IT'S EASY to go to Italy and fall in love. Margaret Blood, president of the local nonprofit Strategies for Children, did so last month - with the preschool programs in Reggio Emilia, a small city in northern Italy. The schools she saw there could be models for Massachusetts because their goal is universal: to fill children, at a young age, with an enthusiasm for learning.
The Reggio schools have infant and toddler programs, and preschools for older children. Teachers focus on children's competence, and their ability to be small but vital educational researchers. The schedule is loose enough to follow the children's leads, and the schools are architecturally appealing, meant to inspire learning.
Blood, who took the trip with educators from five other states and who has worked in early education for years, called the schools "amazing." And the approach has had fans around the world for some time. In 1991, Newsweek declared the Reggio schools among the world's best preschools. Locally, the approach is studied at Lesley University, Harvard, and Wheelock College.
What could Massachusetts leaders learn from this as they build a universal preschool system? One obvious lesson: Massachusetts and Reggio Emilia have vastly different cultures, so no program could be imported whole. Still, key principles can be applied to give more of this state's preschoolers a world-class education.
Blood visited Reggio's glass-walled Diana School, which Newsweek described as "more like a cheerful greenhouse than a public kindergarten." Inside are high ceilings, lots of light, and an explosion of materials - freshly mixed paints, magic makers, pencils, clay, wire, light tables, and natural items from dried flowers to real vegetables in a play store.
The mere abundance of supplies isn't the point. Rather, the schools' theme is to explore one idea in different media. For example, to draw a flower, then paint it, or make a clay flower, then look at and discuss real flowers, and finally go back to an early drawing and ask children what else they've learned since they drew the first picture. What goes up on the walls are not alphabet banners or posters, but children's pictures and projects.
Another Reggio theme is letting children decide what to study, whether trees, food, or the moon. Teachers shape the topic so it meets curricular goals. At the Diana School, children designed and made a new curtain for the stage of a local theater. In her book, "Bringing Reggio Emilia Home," American educator Louise Boyd Cadwell notes that these projects should be like "long stories," quoting Loris Malaguzzi, who founded the Reggio approach.
The children's work is documented. Teachers write down or tape-record children's comments. Children's work and projects are photographed or videotaped, for a record of what's being learned. Teachers continuously use this material and share it with one another to evaluate their instructional methods and figure out next logical teaching steps. The effort is to be as transparent as possible, to make the process of learning visible to children, teachers, and also parents - whom Reggio trains to answer, in age-appropriate ways, some of the tough questions that children ask about the existence of God or where babies come from.
In Massachusetts, so-called Reggio inspired programs include one at the Advent School in Boston and at the Children's Garden, a program for 33 children that's housed at the Cambridge School of Weston, a private high school.
Could Reggio work in the state's many day-care centers and for providers who run child-care businesses out of their home? Absolutely, says Susan MacDonald, the director of the Children's Garden and the coordinator of the state chapter of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. MacDonald runs training programs for teachers and providers, and she says that while it's stirring to see the program in Italy, it's also important for American educators to see it at work in the United States.
What Massachusetts needs to experiment with Reggio and other approaches is a better infrastructure for early education teachers and providers. That means higher salaries and better professional development opportunities, among other things.
Massachusetts probably won't have Reggio Emilia's tablecloths at lunch or its relaxed sense of time. But the state should embrace the universal goal of helping preschoolers become passionate learners.