Making and the Reggio Emilia Approach: Making the Connection


by Christa Flores -

The following post was written by Jamie Bartels in responce to attending the Invent to Learn: Reggio Emilia workshop offered by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez at the Marymount School in New York City on February 12, 2015. He attended both as a student of early education and as newly appointed Maker Space coordinator for the Unquowa School in Connecticut. Here he ties the connection between the role of teacher in a maker space and that of the traditional pedagogista and atelierista of the Reggio Emila philosophy on education. 

Making and the Reggio Emilia Approach: Making the Connection 

by Jaime Bartels 


The Process of Process

Nature and the Child

The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education places among the children an atelierista with two primary responsibilities: to conduct deep observation of the patterns in each child’s growth and use these observations to lead children into the process of the artist. Atelieristas often refer to this process as the “aesthetic dimension,” full of desire for meaning, curiosity and wonder. They contrast this with indifference and carelessness, conformity and absence of participation and feeling (Vecchi, 2010, p.5). The atelierista designs the atelier to be a space full of natural material and light, open to a full sensory exploration and replete with magnifying lenses, projectors, paper, paint, crayons and other tools of investigation. It is to the atelier that the child comes to engage in the process of the artist.

Nature, the Artist and the Scientist

The artist is an investigator of the natural world. The artist is often, arguably always led by an experience of the mysterious that comes from nature (including human nature) and its patterns. Vincent Van Gogh “saw nature and the artist as inseparably linked.” The Nature Conservancy has a slideshow of how nature has inspired art, including architecture, literature, music, painting and photography. The process of the artist is deep observation and contemplation of nature and natural phenomena.

Humans observe certain patterns that seem to occur in natural growth and development. From Fibonacci sequences to the Golden ratio, patterns appear everywhere in nature. We find beauty in these patterns and derive laws that seem to determine their formation: mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry. Deeper observation teaches us more about the fundamental laws that govern the processes of the world in which we live. We observe that the process of nature is the primordial source of math and science, in addition to art.

Art and science are two entwined methods of investigation leading us toward further understanding of the universe, but don’t take my word for it. Seed Magazine proclaims “the future of science is art,” guest bloggers on Scientific American write that “science and art go hand-in-hand,” lecturers at the Art Institute of Chicago argue that “history proves that the two disciplines [art and science] cannot exist without each other, enduring in constantly changing and evolving relationships.” Albert Einstein wrote famously “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Like the Artist, the Scientist engages in a process of deep observation and contemplation of nature and natural phenomena. Science informs art, and art informs science. As Maria Montessori wrote, “we especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.”

All this to say that placing the child in the same process as the artist and scientist is more than naïve belief in a romantic ideal. It is a way to show genuine respect to the capacity of the child and to provide them with the opportunity for such emphatic and beautiful discoveries, at their own level, as have the artist or scientist. It is pure STEAM, organically and from the ground-level (child-level) up. STEAM, that is to say, is of natural interest to the child.

… and then what? After the connection, making the leap.


The Wonder of Learning Exhibition

This exhibition, on display until May 15, 2015 in Brooklyn at 299 North 7th Street, Williamsburg, NY, is a documentative record of what happens (?) when you put the child in the same process as the artist, practice deep observation and guide with a keen eye and open ears. The learning process is the focus of the exhibition and Reggio practitioners are adamant that the focus stay on the process (Vecchi, 2010. p.114). The exhibition often gives the product of that process no more than one or two of a dozen panels, or a few, in some cases a single child-produced artifact as demonstration. Exhibition-goers looking for repeatable projects and artifacts that demonstrate the genius of the child in an exulting “a-ha” moment may feel that the exhibition does not offer them much. They miss the rather explicit message of the exhibit: do not focus on what artifact we have created with the child, though we proudly present these to you as well; focus instead on how we have engaged the child in a certain process and how we have come to understand the child’s process through our observations. Understanding of the child is perhaps the primary goal of Reggio teachers. All documentation in the Wonder of Learning exhibition demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the child’s learning process to anyone who listens to the message’s exhibit and looks accordingly.

