Some years ago, a group of preschool children offered their ideas for the redesign of an open civic space in downtown Boulder, Colorado.
They climbed on the railings in the existing space, played with the shadows cast on the area, and expressed their love of bright colors — all things their teachers saw while watching their charges and communicated to city planners.
Including children in an urban design process — a project through a city initiative called Growing Up Boulder — underlies a philosophy of early childhood education pioneered in preschool programs in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia.
That approach to early childhood education, identified in a 1991 Newsweek story as one of the best, has since been incorporated around the world, including in the Dimensions preschool program in Lincoln.
Monday, one of the leaders of the Reggio Emilia approach will be in Lincoln to talk with early childhood educators.
Carlina Rinaldi, who's worked with Italian preschools and infant-toddler centers since 1971 and is president of an international nonprofit foundation that promotes the approach, is one of the “world-class” leaders in early childhood education, said Nancy Rosenow, executive director of the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation in Lincoln.
She’s here, Rosenow said, because of the work Lincoln is doing to expand quality early childhood programs through the city initiative Prosper Lincoln.
The Dimensions preschool program has operated at First-Plymouth Church for years and is now working with local foundations and Prosper Lincoln to open a second location at 7700 A St., she said.
Limited space for the Monday presentation already is full, she said, but the fact that Rinaldi agreed to come to Lincoln is important.
“One of the reasons she’s willing to come here is the emphasis Lincoln has on early childhood education through Prosper Lincoln,” she said. "Reggio Emilia schools in Italy have really understood how thriving early childhood programs make a strong community.”
Rinaldi will be joined by Alison Maher, education director and teacher education program director of Boulder Journey School, which uses the Emilia Reggio approach and whose preschoolers weighed in on the redesign of the Colorado city’s civic space.
The children’s involvement in the redesign exemplifies the Emilia Reggio approach, Maher said in an interview.
“We see children as competent and capable," she said. "We recognize they have a unique perspective that is of value to the world. So we support active participation from even our youngest citizens.”
One of the tenets of the philosophy is observation and documentation, Maher said.
“We observe and document young children to better understand human learning.”
At the center of the philosophy is a strong image of the child as someone born with the capacity to learn, Maher said.
“Rather than thinking of the child as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with all the knowledge that we have acquired ... they play an active role in the learning.”
The approach uses the idea of “100 languages” — a metaphor that illustrates that children communicate not just through speech but through action and drawing and interacting with their world.
“As we get older we lose our capacity to encounter the world,” Maher said. “The big idea is that we think that children are some of our most valued citizens, so they should be seen and heard.”
In an early childhood classroom, she said, that means teachers partner with the children, so the children’s interests affect both how the lessons unfold and the actual learning space, she said. That philosophy was used with the open space in downtown Boulder.
“Adults can serve as cultural translators,” she said. “We have expertise understanding children. If kids are climbing on the railings in the center of town, they’re expressing the idea of the right to move.”
The Reggio Emilia philosophy incorporates a great respect for both teachers and family, she said.
Preschool education in Reggio Emilia has been embraced by the city itself, which invests 22 percent of public tax dollars into early childhood education, Maher said.
Lincoln appears to be making an investment through Prosper Lincoln, she said, and recognizing the value of children.
“Maybe the big difference is people often think of kids as citizens of the future rather than citizens of the present.”