Learning to see

The point is not only what you see but how you look at, from the smaller details of everyday life to the wider macro-systems. Let’s start from a very simple game everyone knows: looking at a spot and trying to see something on it, for example on clouds or ink stains. It’s a specific human skill, called pareidolia, meaning the tendency to perceive a recognizable shape on visual stimulus with an undefined form. However, ten persons will probably see ten different things in the same spot: it’s almost obvious and yet interesting, the proof that we constantly project some parts of ourselves on the world so that our perception has always got a “relational”, not objective, quality.


You can also unusually frame a picture and then look for a title. I like using leaves and shadows, but you can start from whatever you want.
For example, how would you title the picture below: the sun on the grass, a leaf in the sun or the house of shadows? What is the focus, the center around which the sense is created? Each answer could be right but the connected perception is very different.


Now take a peek from the windows of the box below: what’s inside? Try to imagine and draw the hidden object. It would be funny to compare many drawings, each different from the other and from the real object.⁣ Simple but not granted, it often concerns also other aspects of normal life, for example a discussion where you think that your idea is absolutely the only right one.

In his book The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl uses the metaphor of ortoghonal projections for explaining the complementarity of the different disciplines, that are not mutually exclusive. All the points of view together can give us “a good enough” description of the object of study, by the interation of different specific focuses and approaches. How the unity of the object – Frankl wonders – can be preserved through its different, equally true, repesentations? The difference between a rectangle (frontal view) and a circle (top view) can not contradict the existence one cylinder!

What is said for vision is also true for knowledge, he wrote. We live in an age of specialists: men who no longer see the forest of truth because of single trees. Of course we cannot turn the wheel of history back, society cannot do without specialists… So what is the real danger? Are we sure it lies in a lack of universality? Isn’t it rather hidden in the claim to totality? What is dangerous is the attempt by an expert, such as a biologist or a psycologist, to explain a human being solely in biological or psychological terms.


Some years ago I had the chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Gerusalem. I was nicely speaking in Italian with a very welcoming monk in the Franciscan part of the Church. Around us, as in a labyrinth, there were many other chapels dedicated to different kind of Christianities, and outside the Church, many other Churches, Mosques and Synagogues all around. At some point, it was like I saw our two figures from afar and I got the impression to be inside a box that was inside another box, in turn surrounded by other ones. Each box had many windows, of different sizes and shapes, open on different shining details of whatever we call God – as limited still valuable attempts to glimpse something too wide for any overview. What amazing, prismatic picture from up there, fragmented and unified in the same time!


Now let’s imagine we are looking together through the same window: again, we would not see exactly the same picture. Our culture and language, our family and personal experiences, are all like overlapped filters through which we necessarily look at. Most of these lens are essential parts of us. Even while using our knowledge and theories for interpreting the world, we are metaphorically wearing a special pair of glasses through which we look at.
I find that all these visual metaphors can become interesting tools for playing with children and investigating important concepts: changing points of view, focusing on a detail and then enlarging the picture for seeing where the detail is placed, wearing glasses of somebody else and lending yours.


If you are aware to have several pairs of glasses available, you can choose the most useful one for every context, from time to time, maybe getting closer to the truth. Of course we need to take a stand, but far from making it inflexible. Let’s learn how to switch, not confusing one part for the whole and using our understanding for not getting trapped in it.


Finally… My heartfelt thanks to Nona Orbach, Eylon Orbach, Shari Satran and the unknown, gentle Franciscan monk, for the unforgettable Gerusalem journey we lived together. I can imagine Nona smiling while seeing “the Italian glasses” I used for writing this post.

What is an Atelier?

According to my experience as an atelierista, the identity of the space that we call atelier is strictly connected to the theory of the Hundred Languages, that Malaguzzi showed in his famous poem “No way. The hundred is there”. In fact, I perceive the idea of the atelier as if it naturally arises from the idea of the child described in the poem.

So, how is a human being seen through the metaphor of the Hundred Languages? He’s like an very rich container of a great multiplicity of expressive, communicative and creative possibilities and languages, that includes verbal and non-verbal ones, held together in a holistic approach.

The first line of the poem said “No way, the Hundred is there”, meaning that this hundred-multifaceted potential is already there from the beginning, it naturally belongs to our nature as human beings. It’s a kind of treasure that actually needs to flourish, to develop, to concretize, to move from a potential to something concrete. Like everything in nature, for example a seed, it will finally make flourish its potential if just given the chance.

