By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. It has been a week since I returned from Stockholm, Sweden and my visit with Suzanne Axelsson from Interaction Imagination and a year since Suzanne came to Canada and inspired so many as indicated in this blog post by Tracy Pickard. Suzanne and I became friends through social media when we found so many commonalities in our shared beliefs and values about Reggio inspired practice. I am so grateful that I responded to the urging of a group of students in 2012 to enter the world of social media and cross the great divide between the 20th and the 21st century that allowed me to see Reggio practice with fresh eyes and to meet Suzanne with my own eyes. These eyes have had the opportunity to jump over the wall. When the Hundred Languages of Children Exhibit was in its first incarnation, it was called “When the Eye Jumps Over the Wall”. According to Malaguzzi, inside the title there was a message “that the eye, when it looks beyond the wall of habit, of custom, of the normal, of the non-surprise, of assumed security”, will find the possible. When the wall of old habits and customs is broken down the quest for the possible can begin.
My eye jumped over the wall many times in Sweden! I have been working in early childhood education for three decades, and in a number of capacities that have afforded me the opportunity to spend time in many early childhood settings. I have been in environments that have inspired but often I have found myself in uninspired spaces where it seemed evident that the wall of habit continues year to year. In Sweden I was able to see with fresh eyes. Sergio Spaggiara speaks to this in the article The Path Toward Knowledge.
Many of you have seen the exhibition, “The Hundred Languages of Children.” The original title of that exhibition was “If the Eye Jumps Over the Wall.” It meant that the children’s eyes and the adults’ eyes must see beyond the wall. This is our aspiration . . .to be able to jump over walls. Children want to go over the wall . . to go over the wall of banality, to go over the wall of established educational procedures. That is why we chose this title for our first exhibition. It is important to acquire the skill of going over walls, going beyond boundaries, seeing limits and passing through them because, in everyone’s life, there are times when you will find barriers that seem impassable, when there are obstacles you feel you cannot overcome. To be able to go over the wall means you can topple cultural paradigms that seem fixed. It means you can turn things on their head. It means you can start with fresh eyes.
I love the metaphor of the eye jumping over the wall. In Sweden, I was introduced to another thought-provoking metaphor; “pedagogical somersaults” and it too gives me so much pause for thought.
Suzanne showed me this book that she had on her shelf in her house. Although the book is written in Swedish when I returned home I was able to find a description of the book translated into English. Karin Wallin is one of the pioneers of Reggio inspired practice in Sweden. The message of her book is that children are competent, and have more curiosity, talent, strength, imagination, sense and intelligence than adults imagine. It is the adults’ locked methods, and lack of imagination and curiosity that blocks the potential of the child. Making an educational somersault in our thoughts means to see from a different perspective than we have done so far. In the process of shifting views and perspective our brain does somersaults. Discussing this metaphor lead to long and deep dialogue with Suzanne and I continue to reflect on my experience of seeing Reggio inspired practice from fresh eyes and to realize that this continued reflection causes such cognitive dissonance that somersaults are inevitable. I have come to realize what it means for your brain to be on Reggio! When I visualize myself doing somersaults, I know that I will require some recovery time, which I liken this to a time for processing and reflection. It seems to me that children are able to go from one somersault to another joyfully and gleefully but for adults that recovery time is essential and for children taking pause for thought might be a good thing too! I am grateful for the time I had with Suzanne to process the experience of seeing Reggio inspired practice from the Swedish lens. Suzanne is an inspiring preschool educator and so are the children at her centre, Filosofiska. I am still processing the experience and thinking deeply about what struck me as different. To begin with, what fascinates me is the work that Suzanne does to reflect the mission of her centre which is to support children’s engagement in philosophical dialogue.
On the first day that I spent with Suzanne at Filosofiska I had the honour to witness a philosophical dialogue, which was a new experience for me. There were nine children grouped in a circle formation, seated on chairs. Including me there were four adults present. The question that they were considering was “If you were a forest animal, what kind of animal would you be?” Before the children began the discussion they decided based on Suzanne’s prompting that they would answer in order rather than randomly. In the middle on the floor was a bottle of bubbles. Three children choose to be a lynx; one a wolf, three decided that they would be butterflies and one liked the idea of a bear. While it was hard for me given the conversation was in Swedish, my understanding from Suzanne was that there was some challenge posed to the children based on their reasoning as one child stated that he had chosen the animal because it could walk on ice and another child countered to say that other animals could walk on ice. The intent of these discussions is for children to be able to discuss, challenge, question, argue and ultimately to listen to the perspectives of others. The thinking about forest animals would continue in the days and weeks to come and eventually, individual choice would become a collective choice with one animal chosen for further study and inquiry. The bubbles were there as indication of the successful completion of the philosophical dialogue with the children playing the bubble game to release the energy resulting from this deep thinking and work of listening.
