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Reggio Emilia Pre-School Curriculum Guide

Reggio Emilia Pre-School Curriculum Guide

by September 15, 2016

Updated November 2016

In this Curriculum Guide we look at the Reggio Emilia approach to pre-school education.

In broad outline there are five different approaches adopted in the UAE, although in some schools these are combined on something of a ‘pick n’ mix’ basis:

(1) Reggio Emilia

(2) Montessori – our Curriculum Guide can be found here.

(3) Waldorf-Steiner

(4) Froebel

(5) UK /Traditional


Setting the scene

Typically, nursery schools provide pre-primary education for children between 3 and 4 years (according to the date of a child’s birthday this may be on a scale between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years) of age prior to their entering mainstream compulsory education at FS/KG. Many nursery schools will, however, offer infant/play group care from earlier and seamlessly extend it through each child’s pre-school year(s).

Parents should be aware of National Child Care Standards operating in Dubai which set the framework you must expect from any provision. Details follow below:


This guide looks at the various options open to parents seeking a pre-school education for their child(ren). Not all parents do; many parents seek to keep their children at home until primary school/phases. The argument for pre-school essentially comes down to its offering children three benefits in preparation for school; socialisation with other children and adults; more structured learning; and, independence from parents in thought and emerging self-reliance.

We make no judgment here except to say that there is no evidence that children educated in pre-school, as a rule, go on to excel or benefit over and above children that stay at home. If there is one certainty it is that early learning takes many forms and all of the above benefits, and others, can be nurtured at home.

Any decision will always depend on the child, parental circumstances – and, central in that equation, the quality and type of pre-school on offer, our focus here.

And the truth is, pre-school provision is as complicated a decision for parents as that which must be faced at any of the later phases with many pitfalls, confusions, alternatives – and, unhelpfully, in nearly every case, a lack of data and accreditation to light the way.


The fundamental choice facing parents

The first key feature of Reggio Emilia pre-schools (and one also true also of Montessori, Waldorf-Steiner and Froebel nurseries) is that they are progressive.

Progressive schools fundamentally differ from traditional pre-schools in being child-centred – learning is matched to each child’s individual pace of learning rather than being whole-class based, curriculum-driven, subject-centred and “dictatorial.”

Progressive schools would probably argue that where traditional pre-schools prepare children for (traditional) schools, progressive schools prepare them, in all its complexity, for life.

Of all the progressive options, it is arguable that Reggio Emilia schools are the most radical when compared with traditional pre-schools. This does not mean that they are bad schools – for many parents quite the opposite is true. For these parents, and their child(ren), Reggio Emilia schools provide an extraordinarily rich and nourishing education that educated whilst preserving childhood.

But there are trade-offs, beautifully captured in the following story from one parent (in this case with regards to a Montessori pre-school, but it applies to all the progressive schools to a lesser or greater degree):

“When I sent my daughter to nursery school, I wanted the most nurturing environment I could find for her and chose a wonderful progressive program.

A few years later, when we were interviewing for a selective girls’ school, the admissions director there told me that during my daughter’s interview, she would be expected to draw circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles.

My eyes bugged open in shock, and I said, “But my daughter doesn’t know how to draw those.” She looked at our file and said, rather snootily, “Oh yes, your daughter went to one of those downtown play schools.”

I was offended that she viewed the school we loved so much that way. But she did. Meanwhile, I ran into a neighbour who sent her daughter to a traditional nursery school uptown.

She was applying to the same school for her daughter. When I told her what our girls would have to be able to do to get in, she said, “Erica can do that. They spent a whole month on a shape unit at her nursery school.” Karen Quinn. Testing for Kindergarten.

This is the fundamental issue that we believe goes to the very heart of the choice that should face all prospective parents considering moving away from traditional pre-schooling for their children:

Am I willing to trade off preparing my children effectively for later schooling in the interests of providing them with a completely alien, progressive whole child type of schooling now – if I believe that they would be happier and learn different, but just as important skills, if I do?

