Early Childhood Theorists: Loris Malaguzzi

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook group.

Today, we’re going to continue our LONG-paused series on early childhood theorists. We’ll be chatting about Loris Malaguzzi!

I personally think that Loris Malaguzzi is one of the least well-known theorists who has had the most impact on current early childhood practice beside Maria Montessori. Many of his ideas are being incorporated into our children’s early childhood settings: in their preschools, daycares, playgroups… and you don’t even know it. After this little crash course- you will! I originally started this series because I could see that one of the reasons so many parents were having a hard time with the recommendations I was giving them was because they had no grasp of early childhood theory. It made total sense to me because I have multiple post-secondary pieces of paper in early childhood education. So this series is intended to be like your mini early childhood degree.

Let’s get the dates out on the table and out of the way to start: he was born in Correggio, Italy in 1920. He was growing up right in the middle of the second World War. In 1939, he began to enter University at the University of Urbino in Pedagogy and Psychology. He later graduated from the National Research Centre in Rome. And he passed away in Reggio Emilia in 1994.

As you can see from those dates- he was aware of Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Erikson, Piaget, and everyone else. So he, like the others, pulled ideas he agreed with and left the ones he didn’t. Like Vygotsky, he was a constructivist- he believed that children CONSTRUCT their knowledge, it’s not something that’s passively absorbed.

Something you may have noticed there was the mention of Reggio Emilia and, today, in North America- Reggio Emilia has become kind of a buzzword, kind of like Montessori. I remember back in October- when I did the episode on Montessori in this series- I had a bunch of people comment on the video and message on my page about how they had genuinely no idea that Montessori was a PERSON and what that word had even meant before listening. And I’m sure Reggio Emilia has the same issue. Loris Malaguzzi is the theorist BEHIND the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning. Unlike Montessori though- his approach isn’t named after him because it isn’t completely his doing- and there’s a neat story that goes along with it.

Reggio Emilia actually refers to the name of the TOWN where the philosophy took root. As legend has it- five days after the second world war ended there was a group of women just outside of this little town- Reggio Emilia- in Italy. And they’d decided that they wanted to build a school out of the rubble that had been left behind by the retreating Germans so that they could give the next generation the foundation that made them intolerant of injustice and inequality. So they sold an abandoned German tank, nine horses, and two abandoned military trucks, and they began to build this preschool.

And Malaguzzi- having heard about them- was fascinated so he went to find them and he was so astounded by them that he stayed to help, and it was by working with these Italian mamas that he was able to help them create the curriculum for the school- and that has transformed into what we now know as the Reggio Emilia approach to early learning. In 1963, the municipality of Reggio Emilia began funding and building new schools, using the approach of the original school- and Malaguzzi was the first director. He worked in the preschool and infant-toddler center network until 1985 when he retired, but even then he apparently remained heavily involved until his death.

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And I just LOVE that story because it really speaks to the power of women, of mothers, and of the amazing things we can create for us and for our children when we come together. That’s why I LOVE my Facebook group- the Parenting Posse– SO MUCH because the beautiful community we’ve created has created SO MUCH GOOD in the world for our fellow mothers- much like those tenacious women in Italy after they’d endured the horrors of war.

So Malaguzzi’s theory has 3 basic tenants to it, and they’re the foundation of the Reggio Emilia Approach:

  • A positive image of the child
  • Children learn by being active participants.
  • Play is an important part of learning and early development.

What I love about Reggio Emilia and Malaguzzi is that unlike other theorists- none of Malaguzzi’s work is really rigid. It’s open to interpretation and experimentation. He’s quoted in a few places as having said to the original mothers “I’ll learn as I go along, and the children will learn with me.” And that- to me- kind of embodies how I see Reggio Emilia. It’s not super black and white. It’s exploratory and curious and open to experimentation.

So let’s go through these 3 tenants.

The first is a positive image of the child.

Malaguzzi believed that all children have curiosity, potential, and preparedness. They have an interest in relationships. They construct their knowledge and they are prepared to negotiate with everything presented to them by their environment. Malaguzzi saw children- much like Montessori- as active citizens in their world. He believed they have their own rights, and that they are contributing members to their families and their communities in their own right. He also really advocated for children with disabilities- he preferred the term “special rights” over “special needs”- and children with special rights are given priority for space with entering an infant and toddler centre.