Suzanne has been working with this same group of children for more than two years as the centre follows the practice of what I have known as looping with the teacher moving with the children to the next level. When the bubble game was over I had the opportunity to stay with these children for most of the rest of the day and two days that followed. I saw children who were respected as citizens of a community of learners that included teachers and parents. I saw adults who viewed the children’s image as competent, capable and rich in potential so much so that they believed that even young children could engage in philosophical thinking. This struck me as different from what I had been seeing in the course of my practice as an early childhood educator. In the early days of my practice I often would set out large pieces of paper on the floor so that children could create murals. Nothing in my experience could have prepared me for what I would see at Filosofiska for this practice took on a whole new meaning in the creation of “Together Paintings”.
On the first day that I was with the children I was struck by the beauty of the mural displayed on the wall and I had mistakenly assumed this was a finished product. When on the following day, four children made their way over to the mural and began to paint over their previous work, I was struck with the realization that the intention of this experience was not necessarily to encourage sharing but to provoke conversation about colour and space. Suzanne had anticipated that what might ensue would be conflict but the process of resolving differences supported the view of children as competent and capable. Indeed a conflict ensued as the black paint of one child affected the whiteness of the paint of another. The result was a dialogue about space, colour, listening, and rights. This I learned was considered a successful outcome of the Together Painting. Suzanne writes often in her blog about Together Painting and I particularly like her post about the importance of the spoken language. As my brain is making pedagogical somersaults writing this post, I realize that I have some need for recovery and further reflection. In my too short time with Suzanne in Sweden, I spent mornings in preschool followed by lunch with the children and afternoons exploring community playgrounds. There is still so much to absorb and think about. The opportunity to get to know nine amazing preschoolers who in the end called me Diane and not just “the woman who speaks English” was incredible as they were vibrant, talkative, confident children whose play was full of risk, adventure, imagination and dialogue. Travelling together with Suzanne on a train to another Reggio inspired preschool just outside Stockholm and visiting the adjacent primary school also inspired by projects and inquiry lead to more acrobatic movements of my brain. I will cherish this trip for a lifetime. Suzanne wrote about our visit to Uppsala in this blog post.
So what struck me as different when I was in Uppsala? I was amazed at the response I got when I asked the question, “where do the children sleep” and the door opened to an outdoor area. I was told that this is where the children sleep everyday. Another thing that struck me as different was that the teachers ate with the children and the food was delicious. At Suzanne’s centre everything is sugar free and this lead to a dialogue with Suzanne about the ritual of birthday celebrations. Instead of sweet laden treats brought in by the parents or supplied by the centre, a flag was hung in the school each morning that a birthday would be celebrated. The child whose birthday it was would take a special trip to the grocery store which was across the square from the location of the preschool to choose three different types of fruits which were then arranged on a three tier platter to be shared with their group. In Uppsala, I was told by one of the teachers showing Suzanne and I around that food is not used to celebrate birthdays but the practice is that the child gets gifted by a special activity on their special day. At Eddukens in Uppsala the food was not sugar free but rather low in sugar. I am thankful for that because I so enjoyed the slightly sweetened lingonberry sauce that I had with the “cabbage pudding” served that day. When I talked to Suzanne about the menu at Filosofiska I was amazed to learn that the fixed menu of one day fish, one day meat and three days vegetarian was based on their belief in sustainable practices. I am sorry I couldn’t have been with the children this past week to have the experience of tasting reindeer stew!
I have so many photos from the day in Uppsala and so many thoughts on what was different for me. I was amazed with the brilliance of the Swedish aesthetic and design for function. From the machines to dry wet mittens, to the lift for changing diapers to what I have learned is known as “the cube” which I understand is a staple in many Swedish preschools.
For more on the mind blowing concept of the cubes see this blog post written by Linda Linder and check out what happened when I searched Suzanne’s Facebook Page Interaction Imagination with the keyword “cube”. I am so grateful for this opportunity to take educational somersaults and to see Reggio inspired practice from a different perspective with fresh eyes. I have written about my journey often and as I forge the path ahead I will look for more opportunities to revisit the experience of my trip over and over as documented in the photos taken but also for more chances to expand my levels of understanding by taking more somersaults that will challenge my current thinking. I welcome you to join Suzanne and I on June 13th at 4:00 pm EST when we co-moderate a #ReggioPLC Twitter chat on educational somersaults. I wonder if you too welcome these acrobatic movements but appreciate the pause in between to reflect and recover?