It is worth noting that there is not a single progressive all-through school in the UAE to provide continuity of a progressive pre-school education (although Clarion may come close). An example of arguably the most famous progressive school in the UK can be found in the review of Summerhill by our sister site here.


Reggio Amelia Teacher Qualifications and accreditation

How can a parent know if a Reggio Amelia school is really a Reggio Amelia school – and a good one? How can I check whether schools are accredited?

The simple answer is that parents cannot know because the Reggio approach is not a formal model with defined methods (such as Waldorf and Montessori). There are no teacher certification standards and accreditation processes at all.

There are no international teacher-training colleges to learn how to be a Reggio Emilia “teacher.”

In fact, in some way, there is no such thing as a Reggio Amelia school at all outside the town in Italy – there are only schools, each as different as the children they “teach”, that follow its broad approach. And that approach is simply to create a school filled with enough inspirational toys, materials and activities that a child finds something to engage them.

Parents should be aware that any school can describe itself as a Reggio Amelia school. There are no controls on the use of the “brand.”

And, because there is also no curriculum, there is really no way of even beginning to benchmark provision. Ultimately, everything your child learns and discovers will be decided by them.

In Reggio Amelia pre-schools there are not even teachers as such – rather there are guides, friends and collaborators whose role is only to intervene and encourage children on their own journeys.

Because every child has his or her own interests, it is likely that in every class of 30 children, there will be 30 different activities taking place at any one time.

We believe that probably the only certain way of defining whether a Reggio Amelia school is a good school, on its own terms, is for prospective parents to visit shortlisted schools to gauge the interest, happiness and “productivity” of children.

Understanding productivity in this context  amounts to ensuring that children are engaged, that their freedom is limited only so as not to impact on other children and be safe – and that the environment is so inspirational, and filled with enough materials and irresistible “adventures”, that you walk away yourself feeling inquisitive and wanting to get involved. Some degree of chaos and mess should come with the territory.

In the best schools, and arguably any school genuinely intent on fulfilling the Reggio Emilia promise to enable children to follow their own journey with all the resources they need, the demand is for very qualified, academically able teaching staff with broad subject specialism and gifted in engineering and construction. The following CNN report captures the scale of projects that can be approached with high levels of investment in teaching staff – and materials. It is sadly not the case that the majority of Reggio Emilia schools commit this level of investment.


So what exactly is a Reggio Amelia school – what does it teach?

In practice, a Reggio Emilia school will come as a surprise to parents grounded in traditional schooling. Looking at the school as a casual observer, without any knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings, the picture is likely to be of children playing in any number of disparate activities they have decided on themselves.

It may be that the atmosphere will even appear chaotic with children “running riot” and without any sense of a teacher being in control.

One of the key drivers of Reggio Amelia is that teachers should not guide, or impose at all – their role is to collaborate, when required, with each child in whatever they have decided to focus on. The child is effectively their own teacher, sets their own curriculum, their own problems – and solutions. This said, the activities themselves, should, in good schools by themselves provide some direction. Paint and paper, ideally, for example, should inspire a child to paint on the paper – although this is not guaranteed. This is why a key measure prospective parents should take of their shortlisted Reggio Emilia schools is the degree to which the environment is inspirational, and the quality and breadth of toys and activities provided. The classroom itself becomes critical as its dynamics and toys become in many ways the teacher.

So, in summary, prospective parents considering a Reggio Emilia school will need to accept the following:

  • Children are not only capable of, but should, construct their own learning. They are strong, capable and naturally have the deep seated curiosity to drive their own in interest in learning without it being imposed.
  • Children, not adults, are the arbiters of the education each child needs, and the answers will come naturally from their own investigations
  • Some children may have no interest at all in reading, writing or any traditionally held core bodies of pre-school knowledge. Instead, some children may wish to investigate, for example, sounds, whether by blowing a trumpet of clashing cymbals.
  • Teachers do not teach and set the parameters of learning. Instead they collaborate on activities, avoiding even guiding questions and answers if that is likely to influence the direction of a child’s thought.
  • Children are best placed to know what they should learn because each child is different and their own personality, intellect and feelings should define the subject and pace of learning. This is what child centred learning means if it means anything at all.

