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Italian town's child care sparks teacher.

Byline: Chalk Talk by Lisa Kline For The Register-Guard

IMAGINE THIS: A town in which the work of its very young citizens - the 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds - is given the same serious attention as that of grown-up scientists. The care of children takes place in beautiful, light-filled houses pleasing to the artistic eye. Candles are lit at lunch tables and flowers are set where the children are working.

Expensive books are offered to children as young as 3 for inspiration, and they are presented with real, sophisticated materials and media instead of pretend ones. The children are taught to create sculptures of clay, for example, instead of playing around with play-dough. They are taught how to use serious tools with respect and expertise.

Teachers with fine arts backgrounds, as well as special education experts, are part of the permanent staff, so all children can learn to express themselves with satisfactory results. The curriculum is not child-centered or teacher-directed, but rather child-originated and teacher-framed.

The inclusion of children with disabilities or challenging behaviors is prioritized, because their presence is a natural opportunity for other children to gain a different perspective on life. Likewise, children with special needs are immersed in the school environment because they will learn best when surrounded by people with different skill levels.

Does such a town really exist?

Yes, it does. It is a town in northern Italy called Reggio Emilia. Amazing work is being done there by children who are considered capable of constructing their own knowledge and who are provided with opportunities and materials needed to test their own theories. A child who states that, "It rains because butterflies pee a lot," would not be given a book or lecture on why it "really" rains; instead, teachers would create the right environment for the child to test his or her theory further, thus promoting in-depth study while respecting a child's natural developmental thinking.

At one of Reggio Emilia's early childhood centers, children were interested in birds that frequented their playground. They became enthusiastic about making the birds feel more welcome and proceeded to draw up plans and finally construct a beautiful amusement park for birds that has become famous.

How did the citizens of Reggio Emilia make it happen?

It started, as it so often does, with plain folk. The town is known historically for its community-mindedness. The people have rallied around many causes and demanded from policy-makers that their wishes be heard and acted upon. This applied to their needs for high-quality child care, as well. Parents know a child's most formative years precede the school years, and today 10 percent of the town's budget is allocated for the education of preschool children.

The "Reggio Approach" has traveled to this country, as well. I have had the good fortune to have been involved with various Reggio-inspired schools, mostly as a parent, but I also completed training as a teacher on its practices. My formal background is in special education, and in January I moved to Eugene to begin a doctoral program at the University of Oregon. I was excited to study here because of Eugene's progressive reputation. I expected to find an abundance of high-quality day cares for my 2-year-old son, and I looked forward to becoming immersed in a culture that had risen above the mainstream's manner of raising children.

Instead I found myself in a town that reflects a typical aspect of American culture: day cares that are preoccupied with safety, security and order. Most child care settings rarely tolerate spontaneous action. If in doubt, restrict. Yet to me, childhood depends on a precious formula of freedom and a lot of mess. Children need to be in unpatterned, unmanaged spaces, so their eyes can impose their own patterns. It may be in those moments of "chaos" and "trouble" when magic happens.

I did find exceptional day cares here in Eugene - more than one would find in an average U.S. city. I found people who genuinely care about children and are doing a great job of educating them in developmentally appropriate ways, with love and fun. I found two settings familiar with Reggio that have incorporated some of the elements.

Unfortunately, those places and others with similar approaches had long waiting lists. It was impossible for me to get my son enrolled for years to come. Other places charged too much. And I was unwilling to leave my son for up to 40 hours a week in a basement with too many plastic toys, sandwiched between gleaming vinyl floors and fluorescent lights.

I realized that I and my degree were in trouble. I realized I was searching for Reggio Emilia, and that I would not find it. As progressive as Eugene may be, it is still a part of the United States, which pays more for people to watch parked cars than to educate young children.

So I am doing the only thing I felt I could do: I have deferred the start of my studies for the time being and am starting a day care myself.

I am doing so with the hopeful thought that I will find other parents who are as interested as I am in making Eugene a town that will provide places where our young can follow their unique paths of learning with joy and bliss.

Lisa Kline is an early childhood special education teacher and mother of a 2 1/2 -year-old son. Her phone number is 687-1968.

CAPTION(S):

Lisa Kline is an early childhood special education teacher and mother of a 2 1/2 -year son. She can be reached at 687-1968. I realized that I and my degree were in trouble. I realized I was searching for Reggio Emilia, and that I would not find it. CHALK TALK / Lisa Kline
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Title Annotation:Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 11, 2002
Words:968
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