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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Last week I wrote about a chapter I read in a Reggio book this summer that made me stop and think about what I do in the classroom.  The book was The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, Third Edition.  The chapter I read was by Carlina Rinaldi called: "The Pedagogy of Listening: The Listening Perspective from Reggio Emilia."  You can find my post from last week here.

I reread the chapter this week and was again blown away with how much Rinaldi has to offer in terms of the importance of listening in the classroom.  As I reread the chapter, I took notes and wrote reflections as I went along.  What follows are some of those notes and thoughts.

The first thing that struck me is the view of the child in this pedagogy.  Children are competent. "Children...have the desire and ability to search for the meaning of life and their sense of self as soon as they are born.  That is why we, in Reggio, view children as active, competent, and strong..." (p.234).   For me that means children have something to say; they have questions to ask; and they have answers to give to their own questions and to those of others.   So often as teachers, with all our certainties and planned agenda, we dismiss what they have to say as irrelevant or silly or, even worse, cute.  Or we answer their questions with facts so they know the "truth."  Several years ago I heard a speaker talk about an experience he had with a child outside on a wintery playground.  The child told the teacher: "See the bunny."  Thinking the child was talking about a real bunny under a bush, the teacher strained to see the bunny.  He could not. The child insisted there was a bunny.  Finally the teacher got down on the child's level to see what she was pointing at.  What he saw was a pile a snow under the bush that indeed looked like a bunny. He now saw the bunny she saw---and was amazed!

This leads me directly into the second thing that struck me about this pedagogy.  To listen to children is to give value to their ideas.  Listening is a way of welcoming the children and their thoughts. By doing so, the children will be encouraged to share even more.  (I know for myself, nothing shuts me down quicker than when I feel like someone is not listening to what I have to say.)    In that process of sharing their ideas, they get to test their own theories about how the world works.  That happens both internally when they evaluate their own work or externally when they exchange their ideas with others.  In other words, ideas need to be tried out; without validation or corroboration how will they know what is real.  That only happens in a listening context in which children feel valued and competent.

This leads me into the third thing that struck me about this pedagogy.  Listening has a strong emotional component.  By listening to the children, we are creating bonds with the children. Within those bonds the children feel good about themselves and their abilities.  Not only does this build real self-esteem, but it also supports their natural inclinations to explore and make meaning in their lives.  It  supports their courage to explore the unknown and ask questions and pose possible answers.  As they do that, they experience the true joy of discovery.  This becomes a virtuous circle.  And for the adult in the classroom, listening to this joy can be transformative. Rinaldi equates documentation with listening.  In addition, she states that documentation is an act of love.  In other words, listening is an act of love.  And can there be any greater emotion to share with the children?

In the context of this blog, listening takes the form of documenting the myriad of operations created by the children at the sensory table as they dialogue with the space, the materials, the medium and the apparatus.  But I am still left with questions.  How can I begin to bring the children into the dialogue so they can reflect on what has been documented?  With so many things going on in an early childhood classroom, to whom am I not listening?  What filters do I use to help me decide to whom I listen?  What are the values behind those filters?

Not listening is easier than listening.  Listening takes a lot of work.  To be a good listener means to suspend my agenda and enter into the unknown.  (What teacher likes to do that?)   The unknown is not a comfortable place to be, but it is where learning happens.


  1. This is a lovely reflective piece. Thanks Tom. Your final comment reminds me of a quote which has become one of my favourite, "When we walk to the edge of all the light that we know and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we have to believe that one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid to stand on or that we will learn how to fly." Patrick Overton.

    1. Hi Juliet. I have never heard the quote before. It sent shivers up and down my spine when I read it. Thanks.

  2. Listening is just so important - I keep coming back to it - again and again - partly because of my strong connection to the Reggio Approach and also as part of working at a Philosophical Preschool - listening is such a key element - to learn to listen also allows you to understand about how others listen to you - as we as adults give value to children's words as well as the children giving each other respect and value in their words and thoughts...
    its very complex, and its no easy thing for adult to do..
    imagine yourself in an interesting lecture or tour and how a phrase triggers of a series of thoughts and ideas that make it quite difficult to continue hearing what is being said, even though you want to ... as you need time to think your thoughts - that is why we try to take think-breaks in our dialogues every now and again - to allow the children to catch up with their own musings and to allow them to share with each other and to be able to listen better...

    1. Suzanne, I really like the idea of listening breaks. I have been in the field of early childhood education for 35 years. For most of that time, I understood listening meant listening to the teacher. Rinaldi's piece reframed my understanding of what I have been trying to do for the past 25 years---and even before. The more I am in the classroom, the less it is about my agenda. For me to listen to the children, they need the space and time for their own agendas to show me their own voices.

  3. Tom,

    As I continue my journey into learning more about the Reggio philosophy (a journey I've been on for 20-plus years!), I am constantly brought back to the fact that LISTENING to children is really the key to it all. I think of "listening" as more than just using my ears. It's about really seeing the child as a competent person with valuable ideas and insights.

    Yes, most adults do have more knowledge and experience than children. But if we just give that knowledge to our children without listening to their ideas, we are depriving them of the chance to make their own discoveries. I always assume that I might have a future Isaac Newton in my class. Would I really want to discourage that child from making discoveries? Of course not!

    The other thing about listening is that it gives me so much more information about what is going on inside the child’s head. Here’s an example: One time I was on a school bus, coming back from a field trip. The child sitting next to me was staring out the window. I figured he was just watching the scenery, so I almost didn’t really listen when he started to talk. It turned out that he had developed a theory. He figured out that our bus was travelling more slowly than the cars in the other lane. He decided that this was because the bus was full of people and was heavier than the cars. (Amazing theory for a 3-year-old!) When we got back to school, we tested his theory with toy wagons, and he was right that heavier vehicles travel more slowly. I would have never known he was even thinking about that if I hadn’t really listened.

    1. Jen, that is a great anecdote. The point is not that the theory is correct or not. The point is that you are encouraging a deeper investigation of the child's theory. I have only been introduced to the Reggio approach within the last four years. The more I learn, the more layers of learning or the co-construction of knowledge I see. Listening is not just hearing the words of a child. For me, especially considering the focus of this blog, I need to listen to their physical actions and explorations. Children really don't hide much if you listen to their whole body.