Materials as Languages in Relationship to Children’s Interests

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

Our last post introduced our perspectives on the Studio Approach to Early Learning influenced by the ‘ateliers’ in the infant-toddler and preschools of Reggio Emilia. In North America the term studio refers to what is known as the atelier in Italy. “It is at once an idea and a place”. It is an opportunity to “look at things as if they could be otherwise” (Gandini, Hill, Cadwell & Schwall, 2005, p. 1). As long-time friends, colleagues, and neighbours we are continually considering context as we share a frame of reference for our work. It is from this position, that we consider how this approach to early learning can help and support others in their work with children. We are guided by one of the central tenets of the Reggio Emilia Approach as described In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia.

Every child is a creative child, full of potential, with the desire and the right to make meaning out of life within a context of rich relationships, in many ways, and using many languages (Gandini, Hill, Cadwell & Schwall, 2005, p. 1).

As we suggested in the previous post, by engaging with a studio approach, we can think about living in spaces together. In this post, we will delve deeper into the concept of space and materials. How do space and materials speak to us and are we listening? One of the questions we posed, is how we define listening as a metaphor? A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two different ideas. What if we used the idea of languages and applied that to space and materials? “The hundred languages are a metaphor for the extraordinary potentials of children, their knowledge-building and creative processes, the myriad forms with which life is manifested and knowledge is constructed” (Rinaldi, 2013, p. 20). Helpful to developing the languages metaphor for us has been to consider the words of Giovanni Piazza, a long standing atelierista from Reggio Emilia which were spoken during an interview with Lella Gandini.

A first encounter for children with materials to explore and act on them is a necessary step in the children’s process of knowing. Through such encounters and explorations, children build an awareness of what can happen with materials, and adults build the ability to observe and support the significance of each particular experience (Gandini, Hill, Cadwell & Schwall, 2005, p. 13).

It is through the interactions between a child and a material that the building blocks of languages are developed. This is the alphabet or grammar of the material. Different alphabets will develop from different materials. “As children use their minds and hands to act on materials using gestures and tools and begin to acquire skills, experience, strategies and rules, structures are developed within the child that can be considered a sort of alphabet or grammar”. Given that this alphabet or grammar “has to be discovered by children in partnership with adults” (Gandini, Hill, Cadwell & Schwall, 2005, p. 13) we want to support others in their development. This will happen when we look at everyday spaces as places of possibilities to communicate relationships developed through interaction with materials. Materials should be everywhere in learning environments, indoors and outdoors. These materials should be chosen with intentionality. Epstein (2007) describes intentionality as when teachers act with specific outcomes or goals in mind for children’s learning and development. When choosing materials for children, we invite you to think about the languages that the materials speak. Some materials are more expressive than others. Choose with intention. Consider clay as a material that you choose with intention. When children engage with clay, they learn the languages of form, texture, shape, and colour. When observing and documenting children’s engagement with clay, their interests are revealed by listening to the languages spoken.  

This is a process that takes time. For languages to be heard, time and space is needed. The more languages we have to express ourselves the more ways we can connect to the world. There is beauty and pleasure in languages such as sculpting, wire, dance, and movement. Through reflective documentation, the meaning of the languages can become known. Then we have the potential of truly being able to identify children’s interests and using these interests as a starting part for planning and programming. Interests are so interesting! In the past, early childhood educators might describe their process of planning and programming as “following themes”. Now we hear, educators say, “I follow the children’s interests” to describe the process. How are these interests determined? If they are not chosen from careful listening to children and their interactions with materials, they run the risk as being as potentially superficial as a theme. As described in the article, Celebrating Children Day by Day in Reggio Emilia – A Conversation with Amelia Gambetti, the environment invites children to take action on materials and explore.

What we do every day celebrates children and the work of teachers. With great care, we create a friendly, responsive environment for children — an environment that invites children to action and exploration. We are ready to continually adjust that environment according to the interests of children and our own observations and reflections.

We wonder if you are reading this post, and thinking, “but where do I start”? We recommend that you start by considering the organization of space, materials, and time in relationship to the identity of your centre, program, or school. Central to identity are the people – children, families, and educators. Taking time to listen, observe, question, document, and collaborate while being joyful together will help in the cultivation of your common identity. Clay is often used as a way as a medium for self-portraits, as a way to express identity. Identity is key and from the interview with Amelia Gambetti, Lella Gandini writes that:

In the schools for young children of Reggio Emilia, Italy, we support each child’s construction of his or her own identity and each child’s potential; this is a way to celebrate children day by day. We celebrate this particular community of children, each moment of discovery, each step of learning, the work of these children — each child.

