Portland Children's Museum is inspired by an approach to early childhood education first developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy. More educational philosophy than rigid framework, this approach emerges from a series of core principles based on a fundamental respect for children as knowledge-bearers and gifted researchers who learn through their exploration of the world and through the countless ways that they share their discoveries with adults and with each other.
- The Child as Protagonist: Children are born thinkers, doers, and planners. Young children are resilient, driven by relationship, and predisposed towards health. As educators and caregivers, adults can support the development of competent and resourceful human beings by understanding that children are active constructors of knowledge, not empty buckets needing to be filled with information. Asking a young child questions like—“What do you notice?” and “What are you wondering?”—sends the message that you expect them to be doing both. This sort of questioning creates opportunities for you, the adult, to learn. It also communicates to the child that you assume that a curious and pattern seeking mind is very much alive inside them - that you believe they are thinking thoughts that will benefit the world.
- Environment as the Third Teacher: In the municipal pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, the teachers refer to the classroom environment as the third teacher because there are two co-teachers with each group of children. Here at Portland Children's Museum, the environment may more accurately be described as the first teacher. We plan the Museum environment to be welcoming and supportive of exploration, creation, collaboration and discovery by competent and resourceful human beings. Our exhibits are always changing, as children build on the environments that they encounter here, and so our work of connecting our intentions to the design outcomes is continually evolving. Knowing that the health of the developing brain is profoundly influenced by interactions with environments, we believe that it is an issue of human rights to provide nurturing, sensory rich, relational environments for children in which they are free to play and explore.
- The Role of Documentation: in an environment designed for children’s learning, adults must also position themselves to learn from the children. Developing a habit of capturing evidence of learning (through photographs, anecdotal note-taking, transcripts, and the collection of children’s work) and a process for reflecting on what has been captured, supports a reciprocity of understanding and solidarity between adults and children. As adults, based on what you’ve observed, what do you notice and what do you wonder about the children and the learning process?
- The Hundred Languages: With materials in hand, children can express and discover ideas that would otherwise remain invisible to themselves and to the world. The products children create with materials reflect back to them a tremendous insight about who they are. So with that in mind, what do we want to offer children an opportunity to see? The materials we provide to children are limited by the image we hold about their competencies. Through materials, children receive messages about their own potential, their own value. Documentation encourages and reminds us to stretch our image of children as a protagonist of their own learning, which in turn allows adults to create environments rich in material exploration and expression.
- Children as Citizens: What are the implications for our approaches with children when we think of them as citizens with rights rather than children with needs? What if a children’s museum was the place where we demonstrate, in particular, how these citizens have a right to a voice, a right to belong, and a right to play? How would our future communities benefit from the support of these rights now? How might the contributions of children benefit our current communities? In children’s fresh viewpoints, their capacity for metaphor, and their willingness to imagine, there is great inspiration for us all. Children’s museums can take leadership in our communities as places where these perspectives flourish and their present resource is put to use.
- Parents as Partners: Parents are children’s first, most important teachers. How can we model our strong value in the competencies of children so that parents have confidence to see their children as the capable young citizens they are? How can we invite parents to identify and focus on the gifts their children bring to the world? How can we support parents to be advocates for the rights of their children to rich opportunities for meaningful, playful learning? How can we remain open and responsive to the distinctive wisdoms parents bring to our communities?
- Children and Adults as Researchers and Co-Creators: A healthy relationship between childhood and adulthood is vital for our communities. Adults who are willing to see children as competent seekers of relationship and meaning and who are, in turn, seeking meaning and relationship with the perspective of children, support childhood to become an adulthood that can do the same for the next generation.
The Reggio Approach supports a powerful, evolving, and reciprocal journey of learning and open-ended exploration. It's what keeps us inspired to push our own boundaries and test our own assumptions of what's possible.