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New spaces to provoke the wonder of learning

| August 24, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Des Hugo

Since 2008, St Mary’s Junior School in Waverley, Johannesburg, Gauteng, has embarked on a learning journey to embrace and interpret the worldrenowned Reggio Emilia philosophy1 in our work, commencing with the youngest children in the pre-primary school (Little Saints).

According to the founder of the approach, Loris Malaguzzi, schools should be beautiful places for learning. Respect for children and a teacher’s view of the child goes hand in hand with inviting children to learn. This has less to do with the construction of a designer facility and more to do with the creation of an environment that provokes exploration and investigation.

Reggio-inspired schools embrace “The 100 languages of children”, as portrayed in the famous poem by Loris Malaguzzi.2 The hundred languages are constructed as a metaphor for the extraordinary potential of children, their knowledge-building and creative processes, the myriad forms with which life is manifested and knowledge is constructed. Schools, therefore, become places that allow children opportunities to explore their “languages of learning”.

To create this environment, we transformed a building that would reflect this philosophy, its values and the additional essential element of Vygotsky’s co-construction and socioconstructive learning and knowledge.3We embarked on creating a Reggio-inspired space in our pre-primary house at Little Saints.

Natural environment and visibility

For the children to be visually impacted by seeing each other explore and learn, we replaced small windows, walls and solid doors with glass and folding glass doors. This enables the natural environment surrounding the school to be made visible as a backdrop to learning, and offers visibility, flexibility, interaction, exploration, autonomy, curiosity and communication in the learning spaces. The use of natural products and muted shades creates a peaceful canvas on which the teacher can build her inquiry-based learning classroom. The children themselves, and their work displays, bring in the color.


We removed walls to create an indoor piazza, where families and children are welcomed. It becomes a space in which teachers set up provocations for the children to engage with on arrival and during the school day. It is used as a group meeting space and music teaching space. The outdoor piazza has small picnic tables and benches overlooking the garden, where the children enjoy their social time in conversation with one another and their teachers. The trust in the child as being capable can be seen in the use of glass crockery rather than plastic; children have opportunities to set up, serve each other and clear away.


The “ateliers” or laboratories are spaces for deeper creativity. They give value to the expressive potential and creativity of each child: at Little Saints, we created an atelier for art and construction and experimentation, and we reconstructed the kitchen to be visible to the children as an atelier of taste and food. The atelier of light offers exploration using various
electric and electronic sources. It invites children to investigate digital landscapes and manipulate the properties of light and reflection using overhead projectors, slides, colour and loose parts.

The creative atelier offers provocations for children to theorise and explore the languages of materials, transformation and innovation.4 It is here, from an early age, that they manipulate a variety of textures and get to learn, through sculpting, painting, drawing and many other techniques, the properties of materials. They are offered clay, wire, dough, paint and brushes, coal, pens, natural products from the garden and various materials to manipulate, explore and create.

It is in the ateliers that early scientific thinking takes root as children are encouraged to mix materials, make predictions, investigate outcomes and reflect on these with the atelierista, their classmates and teachers. The teachers then use these theories to scaffold the thinking and support the learning as the curriculum emerges. Children are expected to reflect together and recreate any piece of work until they are satisfied. They are guided in critiquing and receiving feedback, to learn more and recreate. The observation and documentation of this learning process are displayed on wall hangings, or are digitally shared by the teacher on blogs and social media closed sites with parents and colleagues. These visual displays of the learning give it value and make it visible, explicit and accessible.


Each teacher creates a space for provoking thinking and learning. The use of light tables, mirror triangles and displays of natural and synthetic materials offers the beauty that invites a child to investigate, analyse and discuss. Building blocks and fantasy areas are social spaces within the room, providing opportunities for developing and cementing relationships. The quiet cosy area lends itself to reflection and resting after busy activities and deep thinking. Teaching requires an atmosphere of reciprocal respect and support; this is created by the teacher.

Play areas

The natural playscape was recently reconstructed from the trunks of trees tied together with thick rope, creating imaginative play areas with different heights and balancing opportunities, alongside the usual slides, ropes, horizontal bars and swings for physical development.

A mud kitchen designed by the teachers has become a busy place for the boys and girls as they mix materials, “cook”, prepare potions and discover the properties of water using natural elements found in the garden. The fairy garden is an escapist’s dream place: the mix of plants, rocks, wood, stepping stones, gnomes and fairies enthral the children as they play in their imaginary world. The sandpit remains a popular area to dig and construct together or independently. The sound garden offers time for musical listening and music making, using natural items, the floating xylophone and the bamboo chimes.

Look to the future

In Creative Schools,5 Ken Robinson highlights the importance of the “personalisation” of education, urging teachers to “[provide] students with proper opportunities to explore their range of abilities and sensibilities in school”. Robinson and other global thought leaders in education consider this as one of the four main purposes of education for the future. Offering children a variety of opportunities with provocations to play, explore, create, invent and innovate, does this.

At Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts in the US, the work of Ron Ritchart6 provides schools with research-based solutions to consider when designing future learning for classrooms. These classrooms must be places of “intellectual stimulation where learning is viewed not in test scores but in the development of individuals who can think, plan, create, question and engage independently and collaboratively”.7

Inspired Reggio practices foreground relationships as essential to underpin the work we do with children: relationships with spaces, with materials, with children, with parents, with our wider communities and with one another. Although the learning environment can be important for growing relationships, the interpretation of enquiry-based teaching and learning and how children learn best is dependent on the teacher and her relationship with the child. This can be created in any setting, and then, as Loris Malaguzzi says: “Any school can be a place of beauty.”8


1. See, for example:
2. See, for example:
3. See, for example:
4. Rinaldi, C. (2005) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researchingand Learning. New York: Routledge.
5. Robinson, K. (2015) Creative Schools. New York: Penguin Books.
6. See:
7. Ibid.
8. See, for example:

Category: Spring 2016

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