An approach to the education of young children in the pre‐school and primary phase which is based on the belief that children's learning should be unconstrained by formal curriculum planning, but rather should allow children themselves a voice in the direction and content of their learning, in order to ensure that they find their learning meaningful. It operates on the principle that learning should involve children using all their senses; that intellectual curiosity should always be rewarded; and that they should be presented with the freedom to express themselves in as many ways as possible. At the heart of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is the belief that the relationships which are built between the child and the educator, between the child and the world, and between the child and other children are essential to the process of learning. The relationship between the child and the teacher should not be one based on unequal power or status, but rather one in which the child is carefully listened to and respected. The approach itself takes its name from the Reggio Emilia district of Italy, where parents rebuilding village schools in the 1940s after the ravages of the Second World War wished to establish a democratic and child‐centred education for their young children which reflected the value which society should place upon its young. The first schools were built by parents and children using bricks and other materials salvaged from bombed buildings.
What began as an experimental approach soon gained momentum as the 1950s brought a migration of workers and their families from the comparative poverty of southern Italy to the more prosperous industrial north, including the district of Reggio Emilia. The care and education of children whose parents were both working outside the home was of major parental concern, and so provided added impetus to the establishment of pre‐schools which were run as cooperative ventures with heavy parental involvement. Indeed, the importance of parental involvement is a central element of the Reggio Emilia approach. Parents are accorded respect as the child's initial teacher, and are involved in every aspect of the schools' provision, some acting as volunteer teachers within the school, and many maintaining the same philosophy of education in the child's home activities and general upbringing. This strong sense of continuity between the child's home life and school is a key aspect of the Reggio Emilia approach; and its emphasis on community support for young children and their families reflects the belief, embedded in Italian culture, that the welfare and well‐being of its children is a primary responsibility of the state.
The Reggio Emilia approach encourages a high level of teacher autonomy. Although they are provided with extensive opportunities for professional development, teachers' professional practice is not constrained or regimented by targets, national curriculum standards, or attainment tests for pupils. Instead, teachers are encouraged to set their own targets and to base their planning and teaching on the close observation of children's day‐to‐day individual and group needs. To this end, two teachers routinely work together with the children, one observing and noting—through photographs, video recording, and handwritten notes—children's conversation and play in order that these can be used as the starting point for developing further learning activities. This development and exploration is shared with a specialist teacher known as the atelierista (literally, one who works in an ‘attic’ or studio), who encourages the children to express themselves symbolically through artistic work, which may include drawing, painting, music, puppetry, or some other form of creative expression. Co‐teaching is an essential part of Reggio teacher training. There are no professional hierarchies, however, within the school, and no differentiated salary scale. Teachers are given six non‐contact hours each week in order to facilitate their tasks of documentation, project development, and liaison with parents. Parents, too, are involved in the planning and evaluation of activities. A pedagogista has responsibility for educational leadership of several schools, a role which involves mentoring staff, developing awareness of the theories which support their practice, and leading the collective discussions of teachers and parents from those schools as they explore ways of building upon children's enthusiasms and activities. This reflective, responsive approach, which puts the child at the centre of the educational process, is directly at odds with the concept of an externally imposed national curriculum and the implementation of mandatory and standardized attainment tests.