Section 1

Section 2
N. American Schools

Section 3
Reggio Emilia


Aesthetic Codes in 
Early Childhood Classrooms:

Section 3

The Pre-primary Schools of Reggio Emilia
        In contrast, the educators in the preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia are very concerned about what their school environments teach children, often referring to the environment as the "third educator" in conjunction with the two classroom teachers (Gandini, 1998, p. 177). The environment reflects the schools' grounding in John Dewey's educational philosophy and Vygotsky's social constructivist learning theory (Malaguzzi, 1998). It embodies Reggio educators' belief that children are resourceful, curious, competent, imaginative, and have a desire to interact with and communicate with others (Rinaldi, 1998, p. 114). They believe that children can best create meaning and make sense of their world through living in complex, rich environments which support "complex, varied, sustained, and changing relationships between people, the world of experience, ideas and the many ways of expressing ideas" (Cadwell, p. 93) rather than from simplified lessons or learning environments. They also believe that children have a right to environments which support the development of their many languages (Reggio Children, 1996). 

Arcobaleno Infant-Toddler Center, dining room

       A detailed and well-illustrated discussion of the importance of the environment in the preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia can be found in Children, Spaces, Relations: Metaproject for an Environment for Young Children (Ceppi & Zini, 1998). This book describes the depth to which the environment supports the educational and cultural values of the school and the community. It demonstrates the belief that children have a right to be educated in thoughtfully designed spaces. Children in the Reggio schools are learning to value their rich visual heritage and to become perceptually aware through the support of the environment designed for multi-sensory learning. As Louise Cadwell, who has adapted the Reggio approach to the College School in St. Louis, Missouri, learned from her work with Reggio educators, "no space is marginal, no corner is unimportant and each space needs to be alive and open to change" (Cadwell, 1997, p. 93). 
       Ceppi and Zini (1998) use the term osmosis to describe the relationship of a school to the world outside. "A school should not be a sort of counter-world, but the essence and distillation of the society. Contemporary reality can and should permeate the school, filtered by a cultural project of interpretation that serves a membrane and interface" (p. 14). In discussing the Reggio schools they state,

There are many components of a city and its daily activities in the school for young children, just as the daily work in the school creates a microcosm of society. So the school is not just open to the city in terms of activities and schedules, but the characteristics of the space itself (both functional and aesthetic) are as hybrid as those of the city: dense, "contaminated", simultaneous. (p.14)

       There is great concern for what the environment is teaching. The design of the schools reflects the structure of the community. The schools reflect a diversity of ages and architectural styles yet each school is designed around a piazza which reflects the central piazzas of the city. These are not solely vehicles for moving through to get someplace else but serve as gathering places for children from all the classes and comfortable meeting spaces for parents and teachers. Entering the Diana School, a visitor looks down the piazza where floor to ceiling windows and plants blur the boundaries between outside and in, supporting the concepts of transparency and osmosis. Lights and shadows reflect and flicker across the floor. The piazza offers many possibilities: a store, stocked with real vegetables during my visit; the kaleidoscope large enough to hold several children; and fanciful dress-up clothes all invite investigation, lingering, conversation and collaboration.
       Reggio educators include aspects of a home into the school: vases of flowers, real dishes, tablecloths, and plants. There is attention to design and placement of objects to provide a visual and meaningful context. The objects within the space are not simplified, cartoon like images that are assumed to appeal to children, but are "beautiful" objects in their own right. For example, dried flowers hang from the ceiling beams and attractive jars of beans and seeds are displayed on shelves in the dinning area of Arcobaleno Infant-Toddler Center. On the 1997 study tour to Reggio, I was struck by the beautiful wooden table with a large bowl of flowers and wooden sideboard in one of the rooms in La Villetta School. I imagined being in a fine Italian dinning room! Manufactured and natural materials available for art projects are carefully displayed in transparent containers, or objects are set on or before mirrors to provide multiple views and capture children's attention. The strong role of the arts in Italian culture is clearly evident in the place of the atelier (art studio), mini ateliers adjacent to each classroom and the role the atelierista (artist-teacher) plays in supporting children and teachers in their work.
        In bringing the outside in, Reggio educators accept play and images from popular culture. Vea Vecchi, atelierista at Diana School, writes about the importance of narrative for young children,

