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What I’ve learned: Hiromi McCarthy-Dowd, teacher

Bear Park teacher Hiromi McCarthy-Dowd jetted off to Italy earlier this year to gain first-hand experience of the Reggio Emilia philosophies. Here she reflects on the culture of community that their teachers and parents have embraced, and how we can introduce these practices into our own circles here in New Zealand.

Q: How long did you spend in the city of Reggio Emilia?
I was part of the 2016 international study group that travelled to Reggio Emilia, Italy in April. It was a one week conference about the Reggio Emilia approach to education and was hosted in the city of Reggio Emilia itself - where the approach was born. Just being in the city was inspiring in itself. I could see how the philosophy had developed and evolved, it fits so perfectly within the general community and culture of the city. Schools here have strong community integration and children are actively involved outside the centres. I loved the Bruner quote that was shared in the first session: "you don't understand the schools in Reggio Emilia, if you don't understand the city.”

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Q: What inspired you about the city, generally speaking? 
I was envious of the many beautiful piazzas (squares) and the narrow lanes that lead to these central areas of living; the fountains and old wells; the restaurants and cafes whose tables spill out into the streets; the fixed park benches/seats that are positioned to encourage interaction with others; the bookshop which had an atelier for children. All of these elements combine to create a strong culture of community participation and respect for one’s surroundings.

Q: What significant learnings did you take away from the experience?
Overall I felt this huge clarity of understanding, the philosophies just made so much more sense when they were being discussed and used in Reggio Emilia itself. Here they truly live out their teaching principles. As an early childhood teacher at Bear Park, you have a lot of exposure to such concepts. To witness the inspiring teachers, atelieristas and pedagogistas in action, as they explain their thinking and reasoning behind their projects, was incredibly inspiring.

One concept that really resonated with me was around identity formation and how this is developed through our relationships with others. Children develop an understanding of 'self' as well as 'other' - they learn who they are through learning about who others are. Our identity emerges through our relationships with others, therefore valuing these relationships is crucial. Marika Fontana, a teacher in a preschool in Reggio Emilia, posed this question: 'How do children perceive themselves in the world?'

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While discussing this quite broad focus we could see strong links to the concept of identity formation. An interest in self and each other, discovering who I am in relation to the wider world. For instance, what makes me, me and you, you? How do we connect, what is our relationship? After reflecting on my notes from my time in Reggio, I’ve realised that I’m now making clearer and stronger connections to the group context of being at Bear Park.

Another concept that stands out is the image of the child as being a 'rich child' and referring to schools (and centres) as either 'rich' or 'poor.' This word is not used to describe financial status but to indicate whether a school has a rich pedagogy, to establish if they are first and foremost places of education, where children's potential is respected.

In Reggio Emilia, everything is linked back to the image of the child. Peter Moss talked about how even policy development should start with the question 'what is your image of the child?' This shows just how strong the culture of respect is for children in the city of Reggio Emilia. It’s definitely something we could think about here in New Zealand at a policy level. For example, minimum legal teacher to child ratios or the minimum percentage of qualified teachers - what do these low expectations say about our image of the child?

Q: Was there a particular speaker or person who inspired you?
What was truly impressive was the way parents valued the idea of citizenship and participation; their child as part of a wider community fabric. Again, this ties back to the culture of the Reggio city, generally speaking. Here, children are valued as citizens, not ones ‘in progress’. Children are valued for their role in shaping what the future looks like and therefore the city invests in children.

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I attended a session where two parents shared their experiences. Both parents spoke about participation and how this is a democratic right. They shared their reasons for choosing to enrol their children in infant and toddler centres at young ages - to socialise, develop relationships, build an understanding of 'other' and to learn how be part of a group. They liked the idea of their children being part of a community through attending the centre and this is how they viewed the centres - as a community for their children. One mother described how important she believed it was to participate in general community events so that her daughter feels she is part of the community. She believed that through this, her daughter was experiencing active citizenship.

Q: What would Bear Park need to do in order to help these ideas and learnings thrive in a New Zealand context?
The connection of early childhood to citizenship is something that we could work on within New Zealand as a whole. Of course, this would involve changing the mindsets of the wider community along with a number of policies and regulations!

On a smaller scale at Bear Park, we could increase parent involvement and discuss with parents about how they’d like to be more involved. It would be great if parents enrolled their children primarily because they want them to learn about being part of a community, as well as benefiting working parents who need childcare.

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