Teaching Peace with Elyse: The Many Languages of Children

My executive director likes to tell touring prospective parents that, "[I] was Reggio before there was a Reggio." What she refers to is the educational philosophy of the Reggio Emilia schools*. Because I was a newborn when Loris Malaguzzi’s Reggio Emilia Approach was developed in Italy after World War II, I hope this is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

More accurate is that my program of resolving conflict and developing EQ through the expressive arts was created 30 years ago, before the philosophy spread widely through the international education community. My own idea for open-ended art making began with a memory of my mother. Making art, side by side, evoked an atmosphere of peace and easy communication between us.

Creating a similar environment inside my program allowed the developmental issues that naturally arise to be explored with safety and non-judgment. What occurred would be similar to what occurs in their classrooms. It was these issues that I wanted to explore with the children as they occurred. The conflict, hurt feelings, exclusion or other issues that organically surface among groups of preschoolers, would be addressed and expressed artfully with my facilitation. The creative solutions, learned viscerally as well as by simply listening, would become part of each child’s tool box for future use.

I have learned so much from the children over the decades that I want to spread the word of these effective practices and the theories behind them. As I ready myself to write a book on Tools of Peace** I am exploring other programs and theories that are akin to my own. I am particularly interested in those where considerable research has been done as to the impact on children’s social and emotional development.

Towards that end I am reading more on the philosophy of the Reggio Emilia Schools and their terminology. What first caught my eye was the concept of the hundred languages of children. According to Wikipedia, “the term ‘hundred languages of children’ refers to the many ways that children have of expressing themselves. Reggio teachers provide children different avenues for…developing and symbolically expressing their thoughts and feelings. The goal is for the adults and children to better understand one another. They are encouraged to depict their understanding through one of many symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpture, dramatic play, and writing.” This articulates my intentions as well and what occurs daily in my Tools of Peace program.
While exploring the evidence-based work of others, I discovered a wonderful book, From Play to Practice, published by the the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The tagline is, "Connecting Teachers' Play to Children’s Learning." For those of you who know the value of play for children, but may not recognize how your own play can enhance your teaching, this is a must-read. 
In reading the introduction alone, I thought I’d found a long lost relative. And, The Institute for Self Active Education*** in Boston has 30 years of scientifically based research behind them. 
In the words of these educators: “This book supports the intentional practice of incorporating play in early childhood classrooms to help children develop self-regulation, as well as to promote children’s language skills, cognition and social competence…As children explore their physical and social worlds during self-active play--hands on, open ended play--they naturally and effectively gather information, discover relationships, and become immersed in creative processes. This fosters their intellectual, physical and emotional development…The primary purpose of this book is to help teachers translate what they learn from hands-on play experiences into more effective professional practices and ultimately into richer, more developmentally appropriate practices for young children.”

A Suggestion for Teachers:
I often hear teachers who give their all to their students say, “I’d love to, but I just don’t have time to play.” If you recognize yourself in this comment, the evidence-based research gives us permission and, hopefully, encourages us to play!  Playing with the same art materials that we offer our children enhances our teaching and refreshes our creative soul.
Even short breaks of creativity work wonders. I find it amazing what 15 minutes of open-ended play with art materials can do for me.
Here’s a quick but refreshing activity: 

  • Take out butcher paper, oil pastels, scissors, magazines and glue sticks.
  • Cut out images and/or words from magazines that you are drawn to. Allow yourself to be inspired by the photos, gluing them where you please on the butcher paper. If you wish to create a collage or add other flat or 3-D materials, feel free.
  • You may want to add or begin with oil pastels.
  • Allow your creativity to lead you in exploring the materials. 
  • Please, do not judge your play. Encourage your internal critic to take a break. (If you have a stubborn inner judge like mine, remind them of the evidence-based research on teachers play and children’s learning.)
  • Have fun!