tell kids exactly who God is, unintentionally removing the mystery and wonder that makes getting to know Him so exciting!

The process of observing children and discovering what God is already doing in children’s lives requires more trust and self-control on the part of the teacher.  Fear cannot be the motivator!  We have to believe that as we teach children the Bible, God is doing more than we can see.   We need to open our eyes and see more, we need to open our ears and listen more.  And then, we need to share it!

Think about the value of documenting children’s spiritual growth and sharing it with parents and the larger church community.  When we learn to observe the PROCESS of learning, we have more to celebrate.  We may even start to realize how much we have to learn from the children.

Emphasis on Family and Community Involvement

The reggio approach sees parents as the expert in their children’s lives and includes them in the process of selecting learning activities that follow the child’s interests.  Family members are welcome participants in the classroom.

The emphasis on documentation and celebrating learning leads naturally to dynamic family and community involvement.  What happens in the classroom is presented in a way that others can share in it.

VBS Project Gallery
Here is another example of our project gallery following our Vacation Bible school. Information was provided to the community about the children’s work and the children shared how their projects related to the lessons from Joshua covered in VBS

Implications for children’s ministry….

Does this sound like a great model for family ministry or what?  As children’s ministry shifts to think more in terms of parents as primary disciple makers, the reggio approach has much to offer that informs how the church can partner with families to help children experience spiritual growth.

What next?

If you are new to the Reggio Approach, tell me what you think.  Does this post make you curious about Reggio Emilia?

Are you already familiar with Reggio Emilia?  Have you contextualized this approach to education in a church setting?  I would love to hear about your experiments.

Ready for more? Connect with me and let’s talk about applying these principles to create a more reflective children’s ministry.