The Image of the Child

“And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.” (Montessori, 1949. p.7)

Here is the leap of faith that we must take from early childhood education into the middle childhood and adolescent years: education is an automatic and spontaneous process and the child is a capable, curious, motivated and responsible being when there exist “a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.” In early childhood education, in the Reggio Emilia approach the atelierista uses the atelier and the classroom “as the third teacher” to provide this; in the Montessori Method the directress uses the prepared environment and didactic materials to provide this. The goal of “making” and “maker spaces” should be to continue the provision of the motives and environment for the child’s natural process of education to continue. The image of the child must be liberal; the image of the environment must be scrupulous, stimulating, integrated into a wider culture and existing for the child -- the environment must exist in a didactic role, as a teacher itself.

The Role of the Teacher

"The way in which we observe a child is extremely important. It is not sufficient to have a merely theoretical knowledge of education." (Montessori, 1936. p.149)

“We insist on the fact that a teacher must prepare himself interiorly by systematically studying himself so that he can tear out his most deeply rooted defects, those in fact which impede his relations with children." (ibid)

"A teacher, therefore, who would think that he could prepare himself for his mission through study alone would be mistaken. The first thing required of a teacher is that he be rightly disposed for his task." (ibid)

Sound a little daunting to be a teacher? It should. Our task is to prepare children socially, emotionally, intellectually and morally to further the advancement of our culture: a righteous and heroic task! Countries such as the oft-cited Finland (there are three different links here), and methods such as the Montessori Method (only one link) involve would-be teachers in a rigorous selection and training process. The teacher must be a perfect observer, attuned to the interests of the student and their developmental needs, ready to deliver the gift of an appropriate learning prompt to each student or student group. The teacher must also be a skilled documentarian, documenting and assisting the child to self-document the learning process. Sufficiently thorough documentation of learning in process can be one way to lead away from direct assessment and avoid a bias toward focusing on the product or artifact.

So the teacher is an observer-documentarian with a good aesthetic sense and an understanding of the developmental needs of each age range and each learner. The teacher is attuned to the environment, the student and the process of student learning, appearing just before the student needs them and retreating into the ambiance almost as soon as their presence is felt. The teacher provides sufficient scaffolding in the environment that the student does not run up against what they feel to be impossible work and suffer, nor that the student should become bored with work that is too easy. At some point you may have realized that it is impossible for the teacher to be all of this and the source of the student’s education simultaneously.

In this investigation I hope that I have shown how the idea of teacher-as-observer-documentarian is older than the current maker movement, and how the solution of some methods has been to put all the necessary tools for knowledge gathering and intellectual development in a well-ordered environment, freeing the teacher to observe and document. Thanks to the digital information environment surrounding the student of the present moment, the immediate environment is broader than ever and can cross geographical, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. If teachers in the passing era have had to act as the authoritative source of knowledge when the making of a well-ordered and didactic environment was not feasible, teachers in the arriving era have at their fingertips an interactive internet “third teacher,” compelling for its direct connection to worldwide culture and the simultaneous peer-to-peer communication it makes possible. More easily than ever before, today’s teachers can let students return to being the source of their own education and step into the more exciting, more imperative constructivist role of intensely aware observer, provoker of thought, documentarian of the learning-process and understander of how children learn.

Works Cited 

1. Bartels, J. (2014). Reggio emilia: Aesthetics and the atelierista. Contact author to obtain.

2. Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. Madras, India. Theosophical publishing house.    

3. Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood. New York. Longmans, Green.

4. Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and creativity in reggio emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in early childhood education. New York, NY: Routledge.




Erin Riley's picture

A lot of food for thought here!  It has me thinking about how to redesign our work space to allow more room and widen the “tools of investigation” of the atelier to include natural and recycled materials, and organize them in a way that is both visual and inspires possibilities.  Thanks, Christa and Jaime!

Christa Flores's picture

Erin, I love the idea of curating materials in a way that allows making and converstaion and curiosity for material sciecne and sustainability. Send pics if you get ideas to try.