“What is that noise?” Evelyn Salzman asks her mother. She is listening to the tip-tap of shoes on a stairway.
After pressing each of eight red buttons on a display wall, the three-year-old runs off to her mother to inquire about the next sounds that are about to play.
That “noise” Salzman heard is called “The Stairway’s Voice,” a feature of the new Wonder of Learning exhibit currently on display at the Williamsburg Northside School in Brooklyn.
The traveling exhibit showcases the experiences of pre-K-aged children from Reggio Emilia, the northern Italian city and birthplace of an innovative alternative style to early childhood education. Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi developed the Reggio Emilia approach after World War II.
“The way that they view children there is that children have lots of potential and they’re also capable, as opposed to being these empty sponges or empty vessels that you pour information in,” says Robin Koo, Salzman’s mother. Koo assisted in bringing the exhibit to New York City in collaboration with the organizations New York City Encounters with Reggio Emilia, North American Reggio Emilia Alliance and Reggio Children.
This is the project’s second trip to the Big Apple. Its first was in 1995, when it was titled “The Hundred Languages of Children.” So far, the exhibit has toured 31 countries, including 40 cities in the United States. According to Lella Gandini, the U.S. liaison for Reggio Children, the non-traditional educational philosophy recognizes children as active, contributing members of society. And a Reggio Emilia–influenced curriculum is based on documenting the interactions of each child in relation to their families and learning environments.
“Collaboration is a big part of the Reggio approach,” Koo says. “Rather than having this hierarchy of principals and teachers and the children, and then the parents are something separate, everyone is actually on the same level.”
A studio teacher at the Beginnings Nursery School in Gramercy, Koo has been teaching at the Reggio Emilia–inspired school since 2001. Even though there is a division of roles among parents, teachers and children, she explains, there is still a level playing field that lets kids, particularly those ages one to five, feel like their ideas are respected.
“Mama! Excuse me!” Salzman calls.
Koo steps away from a TV screen in a different room, which shows a clip of kids ages five and six making different human figures with clay and taking photographs of their creations.
“The children are so adept with clay because they were exposed to different types of materials.” Koo is referring to so-called “open-ended” materials — another feature of a Reggio-inspired facility — which are typically recycled items that adults no longer need but that can be repurposed as learning resources for children. The eco-friendly tools range from paint tube lids to napkin holders and other ceramic, wooden, paper, and rubber odds and ends.
“Open-ended materials go hand in hand with children’s curiosity,” Koo says as she leads Salzman to the exhibit’s workshops, called “ateliers.” In addition to its six sections — “dialogues with places,” “dialogues with material,” “the enchantment of writing,” “ray of light,” “ideas and projects,” and “the pulsating life” — New York’s version of the showcase also features two ateliers organized by the host committee. One features a monochromatic theme in which children can experiment with light and shadow. It is here where many of the salvaged items, often from art galleries and museums, turn up to help facilitate kids’ creativity.
The second atelier has an ocean/beach theme. Sounds of rushing water swoosh through the room, which is littered with sea pebbles, shells, precious stones, looking glasses, and a host of items that re-create the feel of how exploring an island might feel as a four-year-old.
More than 3000 people — visitors from as far as Brazil, Belgium, Peru, Israel, and Australia — have visited the exhibit at 299 North 7th Street in Williamsburg.
The Reggio Emilia approach is common in elite private schools in the U.S., but the five-month-long exhibit is free for all and open to the public on weekends. Schools and educators can also organize special visits during the week. Nonprofits such as Teaching Beyond the Square are working to bring the Reggio approach to under-served populations in the five boroughs through the Universal Pre-K programs.
At the opening of “Wonder of Learning,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said the exhibit resonates with his administration’s focus on early childhood education and getting parents to understand the value of pre-K. So although the exhibit ends on May 15, talks between WOL’s organizers and the Department of Education are already under way on how to include aspects of the Reggio-Emilia approach within the city’s Universal Pre-K schools. Sophia Pappas, CEO of the Early Childhood Division at the DOE, has been a prominent voice at recent Reggio-related events throughout New York.
There are a number of philosophies for early childhood education, but for parents like Koo it doesn’t matter whether it’s Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio, “it’s about whether you have any kind of schooling at the age of two or three,” she says. And exhibits like “The Wonder of Learning” show parents the possibilities of early childhood education through an approach that is geared toward cultivating a desire to learn in kids.
After NYC, the “Wonder of Learning” exhibit will move on to Pittsburgh, Miami, and Toronto.