Reggio Parenting

How can parents ensure that their children are educated well without controlling them tightly?

I’d like to thank Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” for forcing me to think hard about this question. Chua has forced me and others who are critical of her Tiger Mom methods to put up or shut up. So what if I’m philosophically opposed to her methods? Philosophical approaches don’t get kids into great colleges and into great careers.

My answer to Chua and her followers is “Reggio Parenting.” It’s a new term, but the ideas are very familiar to many parents of children in “Reggio-inspired” preschools who observe their children in school. It would also be familiar to homeschooling or “unschooling” parents who implement these methods own their own, although my own approach is to supplement traditional schooling, not replace it.

The basic idea is to apply the basic ideas of Reggio-inspired preschools to parenting in order to inspire our children to aggressively pursue knowledge for themselves.My boys (6-1/2, 3, and 1-1/2) are far younger than Chua’s girls (teenagers), so I can’t say I have a great deal of firsthand experience implementing Reggio Parenting, but the past year with my oldest son Marco has been a very solid start.

Above is a video I made two years ago about an Italian language Reggio-inspired preschool in San Francisco.

I’ll cite two examples here:

Marco has always been interested in rocks largely because of our frequent trips to our neighborhood creek, but a few months ago, he seemed to be talking about it more, so we searched for an opportunity to get him really interested in the subject. That opportunity came when a friend of mine told me about a place that has fossils of ancient marine creatures 2-1/2 hours from our house.

So, a couple of months ago, we took him and his brothers there.  We all climbed over a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign and searched around there for an hour.  The boys were getting mighty cranky.  Then, finally, I found a fossil of an ancient clam.  It was dramatic, to say the least.  Marco saw that and went wild.  He found at least a dozen others on his own. 

I knew then that Marco was ready for a “deep dive” into geology. I’ve purchased about a half dozen videos and a dozen books on various aspects of geology.  He’s been pleading with me to read the books to him every night.  He’s beginning to understand that my reading to him will not nearly satisfy his curiosity in these geology books, so he’s going to have to learn how to read them himself.

Then, I bought some geodes at a toy store and we cracked them.  I’ve also bought him a rock collection, and now he’s accumulating the knowledge he needs to start collecting and classifying rocks on his own.

I’ve found some very interesting field trips close to home. For instance, I found a local geologist from Acterra, a local environmental preservation organization, who’s willing to take us on a tour of the San Andreas fault. We’ll do that next week. He’ll not only point some interesting things out to us, but he’ll also show us how to carve out rock samples we like.

Marco’s become fascinated with gold, so we’re going to visit an old gold mine and a particularly interesting cave during his winter break in a couple of weeks. Also, through this interest in gold, Marco and begun to study the history of the California Gold Rush, so we’re going to Columbia, California, a town that preserves the look and ambiance of its first days as a Gold Rush mining town in the 1850s.

I’ve also purchased a small meteorite from an online store, and that’s propelled us into an exploration of the solar system. We’re talking about getting a telescope to watch meteor showers, and then going meteorite hunting. Of course, the likelihood that a meteor would fall close to our house is pretty remote, but this is a fun one to dream about.

Finally, I’m now considering taking him on a trip to a dinosaur excavation site this summer. This would help him connect his interest in geology with the interest he’s always had in dinosaurs.

It’s hard to say how far Marco will go with this interest in geology.  Ultimately, that’s not my wife’s and my decision. It’s his.

If, or should I say when, this passion wanes, my wife and I will keep listening closely, ready to pounce again on another interest. What we absolutely won’t do is force him to dedicate long hours to something he can’t justify pouring himself into.

Parkour and Free Running
The only screen time my boys get is a few YouTube videos a week, and lately, Marco and his middle brother Nico (3) have become obsessed with Parkour and Free Running videos. In parkour, people, usually young men, run and jump from building to building, climbing to roofs, in and out of windows, etc. Free running is similar, but also includes acrobatic flips and twists.