Why did I say if given the chance? Because it needs a good enough environment to flourish, a welcoming context where this process can be allowed and nourished. Let’s call this place atelier.

Thus, I perceive the atelier as a context specifically set up by offering some materials and experiences within a space-time frame, with the aim of making the multifaceted 100% potential of everyone express itself.

In other words, it is a place intentionally set up for welcoming the uniqueness of every child and its natural expression, and for supporting the child’s active construction of knowledge through a creative relationship with the world (that is through the offered materials and experiences as a metaphor of the world).  

Atelier of “Le Betulle” preschool, Cavriago (Italy)

According to this definition, the atelier is not necessarily an extra room, even if the very first atelier of the Reggio Emilia preschools was a dedicated room (and it still is today). It mostly consists of a way to arrange the environment and of a certain approach toward children, according to the goal I have just described. For example, it could be an area within the classroom, the house or the garden; a mobile mini-atelier on wheels or even an entire school, where the regular aged classrooms have bene converted into thematic ateliers. Of course, which of these options are achievable depends on the specific context, on its needs and organizing.

Tailoring Atelier, “Gallizi” preschool, Fano (Italy)

So what are the required characteristics of such a place, with this goal, that we call atelier?

First of all, the metaphor of the Hundred Languages suggests that it should be multifaceted, variegated, containing diversity and multiplicity. Thus, it will correspond to the natural richness of the expressive potential of children, who play and learn at the same time, using all their senses and skills, body and mind.

Like the atelierista Vea Vecchi said, in early childhood, children do not separate the exploration of reality into separate disciplines, but from our point of view of adults, many different disciplinary approaches are present and interconnected in children researches. Are we educators able to see these multiple aspects involved in children researches?

Cooking Atelier, “Gallizi” preschool, Fano (Italy)

Let’s consider, for example, a child who prepares a round cake for the birthday of a friend. First he kneads the cake, then decorates it with some small balls and some ornamental engravings made with a sharp tool; finally he divides the cake in many slices for sharing it with his friends. So here there are: modeling-tridimensional techniques and manual skills; tactile, sensory aspects; the matematical thinking (while dividing the slices); social and emotional skills (concerning friendship) and also an aesthetic visual research through the decorations.

As Malaguzzi said, the 100 languages work naturally together in a synergistic cooperation. So we should consider multiplicity as a whole, where all the elements are connected by the sense of the process of that child, relating to her uniqueness.

Hundred languages are not a list of hundred materials: they invites us to find out hundred ways to use, for example, the same pencil, instead. If we carefully observe, everyone will use it in a different way, maybe only for a detail. Moreover, the metaphor of hundred includes a variety of times and rhythms of the creative process, that can walk side by side. Every person has got his/her own pace, a personal approach to time and space: how does she move in the environment, how does he occupy a space ad intereact with the context?

How can every uniqueness be welcome within the general organizying of the educational context and the atelier?

Even if every approach is unique, while growing up each human being goes through the same universal developmental stages, that we as educators should know. I find amazing that the development of every child unfolds according to a universal, archetypical development and in the meantime intertwines, overlaps the uniqueness of that child. As Nona Orbach wrote in the beautiful book “The Good Enough Studio”, the particular expression of each individual, in their marks left on materials, is both unique and at the same time overlaps with the archetypical map of symbolism characteristic of humanity as a whole. In other words, each of us will walk through the same stages but in our own way, with our own pace, expressing a personal, unique variation of the same universal process. The knowledge of these universal processes, such as the drawing development, will help us to understand where the child is at that moment, what his actual interest and approach to drawing are, so that we can better see and support his process.

Thus, uniqueness is intertwined with universality, as two sides of the same coin, both necessary for understanding what is happening in the atelier.

Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

Another very important element is, of course, the knowledge of materials (or of the Grammar of Matter), an essential characteristic of the identity of the atelierista – who is actually a specific professional with an artistic background.

It is not an intellectual knowledge and not optional. We should explore firsthand tools and materials that we offer to children. Only living our own creative process we can recognize, acknowledge and support children’s processes; also, we will be able to choose the right materials for suggestions and provocations. Hundred Languages does not mean doing everyday something new: it concerns the richness of the qualities (not the quantity) of the materials, the richness of their connections, the relationship between materials and children: what meanings, stories and knowledges are they creating?