The answer, very simply, to what children will learn at a Reggio Amelia school is that they will learn what they choose to, with the answers they discover for themselves.


Theoretical underpinnings of a Reggio Amelia school

The best known underpinning of Reggio Amelia is the so called “100 Languages of Children.” Essentially this holds that children learn best by using the more than 100+ (actually limitless) ways each child has to interact with the world. The idea is that each child should be able to use all their senses to discover, explore and solve problems, and that these should be heightened using activities like dance, music, speech, painting, climbing, jumping, feeling, laughing, talking … the whole gamut of the ways that human beings relate to the world and each other.

One interesting result of this, in practice, is that children often develop projects over a long period of time. In many ways, the process of learning during a project becomes as important as what is factually learned. This way of looking at knowledge shares much with the emphasis of the International Baccalaureate schools in the process of learning rather than memorising facts.


How will I know what my child has learned?

Without a curriculum it is very difficult. Progressive schools eschew any form of examination or learning by rote too. There are really only two ways to measure your child’s education. The first is simply communicating with them and asking. Reggio Emilia schools do, however, stand out from other progressive schools by placing very significant emphasis on documenting each child’s journey. This will provide you with one key way of benchmarking how committed a short-listed school is to the Reggio Emilia “way.” The best schools will create individual portfolios for every child, documenting in detail their journeys, discoveries and what they have created. These will not simply be photographs – but should highlight developments of each child’s thought processes, through quotes and clear, highly descriptive explanations. They should also have areas where children’s “work” and creations are showcased.

Finally, one further key feature of Reggio schools is the close relationships schools expect with families. Schools will expect clear investment by parents in the Reggio School and extending the school’s achievements into the home – and reverse. Reggio Emilia schools stand out as being highly community-centric; to work effectively a Reggio Emilia school cannot be seen as a place where children are “dropped off.” The boundaries between home and school are blurred.


Criticism of Reggio Emilia

There are probably two striking criticisms of Reggio Emilia.

The first simply questions whether children are, in fact, best qualified to decide what is important, and what to learn. For example, is it more important to role play around television characters like Peppa Pig, or to learn to read? Arguably the areas of education that garner the least attention from many children are the broadly academic subjects so critical to mainstream later through schooling.

Second, surely there is a core body of knowledge that children need in place before they are able to freely explore the world effectively in the way Reggio Emilia celebrates. You would not give a pilot charge of a plane without training in how to fly it. Reggio Emilia, in its pure form, it is argued, does just this, leaving children to explore the world without the basic tools in place to do this.


Bottom line?

It is not uncommon to minimise the differences between pre-school approaches. This is a mistake. Progressive and traditional pre-schools are fundamentally different.

The skills that are learned in each are fundamentally different. The role of teachers in each is fundamentally different. The education that children receive in each is fundamentally different. And within the progressive sector, the different approaches are also markedly different.

Reggio Emilia has a significant presence in the Emirates, as it does worldwide. Many parents are deeply committed to its approach and methods for nurturing the whole child. However, in the degree to which it entrusts each child’s education to that child, it is by far the most radical.

There is no doubt that Reggio Emilia nurtures a multi-faceted learning that has huge value. But it does so at the cost of much of the basic education that would serve children so well when they enter mainstream education. They may well catch-up, but many argue that they will start at a disadvantage in not having the basic building blocks of traditional academic knowledge, including reading and numeracy, that children from traditional schools will possess, and in spades. For many parents who choose traditional schooling, and even alternative progressive curricular schools, that is a price not worth paying.

At its best, and for many children and parents, however, it remains a much loved, highly effective curriculum on its own terms. We do believe that, with very significant investment in staff and resources, a Reggio Emilia education can deliver at extraordinary levels. This level of investment is, however, not the norm.

The choice, as with all pre-school curriculum alternatives, is not an easy one – and the best we can do is to leave that choice to parents – with the hope that we have covered fairly its strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities, in equal measure.

