Journeys into Learning: Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

Rhizomes and Reggio Emilia

A sketch of some fabric found in the markets of Dakar that represents visually my idea of learning.

Many of you who read my blog will have noticed how I refer to the rhizome as a pattern in which I see learning happening in both children and adults.  (Deleuze and Guttarri).  It is akin to how the internet works – a way of jumping and landing on different pads or nodules before leaping off to another that connects.  The spaces inbetween are not separators of knowledge but rather nutrient rich connectors of learning that for me signify the act of the journey of learning.  I like the metaphor of the rhizome because it is in movement in many directions with no specific entry or exit points, or particular progressive pathways and is akin to Loris Malaguzzi’s metaphor of learning being like a tangled bowl of spaghetti.

My journey into the philosophy of Loris Malaguzzi and the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia began 15 years ago. As an artist working in education undertaking residences I first came across the work of the Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia as an exhibition.  I never got to the exhibition that first time, I just had the leaflet…I just didn’t know how important it was going to be for me.  I began by reading, from the source…for me it was all about the library, real bookshops at the time and not blogs, Pinterest or Facebook back then!  Reading from the source is so important, it is easy to become lost in interpretations of an approach to learn that is so context based to the city of Reggio Emilia and Italian culture.  So my advice is to head to the Reggio Children website and find your countries official Reggio Children International Network Member organisation, which is NAREA in the US or Sightlines Initiative in the UK, others include Red Solare, The Reggio Children Institute, REANZ and purchase books published by Reggio Children and books recommended by them.  It is easy to get lost online…

sightlines-w200But then again, getting lost is kind of fun and can lead to the unexpected finds.  I prefer to head out with tools of orientation.  At Sightlines Initiative we talk about ‘Tools and Compasses’ that enable us to go on a journey of discovery, of research but without getting lost in the wilderness.  These are found below and reprinted from ReFocus Journal 6

Values and characteristics in developing environments of enquiry : Tools and CompassesUnknown

Values & principles

  • Education is the creative process of exchange, relationship and understanding of oneself, others and the world.
  • Things, people and experiences … The educative environment looks for skills to be in relationship and explore relationship. Dialogue is of absolute importance in its everyday practice.
  • The awareness of constant possibility is a quality not a limitation. Knowledge is always open to change.
  • ‘Listening and exchange’ is the dominant idea in pedagogical practice, and in the learners’ experience. The practice of listening, with evaluation and synthesis, enables educators to interpret children’s competencies and questions, and to construct with them suitable learning experiences.Images & understandings
  • Children are rich in curiosity and competence and potential. They are innately sociable and seek exchanges.
  • The desire and predisposition to be curious, to enquire, to make hypotheses, to interpret and make sense of our experiences, to be in relationship, are basic human characteristics.
  • Our learning spaces need to be imbued with the characteristics of curiosity and sociability.Qualities & tools
  • Time – space – attention: the three basic tools, creating the foundation of the educative experience. They are the responsibility of educators in collaboration with children and their families.
  • Dialogue is a tool as well as a value. Regular and detailed reflection processes are vital in the co-construction of sociable learning journeys.
  • Pedagogical documentation is a vital tool in making learning visible for educators, children and families.
  • The schoolspace needs to be a studio for exploration, examination and exchange. It can be a place where we bring the tools of all our senses to the business of learning, across all the perceptual modes and expressive languages.

These values and characteristics keep close to me, as a guide for all that I do and approach.  They are not a set of rules, or closed actions, but rather a set of thoughts for not getting lost.  They came out of discussion and many years of thinking about what happens in Reggio Emilia and in how we construct together our own creative and reflective pedagogic practice here in the UK.  Reggio is often referred to asa mirror, not to initiate or copy but to use to reflect on our own contexts.  

I share these thoughts in the spirit of encounter and exchange.  For me these two important words are framing my year of 2015 – to encounter new perspectives and to be IN exchange with as many a possible.  Facebook, blogs and Twitter make that all so much easier now.  A wonderful blog and connected post to this is a recent connection made with Diane Kashin.  This blog is inspired by her own on the same subject, so go see that too, comment on them, and contemplate your own journey and tools and compasses.  I attach an image of a quote she shared here that encapsulates the idea of journeying with others.


For further information please feel free to contact me here or through Sightlines Initiative.


Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue

Materials that are "friends' with light

Intelligent Materials and Materials in Dialogue

I have been thinking about how we set choose, present, invite participation with materials for young children.  Partly because I have been looking back at some of my old project work in schools dating back some 15 years (gulp! where did that go!) and also in light of a recent pedagogical exchange to some fantastic pre-schools in Stockholm, Sweden.

I very much set out as an artist in residence in UK schools with a kit bag full of all the nice things that either schools couldn’t afford or didn’t know how to use.  Usually, my bag contained textile transfer paints, shimmery fabric paints, silk paints, foils, micro glitter all materials that guaranteed success no matter how they were applied.  (Really, that was my criteria!) Often I created a set of materials for schools to use post project but sadly often they were not and I would find them sitting on shelf in the art cupboard two years later, untouched, when I had been invited back into the school to do more of the same.

The trouble was, this kind of work wasn’t sustainable.  Now I know that ‘sustainability’ like ‘accountability’ are buzz words of the current economic climate but for me the sustainability wasn’t to do with the politics of the economy but instead is interwoven into the creative experience of the children themselves.  It was unsustainable as the children would not be able to ever master these materials in school because to be frank, once I shipped out of my weeklong residency, they would most probably never use them again.

After my first study tour to Reggio Emilia I began to evaluate some aspects of my practice that I wanted to change.  One major factor was the materials that I was using with children on a daily basis.  I had shied away from the traditional materials (paint, clay, drawing, and collage) and instead focused on my specialist area from my degree in textiles.   I figured that the everydayness of these materials were things that the educators I was working with were expert in.

I began to ‘look again’ at these familiar materials and set about researching how children approached them, what they did with them, and examined the perspective of the educator – what were their intentions and knowledge about the materials to hand and were they attuned and fitting to the strategies of the child?  It lead to a significant chunk of my Masters research that you can find Here.

I am not going to go into here the ins and outs of what I found out, you can read the research for that – but there were several things that during this time I found myself thinking more and more about.  They were:

  •  The qualities of the intelligence of the materials
  • The transformative potential of the materials
  • The dialogues proposed with the materials

And that these were affected by:

  • Educator knowledge of the materials and their potential
  • The organisation and presentation of the materials
  • The intentions of the educator
From a workshop in Reggio Emilia. Light, projection and video camera - materials in dialogue that invite exploration of digital and multiple selves

In looking back there has been a shift in thinking in the UK about the early childhood learning environment and the materials provided within.  Fifteen years ago I found myself working in places where it was the complete norm for children to be called to a table to ‘make a spider’ because the intention was to count up to 8.  The resulting spiders would be identical because all the elements (body, eyes, legs etc) would have been pre-prepared.  And I did this too!  I also made the with children the strangest things in the name of learning and education – my favourite being dream catchers made from paper plates, string, glittery pipe cleaners, pom poms and glue.  I am ashamed!  I am glad to say, that I rarely encounter this type of activity now.

Then the discussions I was having in schools began to change, as new words were bandied about like ‘child-initiated’ ‘child’s interest’ ‘independent learning’ and creativity was the golden and most enshrined word of all.  Now it seemed we had to make sure that we were not hampering creativity and or intervening in anyway as this might ruin the creative act of the child.

Sticking and gluing? Sprinkling not thinking?

So now my portfolio of work changed again, and the spiders and dream catchers disappeared and were replaced with open baskets and containers of treasured material, all freely available to the children to choose from and use in whatever way they wanted.  I remember how in one school I took the doors off the cupboards so the children could indeed actually help themselves.  So when a young three year old made a hedgehog from clay using the best felt tips and brushes I would simply smile in the wonderful creative spirit of the moment.  Another example I recall from this time was picking up a sodden box and marvelling in creative awe and wonder in how a child had managed to use the years supply of yarn by gluing the yarn balls to cover a cornflake box that had (incidentally) become attached by 1000 metres (at least) of selotape to the drying rack.  Creativity, following children’s interest, child-initiated, independent learning? Really?  A non-interventionist pedagogy here just resulted in chaos and mounds of tangled tape.