Integral to both activities is capturing all the moves on video and producing an edited music video set to music. Search “parkour” or “free running” on YouTube and you’ll see a lot of very entertaining videos.

In our basement, Marco and Nico have created their own a parkour course, a complex of tables, chairs, and seat cushions. They practice there every day, trying to perfect certain moves.

They’ve learned a lot about what they can do with their bodies (and they haven’t gotten hurt yet!). My wife and I are planning on restarting gymnastics classes for Marco and Nico. When they were taking these classes before, they were just going through the motions. Now, they’ll approach gymnastics with a much clearer goal of what they want to get out of it.

I recently downloaded the song from their favorite Free Running video, and I plan to work with them to make their very own Free Running video. I’m pretty decent at making videos. My thought is that I can use my kids’ current fascination with Parkour to help them learn about how to make videos. From there, we can make videos about many other things.

So, what do you think of “Reggio Parenting?” Do you have similar examples where you heard your child mention a strong interest, and then you took him or her on a “deep dive” to work on projects in that area?

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10 Responses to Reggio Parenting

  1. Kerry Dickinson says:

    I think most educated, involved parents will naturally do this – enhance their children’s learning experiences by helping them explore their passions. What is difficult though, especially for parents of public school children, is watching their passions be stifled because they have to do what projects the teacher tells them to do.

    Your comment: “What we absolutely won’t do is force him to dedicate long hours to something he can’t justify pouring himself into.” reminded me of all the long hours my boys poured themselves into school projects they really weren’t that interested in.

    But if they didn’t do the project, they’d feel like an outcast b/c it was required for the grade.

    Whenever my boys spent many hours on these projects I would always email the teachers telling them how many hours were invested and what their feeling was about the project. I usually got the typical “time management” response back, “If only they invested their time wisely…”

    They seemed to miss the point that it killed their interest in the topic at hand. But occasionally, it did make them more interested in something and when it did I would also email the teacher and tell her/him so.

  2. gramomster says:

    Love Reggio! My grandson’s preschool is Reggio based, and we love love love it. I was just looking at the posterboard that came home when he was almost 3, and they were doing a painting thing over the winter. He had such an interest in the colors and the textures of the paint, and in how the colors mixed that the teachers found a large appliance box just for him, they set it up in a corner, and would let him strip to his diaper and let him paint with his whole body, and just explore the medium.
    One day his teacher took off her shoes, and they rolled out paper, and danced on the paper with paint on their feet.
    What a great way to approach interaction with small people! Freely, and with tons of creativity, using what’s at hand.

  3. gramomster says:

    and @ Kerry… totally excellent point. I ended up with two unschooled kids, because of that very thing. Hours of homework, projects with no creativity allowed, just follow this template, and we were as forced into it as the kids were! Whether we believed there to be value in the project or not, or the endless worksheets, if the kids didn’t turn them in, they got in trouble. If they didn’t want to do them, we had to force them, reprimand them, take away activities… absolutely hated it! When my youngest was literally vomiting from stress because we’d been unable to find one required piece for a project, I knew it was time we look at options. He was in 1st grade. We would occasionally try school again through the years, usually when we moved, we’d give the schools a shot. Never lasted more than a couple years though.
    Both kids, at nearly 19 and 21, are voracious readers with an insatiable desire to LEARN. Just, learn… about anything that catches their interest, be it history, astronomy or herbal tincture making. The kid that made himself sick with worry in 1st grade is probably going to transfer into the University of Michigan next fall, with 3 years of college and a 3.9 GPA under his belt. The almost 19 year old. NOT going to school is what allowed his love of learning itself to flourish.
    We’ll put the grandkid in school and see how it goes, but I’m in no way committed that he has to go, or has to stay, or has to do anything that makes him miserable and doesn’t enrich his experience of being alive on the planet. And having had Reggio preschool since 2 and a half… well, school has a lot to live up to.

