An Italian Philosophy Inspires Jewish Preschools
Special To The Jewish Week

On a recent winter morning the 130 children attending the nursery school at Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue are engaged in such hands-on projects as building a sukkah, maintaining a rooftop garden and creating small clay sculptures. Some have designed a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, made from Styrofoam and other objects, while each class has met with a Jewish scribe to learn about a project that involves the entire congregation: the drafting of a Torah to mark the synagogue’s 100th anniversary.


Each activity is heavily documented — in photos, quotes from the children and notes taken by their teachers — and their instructors let the children make mistakes, said the school’s director, Lori Schneider. In that way, she added, the children, who range in age from 2 to 5, learn what works and what doesn’t.


The methodologies instituted by the preschool, known officially as the Balfour Brickner Early Childhood Center, are all associated with Reggio Emilia, an approach to early childhood education named for the town in Italy in which it was founded. The center is one of a growing legion of preschools locally and around the country — many of them Jewish — to follow the Reggio framework.


As an indication of Reggio’s popularity, more than 900 educators recently attended a daylong conference about the approach at the 92nd Street Y. Sponsored by the Y and the Italian Cultural Institute, an arm of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the event explored various facets of Reggio, including how the approach has been adapted in the Jewish community.


One aspect of Reggio that makes its popularity so fascinating is that it appears to contradict the emphasis that many parents and educators place on sheer academics, even among the youngest of children. Teaching children as young as 2 or 3 to read, solve math problems and use computers is not uncommon, as is the tendency of many parents to enroll their preschoolers in one class after another.


As explained by educators during and after the conference, the Reggio approach is based on several principles. Chief among them is the idea that young children are wiser than many adults believe, capable of contributing to their own education. Advocates of Reggio believe that children can express themselves in many ways — through discussion, painting, staging a play and countless other creative processes — and that each offers an avenue for learning.


The role of educators in such a framework is to tap into those creative processes, which constitute what Reggio calls the “hundred languages of children.”


As opposed to a more traditional preschool, where each teacher has a plan, teachers in a Reggio-inspired school “observe what the kids are doing and then extend it,” Schneider said.


At the Balfour Brickner center, for instance, teachers join their students in their meetings with the synagogue’s Torah scribe, taking note of the kinds of questions they ask. “Are they interested in the paper? Are they interested in the quill? Are they interested in the ink he’s using?” said Schneider. Whatever captures their interest is then pursued.


Other cornerstones of the Reggio approach include encouraging parental involvement; emphasizing collaborative relationships among parents, teachers and children; and making use of the local culture or environment, often referred to as “the third teacher.” Teachers also document each activity, a tool that allows the children to reflect on their work, leading to new experiences, while giving parents a chance to see their progress.


Founded shortly after World War II by an Italian educator, Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio came about after he and others took a hard look at how their country was schooling its youngest children. They blamed their nation’s period of fascism, in part, on the structure of its preschools, where regimentation and rote inhibited free and independent thinking.


Borrowing from other progressive educators, local residents established a network of infant-toddler centers and preschools supported by the municipality. The philosophy gained further attention in 1991, when Newsweek hailed the Reggio approach as an international role model, drawing educators from around the world. The city today is among Reggio’s biggest promoters, backing an organization that posts liaisons in more than a dozen countries and sponsors seminars for visiting educators.


Reggio’s principles are wholly consistent with Jewish values, said Mark Horowitz, executive director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative. The philosophy, he said, is based on “a deep respect for the potential of human beings” — similar to the Jewish belief that “everyone is created in the divine image.” Flowing out of that, he added, is the notion that “you have to listen to children, observe them, and respond to their social and emotional needs.”


Other similarities include the importance of inquiry, a core value in both Reggio and Jewish philosophy, and the idea of sacred time and space — or, in Reggio, time and space for reflection.


JECEI — pronounced “Jessie” — has emerged as one of Reggio’s strongest advocates in the American-Jewish community. Founded four years ago and housed at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which funds the initiative, JECEI has adopted two main goals: increasing the number of Jewish families who send their children to Jewish early childhood education centers and, once that experience is over, encouraging those families to stay connected to the Jewish community.


The goal of “energizing” those families and “igniting their Jewish journey” has, in turn, led JECEI to Reggio, a tenet of which is the family’s centrality, said Horowitz, an ordained cantor.


To further its goals, Horowitz’s organization now works with nine schools, each of which is assigned a coach and a consultant. The coach advises the schools on teaching, learning and best practices, Horowitz said, while the consultant works with directors and head teachers on leadership development. The program will change slightly come the next school year, working with 15 schools in as many as five communities.


The “JECEI schools,” as they’re called, now include three on New York’s Upper West Side: the Balfour Brickner Early Childhood Center; the Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan; and Beit Rabban, a community day school.


Discussing the emphasis in many preschools on academics and achievement, Horowitz said both Reggio and JECEI are “completely at odds” with that focus, which he believes ignores the social and emotional well-being of both children and families. Moreover, he said, current research shows that attending only to academics “shortchanges” children later in life, when many of them lose interest in learning. “You can’t take care of the child’s academic needs without taking care of his soul.”


Addressing the same question, Schneider said that some people mistakenly believe that Reggio is unstructured. But the approach is simply structured in a different way and, in fact, places greater demands on teachers, Schneider said.


But Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, director of the Zabar Nursery School at the JCC, said she finds labels like “progressive” and “traditional” rather limiting. “Giving a kid a worksheet is not preparing the kid for school,” she said, but, instead, underestimates children’s capabilities. All the same, she doesn’t see things in “either/or” terms. “I think the quality of what’s happening here is a higher quality.”


Two parents whose children attend the Zabar Nursery School agreed with that assessment.


Allowing children to explore their world “rather than sitting them down with flashcards” is a “healthier and more robust” approach, said Jamie Markovitz Hoffman of the Upper West Side. Her 3-year-old son, Zachary, is a JCC student. “I don’t think you have to be cutthroat at 3 years old,” she said, adding that “there’s plenty of time for that” later.


Abby Rothschild, a single mother on the Upper West Side, said the youngest of her three sons, Charlie, 4, attends the school and is often thrilled at the work he does there. Charlie is unable to read yet, but her oldest son, now 7, didn’t start reading until the first grade, so it doesn’t faze her.


“I have confidence that reading turns on when it turns on,” Rothschild continued. “If I sent him to a preschool that required him to read at this age, I’d be concerned. I’m more interested in his learning to work and play with other kids, in his learning to share with others, and in the values he develops.”