Since setting up this website, I have been asked by many people who are unfamiliar with the long term research project in Reggio Emilia, what benefit to children the principles emanating from this approach might convey. It can be difficult to describe the notion of a child being a co-constructor of their own learning, or that they are masters of their own creativity, innovating and exploring at every turn. However, anyone observing my son during the course of a clay workshop we recently attended, would have seen glimpses of free thinking at work, of an imagination unstifled by rules or adult corrected ways of doing.
My son, since he turned one, attended the same Reggio inspired nursery where I previously worked in the role of a Pedagogista. During his time in early childhood education, he has therefore been given the freedom to explore at his own rate, according to his own interests. His nursery takes a very child centric approach, facilitating, rather than guiding his development, utilising the environment or the space within which he plays or researches, as a third teacher.
During his nursery day, Joshua has been exposed to a vast array of materials to work with, including loose parts and recycled objects, whilst he has had the opportunity to express himself in a variety of mediums, from different types of paints, to clay and wire. It was this freedom of expression through the language of clay which became so clear during the workshop we recently attended.
Unlike the educators at his nursery, who document a process of exploration and discovery without focusing on an end result or product, the clay workshop was project based and depended on each child producing, rather than creating, a clay tortoise, one of which had been pre made and placed in the centre of the table.
The leader of the workshop began by explaining the purpose of the class, to produce a clay tortoise to paint and take home. She allocated each child with ball shaped pieces of clay, asking them to continue to roll the clay, copying her movements. Joshua initially began to copy the other children, moving the clay back and forth using the palm of his hand, but his imagination soon took hold. He pressed down the clay to create a flat shape, holding it aloft and exclaiming “a pancake for you mummy. For lunch.” He then pressed his fingers down into the clay to leave imprints of his finger tips, proceeding to count each mark he had made. By now, Joshua’s decision to work ‘outside of the grid’ had been picked up by other parents, with the leader of the class trying to correct him. At one moment, I even began to apologise for my son not following the instructions given to him, but I stopped myself, quickly realising the importance of what I was witnessing. Joshua continued to explore the clay in his own way, pinching off small pieces and rolling them on the table, “a snake” he told me, “a naughty snake..he’s going to eat the tortoise” as he began to move his snake towards the ready made clay tortoise in the middle of the table. This was just the start of Josh’s storying as he worked with the clay, before he promptly announced “finished now” and mummy was left to salvage a tortoise, for whose benefit I am still wondering.
Reflecting on our morning together, I felt proud to watch my son imaginatively and creatively express himself through the language of clay, unconstrained by an end product or goal. Of course, I recognise the importance of following guidance and even instruction, where the circumstances and the risks involved demand it. Once at school, Joshua will no doubt be taught how and why to do certain things, but I hope that his free thinking start in life will give him the sense to listen and the confidence to be curious, to enquire and to be himself.
I wish to stress that my comments in this article are in no way meant to criticise the content or structure of the workshop we attended. I simply wish to use this as an example of how the approach to a child’s early years can impact their thinking.