Details to consider
Curricula - Which country is it from?


Curricula - Who underwrites it?

There is no global accreditation for Reggio Emilia schools.
(1) Any school can describe itself as a Montessori school, regardless of the degree to which it follows Montessori principles
(2) There is no defined curriculum shared across schools as the curriculum is defined by each child

Curricula - Age when taken?

Within the pre-school age of children between 2 years and 6 years

Curricula - Subjects available?

There are no core subjects. However, Reggio Emilia schools are designed to inspire children to explore their senses which theoretically allows for children to explore any subject that drives their interest. The school's role is to ensure that materials and resources are in place to enable any child to pursue those subjects it requires in the course of their pre-school education.

Curricula - How much is rote based learning?

No rote based learning. The Reggio Amelia curriculum is fundamentally opposed to teaching by rote and memorisation.

Curricula - How easy is it?

Curriculum is child focused and paced to the needs, interest and developmental stage of each individual child.

Curricula - Materials for private study?

Emilia Reggio places a very significant responsibility on parents to engage with the curriculum and the school. It sets itself apart in this from every other pre-school curriculum and the boundaries between home, broader community and school should ideally be blurred.

Curricula - Grades awarded?

Reggio Amelia schools do not believe in grading a child's work. At Family Conferences a child may informally define grades for their own work in terms of their perception of what they have learned.

Curricula - Cost?

Varies widely, this primarily dependent on the investment in staff. Reggio Amelia schools are independently run.

Curricula - Transfer-ability (to other curricula)?

Culture shock. The methodology, curriculum, learning space and teaching approach are fundamentally at odds with traditional all-through schools provision in the Emirates, regardless of curriculum. There are currently no progressive all-through schools in the Emirates. Progressive all-through school options are available worldwide outside the Emirates, particularly in England and the US.

Curricula - Where does it lead?

Montessori pre-schools provide an alternative route for the education of children between 2 and 6 years of age prior to attending traditional, compulsory all through provision at British, American, French, German, IB or Dual Curriculum Faith schools in the Emirates. Many argue that there are similarities in the style of learning at Reggio Emilia pre-schools with the project approach adopted by later International Baccalaureate schools.

Curricula - Who is it best for?

The curriculum is targeted to the needs of each individual child, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities [SEND] There is no Montessori type. Some commentators argue that Reggio Amelia is the most SEND friendly of all the pre-schools, whether traditional or progressive.

Curricula - Global value?

Widespread global adoption, particularly in Europe and the US.


• Focus on preserving childhood within an educational play-based framework of learning
• Very close links with parents and integration within the home
• In the best schools, and outstanding commitment to documenting each child’s progression providing parents with very clear, and inspirational, benchmarking of their child(ren)’s progression over time
• 100 Languages of Learning approach, at its best, provides a good fit with later broad-based approaches to learning adopted within IB schools
• Children construct their own education within a limited framework of teacher intervention protecting childhood and allowing each child to develop at their own pace and according to their own interests and uniqueness


• Disconnect from academic requirements of mainstream school curricular, particularly in Languages, Mathematics and Science
• Potential for children to be behind children from mainstream non-progressive pre-schools in starting mainstream schooling and facing a catch-up with their peers
• Culture shock in progressing to traditional schooling will impact some children more than others
• Requires very significant investment, particularly in the number and calibre of teaching staff, to deliver to its stated level of ambition – this level of investment is rare
• Complete lack of brand control or accreditation– a school defining itself as a Reggio Emilio school does not even guarantee that the school adopts its basic approach and offers no guarantee of quality
• Lack of any form of teacher certification

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• Probably the most radical of progressive school approaches, and one that best meets the needs of parents for whom the priority is to protect childhood and ensure schooling provides the highest degree of differentiated child learning. The lack of any accreditation, however, means that parents must be vigilant to interrogate each school’s provision – and the impact on children in transitioning to the very different academic and formal teaching requirements of non-progressive schooling later may well be too high a price to pay for many parents.

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About The Author
Jon Westley
Jon Westley is the Editor of and UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at]

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