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The Reggio Emilia Approach and Qualities of Light



The artistry of shadow and light

When someone mentions science, do you automatically think of distant laboratories or complicated experiments? Most people do! But science is literally around us all the time. When we wake up each day, the sun has gone around the earth, the days are getting longer or shorter and the weather turns up in its infinite variety. Science is simply the study of what we observe around us every day.


Visit to Reggio Emilia

One of the most observable phenomena in the universe is the science of light! I was first alerted to the immediate, unique and amazing qualities of light when I visited the world-renowned infant-toddler centres and preschools in the city of Reggio Emilia, northern Italy. The schools were named in 1991 in Newsweek, as the most globally influential education system for young children. I have returned to Reggio Emilia several times since my first visit in 2000 and continue to learn from their imaginative and aesthetic use of light. In the Malaguzzi Centre, you’ll find an entire atelier dedicated to light, the Atelier Raggio di Luce and you can watch a YouTube video to see it in action! Below I’ll share my impressions of my first visit and the way I felt literally enlightened!


The experience of light

On entering the Diana school, one of 80 infant–toddler centres, services and preschools in Reggio Emilia, the immediate impact is of different qualities of light. Natural sunlight streams through the windows throwing into relief translucent paintings, paper cut-outs, fantastical mobiles, trailing greenery and carefully placed natural objects.


Silhouette of a bird at the Diana School




In this space teachers had once offered a provocation that is part of the history of the centre. Keen for children to explore the science of shadow and light, educators moved a white semi-circular dividing wall close to a window where they had placed a black silhouette of a bird. The shadow of the bird was captured and moved on the screen. The teachers didn’t announce the bird, they stood back and waited. Soon the children noticed how the bird was slowly ‘flying’ across the wall. They planned together. They decided to build a cage to capture the bird! There was no whisper this was impossible. The children built a cage with sticks taped onto the wall - but the bird escaped! Over several weeks the children constructed their understanding of how the sun, the window, bright and cloudy days and time influenced the movement of the bird. Teachers recorded the children’s actions, learning and conversations. The footprints of their learning were made accessible to them to review and discuss. The documentation is proof to the children that their theories, plans and unique ideas are valuable. Carla Rinaldi, president of Reggio Children, explains that this pedagogical listening is extremely powerful and takes children ‘out of anonymity’.


Light adds significance and character to all the learning environments



The magic of the Diana School light project is multiplied across the centres. Light is a palpable and planned aspect of the school environments. In one room there may be natural light, a light table radiating upward and lamps shining downward creating puddles of brightness. Sometimes the curtains are drawn to create a mystical half-light that enhances imaginative play in ‘wonder landscapes’ that children have built with traditional blocks and then ‘sculpted’ over, using recyclable materials. A fan may blow streamers of paper or fabric giving movement to what is essentially static. The visual perception created by light is enhanced by engaging other senses.


In a small dark space simply separated from the room by means of a blind, a tiny mirror ball is placed in the beam of a slide projector. It creates sparkles that move and float over twirly, whirly mobiles. The mobiles created out of aqua minerale bottles cut the same way you would peel an orange in one long strip, are suspended from the ceiling reflecting their deep blueness.


Many of the materials are sourced from a central recycling centre named ‘Remida’ evoking the mythical king Midas who turned everything he touched to gold. And so it is when you see the materials displayed on light tables and overhead projectors. Texture, colour, space, opacity, translucency, outline and detail all live in what the light reflects and projects. Take cogs washers, counters, wishing stones, a feather and swathe of fabric and project it onto a wall, screen or ceiling – and you have what couldn’t be imagined a few moments before. The children create but they also apply meaning, narrative and significance to what they bring to life.









‘The Sky’ at the La Villetta School

At the La Villetta School, I studied children’s creation of ‘the sky’ on an overhead projector. They had placed materials on the projector to represent the sun, air, birds, clouds, rain, lightning, thunder and…a space rocket!


Crossing from one expressive language to another

After they created the scene, they were encouraged to draft their creation on a computer screen. They moved from a concrete medium to a digital medium. They mapped all the elements in the sky onto a grid on the computer. The grid was printed onto loose weave canvas and made into a weaving frame. ‘The Sky’ was embroidered in paper, fabric and other media. With the help of their teachers there were even electric lights you could activate to see the lightning. The multiplicity of media used to explore concepts in Reggio Emilia are referred to as ‘The Hundred Languages of Children’.


When you follow the movement from one expressive ‘language’ to another: from concrete materials to projection, projection to computer drafting, and then to weaving; you realise that adults also respond to a hundred languages! There is a haunting sense of something lost - and worth retrieving.


Light is a quality of the world and of the intellect


It’s not only in the physical environment that light and reflection live. They live in the intellectually inspiring inquiry that characterises the planning and management of the centres. There is constant reflection about what is happening in the schools; what the children have achieved and what they would like to achieve. Following reflection - there is action. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is grounded in thought but it lives in action.


After leaving Reggio Emilia you find yourself with new insights about the image of children, and reflection becomes a way of life.





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