  4. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — I heard about this school yesterday from a friend who used to live in Portland: You might be interested to check it out. It’s a rare elementary that’s built explicitly on Regio principals and it sounds like heaven — it’s even attached to the Portand Children’s Museum!

  5. RobertH says:

    We have had our two kids, now 12 and 9, in private progressive schools (including preschool) all their lives and haven’t regretted it for one moment.

    At the beginning, we were not sure exactly what to expect, thinking that just maybe our children would be a little behind public school children for awhile. After all, they don’t do worksheets, don’t take quizzes or tests, don’t get grades, and don’t get much or (untll grade 4) any homework. Instead they work, always collaboratively never competitively, on various projects, from writing poems to playing math games to building art projects to doing science experiments. In other words, they are for the most part (no school is perfect) having a blast in school, and we have to literally force them to stay home when they are sick.

    Our initial doubts turned out to be more than unfounded. Our daughter Sophia, now in 6th grade, who has loved reading and writing, is now writing her first novel. Not because anyone, much less her parents, put her up to it, but because she’s truly inspired by the books (in the fantasy genre) she reads and, well, because she loves to write.

    The reason we credit her progressive schooling for this development is NOT that SCHOOL turned her into a good writer. It didn’t. There are too many other kids who are not writers (more on that in a moment). But school DID NOT interfere with her natural talent and passion for writing. She was never required to read anything she didn’t like to read, i.e., the kids choose their own books. She was never graded – up or down – for her work. And, perhaps, most importantly, she didn’t have a heavy load of meaningless homework to take up her last positive energy of the day. Instead, Sophia would typically come home, read a book of her choosing for several hours, play the piano for a bit (another passion), draw some pictures (yet another passion), and THEN start writing on her stories and, most recently, her novel.

    Our son Nicholas is a completely different child. His world revolves around animals, mostly herps (reptiles and amphibians). We go out in the field at least once a week to look for snakes, lizards, frogs, toads or salamanders, and by now he knows more about herps than 99.9% of adults. He is also a very passionate and quite accomplished wildlife photographer, with hundreds of really quite impressive shots to his credit.

    The thing is that neither my wife or I are wildlife photographers, much less did we know anything about reptiles or amphibians (nor, for that matter, are we professional writers). Yes, we’d go out into nature quite a bit and indirectly encourage that sort of thing, but probably not much or any more than other nature-loving parents. Nicholas simply picked up an old camera one day (in fact, we thought it didn’t work anymore) and started taking pictures of lizards in the front yard.

    The reason I credit his progressive schooling, again, is that school encouraged him to pursue his talents and passions. It never sent the message that herping or photography was somehow less important than math and writing. The opposite was true. His teachers encouraged him to show his pictures in class, providing a semi-public forum for his work. He is known by all as the “reptile guy” and that suits him just fine. Also, like Sophia, he had and has no homework to compete for his energy and time. When he comes home, he usually is headed straight out the front door.

    Some of you are probably wondering at this point, “Well, but can your son also read and write? Can your daughter do math and science?” That’s a fair question. Without going into detail, I will say that they can hold their own against kids in traditional school. Sophia, for example, scored quite well on the so-called ISEE test, a test for admission to independent private middle schools. While Nicholas’s strengths are different from those of Sophia – he ‘s more of a math and science person – we no longer doubt that he will, or rather would, score just fine too.

    For here is the kicker: Sophia insisted on taking the ISEE over our objections. We don’t really want her (or Nicholas) to go to a middle school that requires the ISEE because such a school, in our opinion, has its priorities screwed up. But since Sophia was adamant about taking the test (because most her friends were taking it), we let her go ahead. Yes, that’s how weird our family is – the kids ask to be ALLOWED to take hard standardized multiple-choice test, and the parents object and try to discourage them.

    I am running out of space, but let me end with these words of encouragement for those of you who are considering progressive schooling: Don’t let people tell you that progressive school doesn’t work – and not just at the pre-school level. It works just fine if you understand how it works and allow things to happen. Trust your children!

