The Studio Approach to Early Childhood Education

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. and Rosalba Bortolotti, RECE.

It was twenty-five years ago when our story began. We were brought together by a mutual interest in early childhood education and the Reggio Emilia Approach. When we met, Rosalba was working at a child care centre and I had just begun to teach early childhood education at the local community college. My background was also child care. We connected and a relationship ensued. As we journey forward on our learning paths, we continue to think contextually about learning environments. In our province, even though we are experiencing a third wave of lockdowns and stay at home orders, child care remains open. What a challenging situation this must be, and our hearts go out to all the early childhood educators coping with this impactful pandemic. We offer this post as well as future blog posts, focused on a studio approach as a way to inspire the spaces that are shared with children. What impact can a studio approach to early childhood education have on the environment, the child, the educator and the family? How can it help us all navigate our paths forward? We share the following images taken at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre in 2018 to inspire your reflections.

The studio approach is influenced by the ‘ateliers’ in the infant-toddler and preschools of Reggio Emilia in Italy. According to Vea Vecchi (2010), the term ‘atelier’:

…harkens back romantically to the studios of Bohemian artists, and in pedagogical thinking in Reggio it has been revisited and reinterpreted to become synonymous with places where project work – is associated with things taking shape through actions; places where brains, hands, sensibilities, rationality, emotion and imagination work together in close cooperation. (p. 2)

The concept of an atelier is very complex. Learning about these spaces in Reggio Emilia and recognizing them as opportunities for techniques and expression (Vecchi, 2010) offers an excellent starting off point for those considering how these spaces can evolve contextually outside of Italy. In 2018, when we had the privilege to attend another study tour, context was foremost in our minds and hearts. We were thinking deeply about what we could learn from the opportunity to engage with the ateliers of the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre. While the pandemic makes it impossible to return to Italy, we appreciate that even at a distance, there is access to the Malaguzzi Centre Ateliers, to find suggestions, stimulus, and encouragement along with ideas and prompts, and starting points for working with children of different ages. We offer this video to you for a glimpse into the Malaguzzi Centre. We invite you to consider your context as a “place of places”. Notice the ateliers featured in the video – the digital landscape atelier, the atelier of food, of body and the ray of light atelier. 

When you notice, you listen. As educators what do we listen for? Do we listen to truly hear the voices of children? How do we demonstrate that we value the voices of children? How do we view voice? Voice can be seen as a metaphor of development extending well beyond the expression of a point of view. “Voice is a powerful psychological instrument and channel, connecting inner and outer worlds” (Gilligan, 1993, p. xvi). To have a voice is ]relational; it depends on listening and being heard. Voice also reflects the empowerment of those being heard. Throughout this blog, we share photos from Rosalba’s time at the Acorn School. This was a time of listening and considering how to apply a studio approach to the environment. We also include photos from Rosalba’s current studio space which is used for professional learning to inspire others and give back.

Listening leads to empowerment. Empowerment is sparked by empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of others, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Vecchi (2010) speaks of empathy, as a relationship that people have with their environment, a kind of thread that connects together. Some may think of studio spaces as places for art and where techniques are taught, and materials are provided. Vecchi (2010) suggests going “beyond materials and techniques to stop and look at processes of empathy and intense relations” (p. 12). We know from our province’s pedagogy for the early years, How Does Learning Happen? (2014) that responsive relationships are key but when we go beyond, we see that relationships include so much more than what is between the adult and the child.

By engaging with a studio approach, we can think about living in spaces together. We can think about materials for children. We can think about building relationships with materials. How do space and materials speak to us and are we listening? When we think about studio spaces as inspired by ateliers, we can think about ourselves as studio teachers. You do not need to hire an expert. Listen to your own voice – you have the capacity and competence to listen and hear in one hundred languages and hundred, hundred more. Studio spaces speak to children and educators from the aesthetic dimension. As Vecchi (2010) reminds us, there is “a risk of a superficial aesthetic attitude” (p. 13). When we were in Reggio Emilia in 2018, we were inspired by the relationship between epistemology and aesthetics. Epistemology is the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. Simply put, it is studying how learning happens. Does learning happen when we think deeply about the connection with aesthetics? Ateliers or studio spaces are about voice, languages, images, relationships, learning and aesthetics. An atelier can be defined as a ―workshop, or studio, furnished with a variety of resource materials, used by the children and adults in a school (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998, p. 467). According to Ganus (2010) the term studio is commonly used by educators implementing these ideas in contexts other than in Reggio Emilia.