We have landed squarely on the construct of identity, and we suggest that in addition to celebrating children’s identities, the identities of their families as partners in education is equally important. We also suggest that teachers consider their own identities. We are grappling with some big ideas emanating from our collaboration. Identity is the big all-encompassing idea. Identity is revealed through the languages of materials and children’s relationships to the materials. As we read or listen to these languages, it gives clues of what can be offered back to the children and then a culture is created. The studio becomes a place of exploration and experimentation with materials.

As we continue to dialogue about the studio approach, the languages of materials and children’s interests, we are identifying ideas that still need unpacking. These ideas need input from you too! We want to hear from you and whether these ideas resonate with your practice. We want to begin with you, your individuality, and your context. We want you to begin with “I”. What do you think of these other “I” words as big ideas?

Now that you have reflected on the big “I” ideas, Rosalba will take you through the process of setting up materials using the studio approach as an invitation to children. She will help you hear the languages spoken. Begin with thinking about studios as …

  • Places of knowledge building, creativity, imagination, and places of thinking.
  • Places that communicate with the other parts of the classroom, centre, school.
  • Places interconnected with the school and a reflection of the community.

Now dig deeper and think about your space as a place of connectedness and relationship. Think about the relationships between children, children and adults, children and materials, children to nature while you are considering your space. The studio is a place of experimentation, imagination, expression, you begin to understand how and why the space is arranged in certain ways. Why materials are arranged in particular places. The intentionality of choosing materials becomes more and more meaningful as you support the interests of the children. The languages of materials we speak of is called the 100 languages of children—a metaphor to refer to the different ways children represent, communicate, express they’re thinking in different types of medias and symbolic ways. Here are some invitations to think with to begin the process of design:

  • Give children the ability to make choices means to respect them as individuals, listen to their opinions, ideas, strategies, concerns.
  • Offer listening, questions, dialogue, reciprocal responses to what they are offering and/or what you can share back.
  • Set a framework where children can learn from each other, express ideas/suggestions, negotiate with peers/adults.

When you think deeply about the studio approach, you begin to choose and arrange materials with intentionality, thinking with the children’s interests in place. As the adult, organize these ideas from children to offer back to them materials you think can support their interests and challenge further and deeper learning. Slow down. Listen. Observe. Offer a question. Bring their ideas to a place for you to think with – perhaps with a colleague? Find the time to interpret in order to relaunch ideas to children – time is necessary! Each space is unique to those who use it. Ideas can change or take a different turn. Think about this carefully and take your time to find the place for materials. More materials are not necessary. At this point, reflect on what happens. Perhaps, the result is a common understanding of respect of materials and the environment that filters through the classroom because there is a great respect for listening to each other, the environment, nature, spaces, and to each other.

6 thoughts on “Materials as Languages in Relationship to Children’s Interests

  1. Every place for children needs to start with love, care and compassion where children trust that those around them have their best interests at heart. The “I” in this wonderful article is inspiration: Diane and colleagues- you push us to think about teaching, learning and our work with children and I am always excited to read your intentional words with my full attention. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your reflective comments. When you speak of trust, love & passion, I think of how the educator working with the children also needs to feel the trust & love. It continues to spiral….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this article with great interest. I am an RECE in a kindergarten classroom and as our program’s foundation is play-based learning, I am always trying to gain a better understanding of my role (and insertion) into play. Where you say, “Taking time to listen, observe, question, document, and collaborate while being joyful together will help in the cultivation of your common identity”, I think of many a play episode in my experience where a child feels focused, engaged and purposeful. By taking the time to listen and observe, I am able to bring intention to my questions and any collaboration I’m able to facilitate. These moments are inherently delightful and also serve to develop not only learning opportunities but self-esteem for that child.

    What resonated with me was your suggestion that the studio approach allows for a better reflection of a child’s interests, their (and our) identity and language development. A foundation of my practice is relationship-building and I appreciate the link you made regarding the relationship between children, materials, educators, and their environment. We sometimes set provocations up with intentionality related to the kindergarten program (i.e. with a learning outcome in mind) and I agree that can lead to a superficial interpretation of enquiry-based learning. I appreciate the notion that “the intentionality of choosing materials becomes more and more meaningful as you support the interests of the children”. Reflection on this perspective will reframe how I plan and create spaces in my classroom, how I will observe and ask questions in the future and how I will use that information when supporting children’s interests and curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your reply & reflections as well. As I read your piece about children’s interests, I think about the importance of the adult’s role as a listener & what it means to really listen. How do we work towards relationship & sustain them in order to continue in learning together?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think when we truly listen, we are able to be authentic in our responses- honouring the child’s connection-making process and imagination. This adds to the richness of relating with the child – building relationships and trust stems from that in a meaningful way.

        Liked by 1 person

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