  6. RobertH says:

    In follow-up of my previous comment: Looking back, I realized that Mike’s original post is really about “Reggio parenting”, rather than Reggio schooling. So, I apologize if I hijacked the thread a bit.

    I guess we’ve been doing the Reggio parenting thing (or something aloing those lines) all along, so my mind immediately went to what else we can do for our kids to protect their love of learning – and what came to mind first is school: We need to protect them from the harmful effects of school, and not just preschool, which except in extreme cases is probably not harmful at all.

    I also feel that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss parenting without also discussing schooling, especially if the basic question is: How do we give out children the best education? You can do a great job as parents, I think, but if your kids have a lousy or mediocre experience in school, this is bound to have some effect on their education, especially on their outlook on education. Conversely, you can send your kids to a wonderful progressive school, but screw them up at home (we see this latter pattern at our school sometimes).

    Another reason for my post was and is that I wanted to share that Reggio-inspired schooling (and by extension, Reggio-inspired parenting) — or something along similar lines – is not just important in preschool. It’s important at any stage in a child’s education. And, as my kids show, this approach can work very well if schooling and parenting style are aligned.


  7. Mike Lanza says:

    @RobertH – I’m *very* intrigued by progressive schooling, but what worries me is that the philosophy of the school sends the message to teachers that they don’t have to teach the less fun stuff. I have to tell you that today, I’m very, very happy that I did boring things in school like lots of math problems, grammar exercises, and diagramming sentences. Looking back, I recall these as constituting my most formative learning. On the other hand, I can recall many projects I did that seemed fun at the time, but didn’t really teach me anything long-term.

    I do believe that progressive project-based schooling paired with the basics (e.g. arithmetic and grammar) can be a fabulous combination, but no one wants to combine these. That’s why I send my kids to a traditional public school and practice reggio parenting at home. I really do believe that the kids need to get drilled on basics somewhere.

    However, I do agree that being trained to take tests and getting lots of busy-work homework is largely a waste of time. When I speak of traditional education, I’m talking about being trained in traditional building blocks that aren’t fun but are very useful for developing higher-order skills.

  8. Bonnie Hester,MA says:

    I only want to quibble with the term Reggio Parenting. What this approach describes would more accurately be called Responsive Parenting. It is not exclusive to Reggio. There are things that are unique to Reggio, but expanding and extending a child’s interest is not.
    A high quality early childhood program by definition is responsive to children in this way as well as others.
    Read Lillian Katz, Elizabeth Jones, and Vivian Paley to name a few who have shown us in the early childhood field for years how to be child centered and create curriculum respond to young children.

  9. Heidi_Ahrens_FB says:

    Great article. I live near a Reggio inspired pre school and have learned a lot from the teachers. We selected to homeschool our kids but we are struggling between following a curriculum and unschooling. Your article motivated me to keep on working at what we are doing .

    And it is true not all kids need the same thing and also not all ‘approaches’ will lead to the same kind of kid. In a sense the parents desire or belief in what is sufficient education in completely subjective.

  10. refincher says:

    I liked what you said, Mike, in the previous comment about the boring stuff being needful. As a homeschooler, I used to struggle between “unschooling” and structured approaches, until I realized that “natural” “interest-driven” learning is going to happen ANYWAY (that’s why it’s “natural”!) and all I have to do is get out of the way and provide resources. But the structured skills don’t happen naturally — it is my job as a parent to impart those, and they do not hinder but complement “natural” learning because they are the tools we use to aquire and incorporate further knowledge. Consequently, one of the advantages I find in homeschooling is that we have TIME for all of it — reading, writing, math, science, history, music, and even chores and meals don’t take eight hours a day; we are done long before the public school kids go home and have to start on homework, so there is lots of free time for baking, writing stories, drawing, reading, shooting hoops, riding bikes, and just playing.