In this construction of virtual worlds, the characters proposed by the mass media have an important place for both the younger and the older children: Power Rangers and Sailor Moon are currently the most frequently impersonated, for which the children have precise and shared schemas concerning their roles, words and gestures. (Vecchi, 1998, p. 130)

       The walls hold the history of the life within the school in the form of documentation panels of children's words and photos which synthesize past projects and chronicle current ones. Children's work and words are highly visible within the space communicating clearly to the children, their parents, and the community respect and value for children's abilities and potential, creating another form of transparency and osmosis between the school and surrounding community.

Implications for Art Educators
       The preprimary schools in Reggio serve children from 3 to 6 years before they enter compulsory education. They do not operate under a mandated curriculum nor is there an emphasizes on "school readiness" which is in contrast to the more academic nature of North American kindergarten programs for 4- and 5-year-olds.
       These two spaces reflect distinct cultural values for children: The typical North American classroom reflects notions of preparation for the future world of work, of an environment that isolates particular aspects of a culture, which simplifies visual forms, and protects children from the outside world. Its visual aesthetic reflects mass marketing and craft-store culture. It does not challenge children aesthetically to respond deeply to the natural world, their cultural heritage, or to their inner worlds. Art and early childhood educators can learn a great deal from Reggio educators about creating schools in which all aspects of the physical environment are carefully considered as to their educational potential without sacrificing each culture's unique values and goals.
       As a professional body, art educators have a responsibility to form collaborative partnerships with early childhood educators to raise the quality of education for young children. Art education must go beyond providing art experiences that meet goals for programs involving studio, history, criticism and aesthetics and begin to consider the environments in which these activities take place. What are children learning when the goals of art education are at odds with the environment in which they learn? Art educators need to find ways to collaborate with early childhood teachers to critically examine the aesthetic codes which permeate their classrooms and then together find ways to create environments which support children's aesthetic and artistic development. Together they may examine critically the image of the child they hold and how to express this through the both the environment and the learning experiences within this environment. Together they need to explore how to incorporate aspects from the world outside school in ways that are fully integrated into the life in classrooms and not just a "lesson on ...." Art educators can assist classroom teachers with ideas and techniques for display that value and respect children's work rather than trivialize it. 
        Teacher educators also have a responsibility to help pre-service teachers, either general education majors in art methods courses, or art specialists, to begin to look critically at the spaces in which learning takes place to consider, "what does this environment teach?" They may also challenge pre-service teachers to seek new and collaborative roles in their future places of employment. 
       Reggio has shown how partnerships between artist-teachers and early childhood educators can have a powerful impact on all the learning that occurs. Art educators can be challenged to take on the role of atelierista within a school, working as partners with teachers to support children to communicate their ideas visually, help to create provocative learning experiences, and design environments that enhance children's perceptual awareness and provide places for wonder, curiosity and the expression of ideas. In a tradition where art specialists are responsible for art education and generalist teachers are responsible for the core subjects, this is a major challenge to rethink roles, responsibilities, how time is spent within the classroom and within the school, and the value of collaboration to support children's learning. However, given the vision of other possibilities from the preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia, this is a challenge worth taking.

The Author
Patricia Tarr is an Associate Professor in the faculty of Education, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. E-mail: 

This article was first published by Art Education, a publication of the National Art Education Association, May 2001. NAEA. Used by permission.

Photo Captions
The photos have been taken from the slide collection, Open Window. Published by Reggio Children, 1994. Copyright to all photos is held by Municipality of Reggio Emilia, reproduced with permission. Email: 

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