Reggio Emilia focuses on the educational importance of community and free inquiry (which often means learning through playing and activities) as its primary values, and as such shares many values with the better known (certainly in the GCC) Montessori framework.
Like Montessori it's not a philosophy that results in a prescriptive (rule based) set of activities. Rather, it's an approach based around certain fundamental values about how children learn.
Again as with Montessori, often these values are interpreted very differently in different schools - which puts the onus on the parent to carefully examine how well the principals of the theory are put to practice.
A Reggio Emilia school should have the following core values:
- The child as an active participant in learning. The Reggio approach sees a child as a protagonist and initiator interacting with their environment. Students should be allowed to follow their own interests, but given structure and feedback. For example students show an interest in building. To make it a learning experience, building materials are brought into the classroom. While exploring how to build construct something, children are given the opportunity to reinforce math skills, problem-solving, and emerging literacy – all in relationship to a hands-on project they have initiated.
- The significance of environment. As a consequence of the above, students need to be surrounded by the materials that will allow them to investigate. The environment of the school is seen as the third educator. It should be a "studio" filled with materials such as clay, paint, and writing implements that allow hands on, investigative learning.
- The teacher, parent, and child as collaborators in the process of learning. In Reggio Emilia, parents should be an integral part of the school and the learning process. Learning does not begin and end at the school gates, rather it's continuous. A sign of this should be how many parent activities are included as part of the school curricula.
- Making learning visible. Perhaps the most intensive part of the teaching process is that in order to be effective, learning has to be documented. Teachers use a variety of documentation methods, such as cameras, tape recorders, and journals, to track children's thoughts and ideas as they play together or work with materials.
Because Reggio Emilia is less structured, if it is done well it is likely to require more resources than a prescriptive curriculum, where resourcing can be pre-planned.
It requires staff to be more imaginative, sensitive and intuitive to the needs of the students and parents around them.
These skills are not held by every nursery teacher - especially in the GCC where in most countries teachers do not even need to hold a teaching degree. If not done well, Reggio Emilia can mean less learning. If done well, it can mean significantly more.
Should a school claim to follow a Reggio Emilia approach, you should spend time in the classroom to see just how well it is being executed.