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Visitors didn’t trek to this exhibit to view famous works of art or historic artifacts.

They were at Boston University to visit “The Wonder of Learning,” a traveling exhibit highlighting a pedagogical approach to early childhood education known as “Reggio Emilia.”

Named after the city in northern Italy in which it emerged after World War II, Reggio Emilia is an educational philosophy that prioritizes play-based, hands-on learning over a prescribed curriculum.

In Reggio-inspired schools, children are viewed as capable of constructing their own learning when guided by a skilled teacher who understands the importance of harnessing the natural curiosity of young children.

Despite the growing popularity of play-based learning approaches such as Reggio Emilia, it’s no secret that such approaches are typically confined to expensive private schools and, thus, off-limits to children from low-income families.

Rather than follow a strict curriculum, teachers are encouraged to listen to and document children’s interests and observations, and then develop activities to build upon previous learning. Heavy emphasis is placed on creating classrooms that are open and inviting, filled with natural light and student work that tells the story of the children who inhabit the classroom.

Despite the growing popularity of play-based learning approaches such as Reggio Emilia, it’s no secret that such approaches are typically confined to expensive private schools and, thus, off-limits to children from low-income families.

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“When Montessori and Reggio Emilia have come to the United States, they’ve come to mostly elite populations,” says Kelly Pellagrini, vice president of the Boston Area Reggio Inspired Network and lead organizer of “The Wonder of Learning” exhibit.

There are several reasons for this, including the fact that training teachers in Reggio can be time-consuming and expensive as well as the belief held by some that children from low-income families should be spending the school day exclusively focused on learning discrete math and literacy skills rather than taking part in activities that the untrained eye might see as unstructured play.

But over the past several years, the Department of Early Childhood in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) has been working to change the view of play-based learning as being available exclusively to the wealthy by bringing the philosophy of Reggio Emilia to its large, urban school system where over two-thirds of students are economically disadvantaged.

Now, with the announcement in April that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh will invest $15 million to make pre-K available to all four-year-olds in Boston within five years, the city is poised to make the wonders from “The Wonder of Learning” exhibit real for children across all income levels.

A recent visit to a first-grade classroom at Baldwin Early Learning Center in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston offers an example of the changes taking place in the district. In the brightly light classroom, 15 students sit on a rug and excitedly take part in a discussion about technology and inventions. The teacher introduces vocabulary words, such as “machine,” “invent” and “tool,” before having students turn to a partner to define and give examples of the words.

“To invent something means to make something for the first time,” one student tells another, before eagerly sharing that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Later, the same two students head to a learning station where they write about their own ideas for new inventions.

At the same time, several students play with actual cameras and phones in a corner of the classroom decorated with pictures of inventions ranging from a sewing machine to a computer. Nearby, a group of four students uses their newly acquired vocabulary words while focused on creating a machine with wooden blocks.

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Adopting this sort of approach to early learning in a large, urban school district mostly made up of students from low-income families is not without significant challenges. Balancing play-based instruction while also ensuring students pick up the necessary math and literacy skills to be ready academically for the next grade can be a delicate balancing act, especially given the pressure of standardized assessments in later grades.

“Often there’s pushback of ‘Well, it’s not really for these kids, these kids need to learn distinct skills,’ but we need to make sure there are deep opportunities for them to engage with ideas to understand how they’re making sense of the process of learning,” said Marina Boni, an experienced Reggio-inspired teacher who has served as program director in the BPS Department of Early Childhood for the last 13 years.

Implementing a Reggio-inspired approach requires not only ongoing professional development for teachers, but also training for principals so they’re able to walk into a classroom and distinguish intentionally planned play-based learning from open-ended play unconnected to a larger purpose.

Despite these obstacles, the work happening in Boston is challenging the notion that engaging, play-based early learning is only truly available to children whose parents can afford private school tuition or a home in an exclusive neighborhood.

Through its work to pursue a Reggio-inspired approach for young children, the BPS Department of Early Childhood can serve as a model for other urban school districts to think differently about their youngest students.

As Boni puts it, “An important part of Reggio is the image of children as competent, as citizens, as thinkers, and not as glasses that need to be filled.”

This story about expanding access to Reggio-inspired schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the education policy program at New America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

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  1. I agree that play based learning is valuable for young children in many ways. It promotes confidence and creative skills for children, boost relationship skills with peers, helps children to problem solve and to learn to be flexible. Movement is vital for young children to enable them to experience physically what they are learning. Play is essential to develop a passion for learning.

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