Living the curriculum: an Italian-inspired approach to learning

Mother and baby dancers in the Foolish Operations Ensemble create a performance of Embody/In My Body.” | Photo by Yvonne Chew

Mother and baby dancers in the Foolish Operations Ensemble create a performance of Embody/In My Body.” | Photo by Yvonne Chew

Susan Hoppenfeld, a Vancouver childhood educator for over 30 years, used to sit with teachers each August and work on their back-to-school lesson plans. Hoppenfeld says this form of instruction wasn’t helpful for her or her fellow teachers, and hopes that a long-established Italian approach will make a difference. 

We didn’t even know the kids,” Hoppenfeld explains.

Hoppenfeld credits an Italian childhood learning theory – the Reggio Emilia Approach – for introducing her to a different method.

“The notion of children being citizens in a democracy colours the way I work with children and their families,” says Hoppenfeld, who also serves as director of Child Development at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.

Hoppenfeld will be joining several guest speakers in the Embody/In My Body: Dancing the Early Years conference, which takes place Jan. 17 at the Roundhouse Performance Centre. The conference will offer a glimpse of educators who have incorporated the Reggio Emilia Approach into their teaching and interaction with children and adults.

Group during Luna family dance class 2014. | Photo by Luna Dance Institute faculty

Group during Luna family dance class 2014. | Photo by Luna Dance Institute faculty

Hoppenfeld explains that the Reggio Emilia Approach started in the Italian city of the same name after Second World War with the intention of creating a different future for children: creative, competent and capable. This school of thought essentially brought forth modern-day preschools in Italy and today helps to fund Italian day cares and programs. Rather than parents or teachers deciding what children should learn, the adults’ role is to be supportive and allow children the freedom to explore by themselves.

“My goal at the end of the day is to take Reggio Emilia ideas and get a different kind of call to action on how we work with children,” says Hoppenfeld.

She adds that the process is more important than the product, and parent involvement is essential for children to flourish.

Children as teachers

Conference organizer Julie Lebel moved from Quebec to Vancouver in 2005. After having twin girls in 2010, she found it difficult to continue her dance practice and instruction while being a full-time mom.

Lebel eventually found a community where people were interested in moving with their children and this evolved into dance sessions in a few Vancouver community centres.

Lebel got the idea for a conference when she started to think beyond using the Reggio Emilia Approach with dance classes.

“What if children have a real contribution to offer? Consider children who can’t speak yet but can express their physicality –how can we take this seriously?” says Lebel.

For Lebel, dance may not be a natural place to go if you are an educator, but the Reggio Emilia Approach is not a ‘top-down’ way of learning but rather focused on skills.

“I hope some of these ideas can infiltrate into the community and continue to grow,” says Lebel.

A meeting of minds and methods

By chance, Patricia Reedy found out her own work with children and dance was parallel to the Reggio Emilia Approach. Reddy, founder and director of Luna Dance Institute in Berkley, California, says she’s honoured to be invited to the conference as a keynote speaker and wants to share her extensive dance experience and academic background in childhood education.

Reedy supports how the Italian method respects children’s process of being able to let go and ‘do their own thing.’ She says it not only allows children the space to grow but also allows teachers to share with each other and evolve their own professional competence. Reedy says this way of learning – through movement – applies to all.

“Every human being was somebody’s child,” says Reedy. “Everybody has a body and everyone can express themselves through movement – it’s a universal appeal.”

Embody/In My Body takes place Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.