So what I have I learnt?  For me, taking Reggio’s idea of ‘intelligent’ materials’ has made me question this non-interventionist choice.  There is no free, independent choice of materials in school because as teachers we have the responsibility to set the stage for education, we choose which materials and how they are presented, and this is a great responsibility indeed.  Materials are not neutral but are imbued with learning potential and expressive qualities.  For example, which material would suit the idea of expressing the dynamic qualities of water – large wooden blocks, clay, and paint?  One would find it hard in blocks.

To teach is a verb, it is an action and we must not fear this.  I learnt how to draw at Art College, I was taught rules on perspective, on using materials.  I was taught how to weave, use a sewing machine and methods of printing.  I was an apprentice to a master who was willing to share the methodology, however it was up to me to use those skills to express or conceptualise ideas of my own.

So yes, I think it is of absolute importance that we choose which materials and how to present them as it is precisely this critical thinking that will help young children make sense of the crazy, chaotic world around them.

KH Cuffaro (1995) reminds us all that materials are “the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed.” Therefore we have to pay close attention to these things and choose carefully which way to present the materials, which way to teach children how to use them, which ways to invite questions about the them, and to make the move to considering how will these materials enable children to give form to their thinking, their understanding of the world.

Vea Vecchi (2010) points out “We must go beyond materials and techniques to stop and look at processes of empathy and intense relations with things…” and this too is another important reminder, that it is not enough for children to be busy with hands ‘sticking and gluing’ or ‘exploring paint’ but to engage their emotional sensitivity and construct together with other children and their educators deep relationships to matter and knowledge.

Thinking about the aesthetic of natural beauty and colour

Whilst in Sweden I was honoured to be able to spend time with one of Stockholm’s pedagogical coordinators of the pre-schools and she shared with me this idea of working with materials in dialogue and with empathy.  With the teachers she works with in the network, she often asks them to arrange materials of their choosing so that children could construct and elaborate their thinking (knowledge construction) of concepts such as symmetry, contrast, measurement, identity, transformation.  Choosing specific materials with specific qualities is a skill and something we should all (including myself) think more about. The tables in the pedagogical centre were littered with familiar examples of natural (leaves, horse chestnuts, flowers, earth) and expressive materials (paper, paint, graphics) placed in dialogue to provocative thinking about the aesthetics of the materials (building an empathy with a flower for example) and the relatable connectivity of the natural world that builds directly on the work of Gregory Bateson (1979) (who they are studying) who considers aesthetics as a vehicle of making connections, of responding to the patterns that connect and the dance of interacting parts so as to avoid over simplification, and superficiality.

An example of oversimplification is the learning objective for children to ‘label the parts of plant’ often found within a key stage one lesson.   This labeling is done in a abstract way, without feeling how that plant is part of the earth, how it lives and breathes and pulsates with life, then fades, slowly back into the ground from which it came but before doing so, spreads on the gentle the breeze or in the bellies of the birds its creative seed, to start again so that another plant can reborn from the seed of another.  A plant connected to the earth, the atmosphere, the cycles of life not just of its own kind but to other kinds too, to benefit not just itself but also a wider circle of mutual and symbiotic relations.  Is it enough for children to label a bud a bud without thinking of the relationship of that bud to stem?  Vea Vecchi (2010) picks up on these ideas in her book too (reference below).

In conversation with other educators who I was with in Sweden it was precisely this ‘intentionality’ of the educator who considered carefully the placement, selection and preparation of the materials offered to the children that they were struck with.  In one school materials with the possibility and potential for creating and responding to sound and music had been prepared for the children to use with the intention that children could think about tempo, beat, rhythm and movement.  This went far beyond the pots and pans strung up on a bit of string outside for the children to bish, bash, bosh.

Variation and tonality of hues of autumnal colour.

In another school a collection of autumnal leaves had been gathered that invited thinking not just of ‘the colours of autumn, whatever they are!) but the subtle hues and variations of colours found in leaves that came from the same tree.  These leaves were fashioned later by two four year old children into a spiral of the hues of autumn -a pattern that goes from dark to light.  An exploration of colours that connect, a pattern of relationships of colour and not an abstract labeling of orange, red and brown.

So, is it enough to ‘put the paint out, top the glue up and get out the basket of maracas’?’  No, it certainly is not!  Instead we must think hard about the intelligence of materials and the possibility of materials in dialogue.


KH Cuffaro (1995) Experimenting with the World

Vea Vecchi (2010) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia

Gregory Bateson (1979) Mind and Nature: A necessary unit