Reggio EmiliaTigerlily Preschool

Imagine new possibilities

We always jump at the chance to publish Marie Catrett’s lovely Reggio Emilia–style documentation of her young students’ learning. Here’s the latest, a photo and video essay on the many uses the children have found for their classroom’s light table. Marie directs Tigerlily Preschool in South Austin.

Agency is the idea that when we act, and act strategically, we effect change upon our environment. Babies are agentive, reaching out into the world, building knowledge, ability, and strength from their own active experience without a negative internal voice suggesting otherwise. “I can’t” comes later when people tell children they are too small, what they want to do is too dangerous, or there’s not enough time to allow for all that pokey trying. But children need thoughtful adults to hold the space for them to explore with the trust and awareness of their own inner judgment. Do what feels right for you in your own body, I tell a child who’s thinking about whether to make the swing go higher. Hold tight with both hands (my rule!), but do what feels right to you.

In my teaching I observe children to understand them better and strive to be a supportive presence that honors the children’s agency.

When things get stuck, I might state what I see: Hmmm, I can’t let you push him, but tell me about what’s not working. This play isn’t working yet, but I know we can figure this out. Then I ask questions. What do you think? How else could you ______? Can you think of another way to _____? How could we find out? And my favorite question for a child who has just made something interesting happen is how did you do that? The response will be wonderfully agentive: Well, first I did this, and then I did that, and then . . . . Wow!

We want children to have a strong sense of agency and from that imagine new possibilities.

The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to know more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are the ideas I have that are so interesting? I must be somebody with good ideas.’
—Vivian Paley

When thoughtfully providing children with a new experience to support their continued work, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to provide an introduction that expands rather than limits possibilities. Provide a child with quality materials and give her time to make her own discoveries—the delight of “Look what I just did!” I’ve thought about this idea quite a bit this semester as my children have gotten to know the new light table in our classroom.  

A piece of Reggio equipment that we see in each of their classrooms excited the imagination of North Americans. But the light table, after its purchase, is often misunderstood and underutilized. Think of the light table as a tool that will work independently to teach the children about translucency and opacity. They can do anything on the light table that they might do on any other table. Leave it to the children to figure out what the table is for! It’s safe for them to use either wet or dry media on the table—collage, paint, markers or to build with Legos—or anything. You can even eat there. Note the many uses the children invent. Left to their own exploration, they’ll come to discover what’s light permeable and what isn’t. Our strong Image of the Child and our commitment to children’s agency alert us to back off from providing familiar materials so that children can make their own discoveries.
Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What We’ve Learned from Reggio Emilia about Children and Ourselves by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens and Leslie Gleim

Here are some of the uses the children have discovered for their light table:

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