COUNTERSPACES | Childhood Column – The one hundred languages of childhood

Elena Luciano

In the spring of 1945 in Villa Cella, a small village in the province of Reggio Emilia, women and men, exhausted by the war that had ended a few days ago, started building a school for boys and girls using the proceeds of the sale of a tank and some trucks and horses abandoned by the fleeing Germans. Loris Malaguzzi (1920–1994), then a young elementary school teacher, rushed there on his bike to verify what hardly seemed credible. It was true. Women and men, old and young, labourers, workers and peasants were building a school for the youngest children, without money or authorisation or inspectors, directors, technical offices or party leaders, but using bricks and materials recovered from houses and buildings that had been destroyed by bombing. Against all logic and against all prejudice. Malaguzzi joined them, sharing in what fathers and above all mothers were claiming for their children – that is, a different kind of school, for their childen to be educated differently, and to be recognised above all as capable, intelligent and ready to build freedom, emancipation and the future. At the basis of this extraordinary story of redemption and participation was a shared, simple but powerful idea, namely that first of all you must believe in children and that ‘you can only learn about children’s things, and things for children, from children’ (C. Edwards, L. Gandini, G. Forman, I cento linguaggi dei bambini. L’approccio di Reggio Emilia all’educazione dell’infanzia, Junior, Azzano San Paolo, 1995). It was the first of many schools, invented and self-managed in the suburbs and in the poorest neighbourhoods through the participation of teachers, parents and citizens, with the contribution of lay women’s organisations and that of the CLN (National Liberation Committee), in support of the rights of boys and girls.

Malaguzzi sided with the people of Cella through a deep and lasting commitment, through a special relationship that was a source of inspiration for his pedagogical thinking, now recognised in Italy, first in the shape of Reggio Emilia childcare services, and which then spread all over the world with extraordinary echoes. In his pedagogical biography, there is a special place for the metaphor of ‘the one hundred languages ​​of children’, the title of the travelling exhibition which, since 1981, has been telling the world about Reggio’s educational experience, but which also represents a perspective for overcoming educational approaches based on the pre-eminence of the word and to enhance the many non-verbal languages ​ that educational and scholastic culture has humiliated and continues to humiliates, imposing reductive classifications of knowledge on children, and fragments of their experience, which is, of course, multidimensional.

Thanks to Loris Malaguzzi, who was born one hundred years ago this year, a richer cultural vision of childhood considers children individuals who are full of skills and curiosity that guide them along paths of discovery that are always original and always enriched by a plurality of cognitive and expressive ways and forms, with their hands, bodies and heads, with thought and imagination, with writing, verbalisation and graphic expression… Each child – if left free to explore – uses a hundred ways of encountering, knowing and understanding the other and the world, through a way of thinking that does not separate the dimensions of experience and the forms of manifestation of life, but connects and intertwines them, valuing all languages, verbal and otherwise, with equal dignity.

Words, which play a fundamental role, are thus intertwined with non-verbal languages, always allowing children to open their minds, with multiple access points to the world and different ways of shaping their ideas, thanks to the presence of adults who are capable of being amazed alongside them and of supporting their research, rather than suggesting or imposing the use of verbal or mathematical language. While drawing and while jumping into a puddle, each child makes new discoveries and builds new ideas, new meanings and new knowledge, but also expands the symbols and codes in their possession through a multisensory mode (visual, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, sound) that is useful for expressing individual strategies of thought and knowledge and to feel unique and whole.