As a parent, I think this is so important to keep in mind. We tend to see our children as disenfranchised, helpless, and random. We tend to look at them as extensions of ourselves, rather than people in their own right who can and will contribute. It’s a much more dignified way to frame our children in our minds, and this mindset around children REALLY helps us to move out of that desire to punish and coerce, and into the more respectful way, we deal with our fellow adults where we educate and engage in discourse.

The second is that children learn by being active participants.

And again- this goes back to Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori, Erikson, Dewey, everybody pretty much agrees that children learn by DOING. Not just by hearing about- but by GETTING IN AND ACTUALLY DOING IT. To that end, Reggio schools focus on projects that the children initiate- either by a chance event, or by a shared perseverative interest, or because a child in the group shares a question or a problem… and they can last days to several months. They take a very holistic approach to teaching in that they believe that if children are curious about something- the academics of it- the math, the science, the art, the music, the language, the social studies- all that is embedded into our everyday lives and children will explore them when they’re relevant to them.

Again, I personally and professionally adore this perspective- it’s the perspective that I’ve built my entire flagship program on. Children are naturally driven to explore everything we want them to: the executive skills, the social skills, the life skills, the academic skills- naturally- we just have to provide the opportunities and the space for them to explore those things- and scaffold, guide, and support them through that learning when it comes up.

From the perspective of a parent- I find that this takes a lot of pressure off of me. The old-school way of doing things puts all this pressure on us to CREATE EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES and makeup all these elaborate captivities and fabricate all these fake situations… and that’s EXHAUSTING. As a mother, I honestly can’t think of anything less productive or enjoyable to do with my time. By viewing my children as active participants in LIFE who can learn from EVERYTHING by being involved in it. I don’t have to make up all this crazy crap! My kids get value from helping me make dinner. My kids get value from helping me paint my office, my kids get value from doing laundry, my kids get value from grocery shopping. In fact- in February my oldest son and I did a little project. His eczema was acting up and he noticed it was worse with some laundry vs. others, so we tested different laundry soaps to figure out which ones cleaned best, then we did wear tests to see which ones irritated his skin. Then we went to the store and priced them out and together we figured out that from now on we’ll be washing our clothes in Persil powder. There was science, and math, and art, and language, and social studies… ALL built into that experience for him. And he took responsibility for solving a problem he’d identified in our household- which was that the Tide Pods were making him itchy, so he was becoming a nudist. There was a lot of talk about how no really, not only is not socially acceptable to run around in the buff, or just in underwear- but we also LIVE IN CANADA and there’s a LOT of snow on the ground for 8 months out of the year and clothes keep our skin safe and our bodies warm. And I didn’t have to cut out any construction paper shapes or print out a single worksheet. I just had to make him an active participant in our family.

Third, is that play is an IMPORTANT part of learning and development.

Again- I’ve built my whole program around this concept! Children test out their theories and work through problems via play. It’s a very unique state where they’re the most open to new information and the most curious. They explore power dynamics through superhero and princess play, they explore family roles in the household play, they explore physics and engineering with Legos and building blocks. Play gives them the tools to act out and build a mock-up of our adult world where they’re safe to try things and fail without repercussions. That’s why my entire program is made up of playful activities, games, and interactions- because it gives them a safe space to try and fail and refine and get better at the skills that they’re struggling with.

Play is the vehicle through which children construct ALL their knowledge. So these instances where we give them opportunities to be active, engaged agents in a playful way are the most powerful learning tools we have as parents.

It’s also why I include playful elements in my Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour. I’ve had quite a few questions on why- for instance in the bolting script- it’s not much much a script as it is a game. This is why! Because I’ve incorporated elements from ALL the theorists- including Malaguzzi- into them, which is one of the reasons they work so beautifully. And if you’d like to get your hands on those scripts- they’re 100% free- so please go ahead and grab them, they’re my gift to you. You can navigate to prnt.link/scripts and you’ll be able to find them there.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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