Hudson College was among a handful of early Canadian adopters of Reggio Emilia, a revered teaching philosophy named for a northern province in Italy after its development more than 70 years ago.
“We brought it in and we saw such a difference,” says Rose Bastien, Lower School Principal and Head of Curriculum at Hudson. Since its official adoption in 2012, the Reggio Emilia pedagogy continues to make a deep impact on the school’s students, families, parents and staff.
“When I observe a class in Reggio what I see is learning in its most natural state,” says Jeff Bavington, a school director and co-founder. “Kids are naturally curious, kids always ask questions, sometimes too many for us as parents to actually answer in the moment, but they have such a natural wondrous curiosity about the world, and they will already have information about the world they can share in the classroom with their peers.”
Student-centred, connections-focused and community-involved make up the heart of the Reggio Emilia method.
“When a student walks in, they are very capable and they are inquisitive, and they want to learn and they’re already full of knowledge ready to go,” says Shannon Mollard, Grade 3 teacher at Hudson. “Reggio Emilia is really about the connection between the teacher and the student, and giving a lot of information to that student, but also having that student give information back and starting to inquire from the information given. So they start to take ownership of their own learning.”
Mollard was hired in 2012 to introduce Reggio Emilia to Hudson, and was tasked with laying the foundation for how Reggio would be delivered at the school.
“It’s also about bringing the community and parents in and documenting what you see happening in the classroom to include that community and those parent groups,” Mollard continues. “So we document by taking videos, by taking photos, and by taking quotes from the kids.”
To illustrate the effects of Reggio Emilia at work in the later grades, Mollard points to a handmade model of the Eiffel Tower, built by her Grade 3 students as part of a structures unit.
“We were looking at bridges, and we were building all kinds of things,” she explains. “The foundation for building structures was already provided in the class and all the resources were provided. They were taught that a triangle is the strongest shape that can be built to make it more stable. And then three kids went off and they built the Eiffel Tower out of popsicle sticks and toothpicks.”
With their curiosity piqued, soon a two-and a half foot, gold-coloured model of France’s famous wrought-iron tower was born.
“Reggio can take you deep, and it can bring you to places where they’re now making connections about the world and making connections through the curriculum,” says Mollard, an educator for more than 20 years. “It’s just a fabulous thing when they actually start to talk about different things you would never expect a five, six or eight-year old to speak about.”
Jennifer Brantley is newer to Reggio Emilia, having integrated it into her teaching after joining Hudson in 2018.
“One of the pieces that I love so much about Reggio Emilia is introducing beautiful items to them,” says Brantley. “That can be anything from the smallest little sets of rocks that you’ve collected from the beach, to some sticks that you’ve gathered out in the forest, or the way the light plays as it comes through the window and makes reflections. It’s all about introducing them and letting them spot the wonder and beauty that’s around them. As a teacher, as we’re following them, we really listen to their thinking.”
Brantley introduces the school’s youngest learners to Reggio Emilia as a JK teacher.
“The strongest pieces that we see out of this is belonging to the community,” she continues. “When they feel they belong and they feel trusted, then they want to grow their community. I think that we make world leaders this way, because they’re going to constantly be wanting to make their space bigger and better and stronger. And they feel very invested. I think Reggio really lays that groundwork to value them at two and three and four, so that they feel and keep growing like that.”
Now in her second decade as an educator, Brantley says the approach is also inspirational for adults. “I feel so much more rewarded as an educator through these experiences,” she says. I’ve done some beautiful projects where the children have just been so passionate about different learning experiences, and I can see that’s going to stick with them forever.”
Down the hall in her SK class, Lottie Fisher receives students with either one year of Reggio Emilia exposure or none, if they’ve joined from another school.
“I’m finding that the ones that have graduated from our JK program are definitely more confident and able to think outside the box a little bit – they have more authority over their own learning,” she says. “They’re able to bring that into my classroom.”
Fisher’s introduction to Reggio Emilia came from her personal desire to research other teaching approaches. “The traditional model seems very straightforward, very strict, lots of table work, lots of repetition, every year can be the same,” says Fisher, who has taught exclusively at the SK level during her 10 years as an educator. “Some teachers are using the same themes, the same worksheets, and that just felt very stagnant and old. I think the nicest thing about Reggio is that it changes every year. There’s new projects, new things, and that’s great for a teacher as well because I’m kept on my toes, and I’m constantly interested in finding new courses of study and new things to discover with the children. So I’m learning alongside them!”
Fisher was also intrigued by the evidence-based findings supporting the Reggio method.
“A lot of the literature is pointing towards Reggio being really good at supporting critical thinking, and free thinking skills,” she continues. “For example, in a traditional setting, perhaps in an art lesson, a teacher would create a model that the children have to re-create and mimic. And that’s not creating any creativity. It’s kind of stunting creativity. It's not letting them express themselves the way they want to. And they’re not thinking for themselves. They can also actually feel like they’re underachieving because maybe the product they create isn’t exactly the product that the teacher has created. So it doesn’t lead to confident students either.”
Building confidence and fostering independence in students are key by-products of this educational philosophy.
“I think Reggio Emilia gives everybody [boys and girls] the same confidence to take risks, to do their own research and feel in control and empowered in their own learning,” says Fisher, adding, “a co-ed environment is perfect for Reggio because you’re really doing a lot of group work. It’s collaborative learning. They learn together, they teach each other so it teaches them great group work skills, which they’re then taking on throughout the school but also in the next career.”
Rebecca Hay is a current parent of two children at Hudson.
“We really were drawn to the idea of this Reggio curriculum,” says Hay, reflecting back on when she and her husband were looking for a new school for her son to join for SK. “He had been in a Montessori, and we loved the child-centred learning aspect. My son had no exposure to the Reggio Emilia approach at all.”
“What appealed to us was this idea that in the early years the children are collaborative in class, they’re not all sitting at desks,” says Hay, whose children are currently in Grade 1 and Grade 4. “They are the ones who drive the discussion. And I’ve seen this in my own children, they learn at an early age to ask questions, that their interests are going to be acknowledged, and that they matter. And it’s really been a beautiful thing.”
Four years into her children’s Reggio Emilia journey, Hay says she continues to see the benefits of this teaching approach.
“I get a little emotional when I talk about my children’s experience, because they are such well-rounded individuals,” she continues. “I really do think part of it is that confidence and that independence. That speaks volumes for how they’re encouraged in the classroom to take charge, to take ownership and be independent as individuals. I think it really is starting to show and I’m really excited to see what happens in the years ahead. They’re still so little!”
From her vantage point as Hudson’s Director of Admissions, Michelle Gow sees the seeds of Reggio Emilia bearing fruit across various grades in tangible ways. “If you walk around the school and ask students what they’re up to in class, they won’t just say what they’re doing, they often will explain to you why and how,” says Gow. “That’s what I really love to see, and it filters through all of the Lower School.”
And far beyond.
More Reggio reading: What are Reggio Emilia Schools? (The New York Times); Why three families chose the Reggio Emilia approach for their children’s education (Toronto Life)
Hudson College is a coed, non-denominational private school in Toronto, serving students from Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.