Pelo (2017) writes about inquiry-based studio practices in early childhood settings in The Language of Art. While the book focuses on art, it calls upon us to open our hearts, to take children’s points of view, to examine the environment, to collaborate with others and to reflect and take action. Any space in the environment can become a studio if it is seen as a place of research that cultivates the hundred languages of children.

In the studio children learn that there are many ways to express their thinking, questions, feelings and ideas by having access to wealth of materials, the time to explore the materials, and the support to develop skills and techniques. As a result, children learn to use a material as a language to convey their thoughts, ideas, questions and feelings. As children learn to use materials as languages, they create their own toolbox or repertoire of communication strategies that they carry with them. (Ganus, 2010, p. 219)

We welcome you, the reader of this blog, to offer your reflections and experiences with a studio approach to early childhood education. We invite you to consider your spaces from a studio lens. We are excited about writing more posts and we want to hear your voices! In the meantime, we offer these questions to guide your reflections about the possibilities of studio spaces:

  • How can you define listening as a metaphor?
  • How can you be attentive to materials in your studio space?
  • What questions come to mind that can lead your research and the children’s investigations?
  • What is the relationship between the aesthetics of your space and children’s learning?
  • How does the space reflect your image of the child, your image of yourself, the image of colleagues and the image of families?

We now share with you, images from Rosalba’s current studio space. What elements do you notice and how do you think this space speaks to children and adults? As a space for virtual presenting and interaction how does this space speak to you? Can you imagine children in this space?  

In conclusion, when we consider the possibilities of studio spaces, the words of Loris Malaguzzi can inspire, provoke, stimulate and invite:

The atelier has always repaid us. It has, as desired, proved to be subversive – generating complexity and new tools for thought. It has allowed rich combinations and creative possibilities among the different languages of children. (quoted in Edwards, Gandini and  Forman, 1998, p. 74)

2 thoughts on “The Studio Approach to Early Childhood Education

  1. I absolutely love the idea of “studio!” It appears on my journey from childhood to adult (now designer) every place I landed I imagined creating a little nest for myself, perhaps even a haven!! And doing it with sometimes virtually nothing! I never experienced a real live studio until adulthood really. In my today world, as much as my endeavors professionally are to create beautiful spaces, my living space is filled with the possibilities of inspiration via samples from every source, blank art paper, & certainly writing journals that become art journals because art is really the language of what we see & experience and words provoke the doodling to bring it to life, and I will echo the life of Beatrix Potter here as an example of that!
    In my studio life and I was in charge of a major in-house resource library, the organization was key & categorizing key for ease of access. And for children, I will double the emphasis on that as too much stuff in their frame and too many choices may lead to confusion or not understanding what to do or where to go with it all! In some of the photos presented here, I saw a curating of elements!! That is wonderful to be able to build on an idea that is in development and gives a foundation for asking questions about these elements and where they are sourced? The organization is so helpful.
    If I could develop a studio for children it would want to provoke curiosity & discovery, it would just be shelves of curated tools to implement ideas and walls to display even graffiti and free form may be inspired by words!! A child, like an adult, has a knowing already, and the gift is allowing that expression to find a voice! The results? A cacophony of exciting expression.

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    • Thank you for your reply! When I share the studio space I really take moments of not only observing but carefully listening to everything in the surroundings, including the people/children who will also use the space. And as you mentioned, in the studio life, I too think of the spaces I live in and share with others. It becomes a way of life, listening, observing, moving in a sort of way of intentionality and just being aware. Not only for the current time but of ways this space will live with you and others. Organization is different for everyone. Respect for environment, spaces, relations and others (and their work) is very . In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how much variation or how much you have its the time of the listening and for children to find voice. In time, the studio may accumulate more materials than other times, it changes as the needs and interests change, but for the upmost important piece for me is the way we take the time to carefully listen. The studio has gone under different transformations over time as the needs changed or grew. Its incredible to see closely the incredible expressions, creativity, and poetic joy! I wonder what could happen if we carefully listened to the children/adults we work with? What could a studio be then?

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