Turning Children into Lifelong Learners with the Reggio Emilia Approach


By Mary Beck

While every child care program and school has a learning philosophy and mission, The Young School draws its inspiration all the way from Reggio Emilia, Italy, where a unique approach to early education began.

What sets the Reggio Emilia approach apart is that the children are at the helm of their own learning at all times.

The Young School is a Reggio Emilia-inspired school designed for children from infancy through age 4. It’s an important distinction that if a school isn’t located in Reggio Emilia, Italy, then it is a Reggio Emilia-inspired school. The Young School has six locations in Maryland, five of which participate in Maryland EXCELS. Three are accredited by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). The school’s philosophy complements its commitment to quality child care and early childhood education.

In keeping with the Reggio Emilia philosophy, children may stop and start their activities as they please and guide their own learning as they explore in different sections of the center, called cottages. The philosophy considers the teacher to not just be an instructor, but also a co-learner and collaborator with the child. Even when a child needs help, The Young School’s rule is to ask two friends for help before asking an adult.

“Teachers in this type of environment always take more of a secondary role in terms of leadership and guidance in the classroom, because these students are so independent and given complete autonomy over most of the parts of their day,” said Stephanie Janoske, The Young School’s Ocean Cottage director.

Janoske noted how this approach gives the teachers the opportunity to observe more and to plan and document the students’ interests. Additionally, because the children are free to gather their own supplies for a project and help each other, teachers have the freedom to give students more one-on-one attention.

Actively Learning, Together

All four cottages at the Columbia location feature the hallmarks of a Reggio Emilia-inspired environment: an open area with ample natural light and live plants, a project room and a great room with a loft, and a learning language around which the cottage is focused. Learning languages are concepts that allow for broad exploration, such as movement or memory. Each cottage is further divided into a math/science area, an art area, and a social area.

Brenda Coggins, director of education for all locations of The Young School, described how the children in the Forest Cottage were learning about sewing. They cut fabric on their own and learned how to use miniature sewing machines to bring their creations to life. The older children taught both younger children and teachers how the machines worked.

This independent approach extends to infant classes as well, with simpler toys and tools. Coggins described the infants’ cottage as a place that focuses on play and loose materials.

“There’s no ‘push a button and lights and music play’ toys in there,” she said. “Passive toy, active child.”

Guiding Amazing Projects

Teachers at The Young School are not deterred by folks who may be skeptical about their philosophy. Every teacher at the program is eager to speak to how capable children are and how much they learn, and the teachers maintain the utmost respect for the Reggio Emilia philosophy.

“Your child’s not going to learn their ABCs in the traditional way you may be expecting,” said Janoske. Instead of learning the letters of the alphabet sequentially, the teachers “introduce [the children] to the print of their name, and they’re going to be excited about spelling their name because that’s important to them.”

This excitement is palpable as the children work on their activities during the day. In the Forest Cottage, a little boy was eager to share the purple shark he had sewn the day before. In the Ocean Cottage, a 4-year-old child proudly announced that she was writing a book about Rapunzel. A 3-year-old girl casually worked on another book next to her, watching and learning from her classmate.

“The children have a desire to learn naturally, and if you can incorporate that natural curiosity with their interests, you have such a better response from the child in terms of their retention of the information and their drive to continue learning more,” Janoske said.

This drive is evident not just in the children’s everyday activities and creations, but in each cottage’s multi-month projects. A point of pride for the Ocean Cottage is the mud kitchen that the children created and gifted to the center the year before.

“Our cottage is a community of builders,” Janoske said. Many children in the cottage were interested in cooking and using materials outside to create, so they decided to [fulfill] that need by creating a mud kitchen – a handmade kitchen playset made using planks of wood, spare kitchen parts such as sinks and stove grates, and loose utensils to “cook” using dirt or other natural materials.

“They had the blueprints in math and science where they had graph paper and they used rulers to draw a square [to determine], ‘This is where we’re going to cut out for the sink, and this is where we’ll cut that,’” Janoske described. “We had a handful of conversations about what kind of designs we could use, and we looked at examples from other schools and talked about what we were missing.”

Once the children finished planning and obtaining their materials, they hammered the wood together and built the kitchen themselves (with supervision, of course!).

“One by one, they all took a turn in putting pieces of wood together, so they all had a hand in putting that structure together,” Janoske said.

Coggins has observed over the years how this way of learning has fostered confidence and excitement in children. She is proud of how The Young School is accredited by MSDE and a successful participant in Maryland EXCELS while also maintaining the principles of the Reggio Emilia approach.

“All of our teachers and project directors are tracking objectives and giving summary reports to parents, and yet we’ve been able to stay true to who we are,” she said. “[The children] own their learning, which turns them into lifelong learners from a young age.”