Atelier of “I Tigli” preschool, Cavriago (Italy)

All the points I talked about are interlinked to each other and with the specific context. Of course each context is different, as well as each human being, and that’s why there are not “always-valid” solutions. However, we have a clear goal showing the direction and some elements I tried to outline that can orient us.

The person (of whatever age) is both the starting point and the final point, realizing the hundred per cent of the potential that is possible at the moment.

“No way, the hundred is there”, it’s just waiting. Are we able to trust it?

Finally, don’t forget that you – as educator, atelierista, teacher or parent – are one of the active, never neutral elements of the relation. Your uniqueness is part of the process, or we could metaphorically say, part of an amazing dance, together with children and materials, in our theatre-atelier.

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Now, what is your idea of atelier? What should be its characteristics? And what its goal? Are there some particular aspects you are interested in, that you would like to deepen? Let’s open a wider dialogue…


If you are interested in this topic, you are welcome to subscribe the newsletter to be updated on new projects, events and posts.

And above all, enjoy your atelier, whatever it looks like!

The Grammar of Corrugated Cardboard

Corrugated Cardboard

Following the suggestion of what I call the “Grammar of Matter”, we should try to observe things as if we were seeing them for the first time; with respect and curiosity, without already having a goal or a precise outcome in mind.

This chapter of the grammar is dedicated to corrugated cardboard: what are its transformative potentials? Or in other words, what transformations do its characteristics suggest to us? Let’s start with a small scrap piece, derived from a box of cookies.

I pick it up: the strips in relief are immediately an irresistible invitation to cut, while the two folding lines show where to stop cutting.

Now it can move in many ways, it seems to come alive, it becomes a tunnel, a millipede, a carnivorous plant…

Another action, generally associated with corrugated cardboard, is “rolling up”. If we combine it with cutting (or we put it in relation to other objects), various shapes can be created, in turn composable and combinable with each other.

On the left: picture by RobertapucciLab – On the right: picture from the book Créations en papier, mgf atelier

There are different kind of corrugated cardboard: as we have seens, it is used for small food packagings, while other colored ones are available in art supply shops, or you even can buy large rolls, generally used as industrial packaging.

What happens if we try to remake the same shape in a much larger size? A detail, a small decoration becomes a high impact presence.

Setting and workshop by RobertapucciLab for the public library “Il Castello dei Ragazzi” (Carpi, Italy)

The rolled strip that looked like a small sprout, can become a tree if using the maximum size of the roll. And then, more trees can generate a forest within a room… The setting of these images was designed as part of a creative workshop for a public library (in Carpi, Italy). Some tables were set with some materials and tools, ready to welcome adults and children to create colorful flowers for the trees.

“The grammar of matter” invites us to put the qualities and properties of a material in relation with the context around. Here is an example of how this can happen. One morning, the Swedish educator and atelierista Maria Kozlowska saw a large roll of cardboard standing in the storeroom and had the idea of making a corrugated cardboard labytinth for 2/3-years-olds children.

Pictures by Maria Kozlowska

It is a single length of corrugated cardboard that the children shape and reshape, explains Maria. The children form new “rooms” by pinching the paper together and closing into these spaces, alone or together. They open and close the rooms and the walls are changed by their actions, while organically shaped passages are formed.

By very actively investigating the material, children become aware of how their actions create new patterns and formations in the space. They also move their fingers on the corrugated cardboard wall and create sounds. In fact, noise is a characteristic aspect of corrugated cardboard.

“They are creaking footsteps” says Denise, the four-year-old author of this work entitled “The creaking house”, clearly inspired by the sound of material. The image is taken from the beautiful book “Mosaic of marks, words, material” published by Reggio Children, which clearly illustrates how children are able to be listening and in relation to the nature of the material they are using.

Pictures from the book Mosaic of marks, words, material, Reggio Children

The corrugated cardboard can fold and has got stripes: so the rainbow was a spontaneous association for Lorena, a three-year-old child struggling with a strip of cardboard and indelible markers. In most of their explorations, children spontaneously adopt an empathetic approach of curious researchers that we, as adults, can rediscover only with a certain, initial effort of awareness and intentionality.

Folon, Voyage brun, 2000

By what magical alchemy does the French artist Folon manage to transform an anonymous piece of corrugated cardboard into such an evocative and poetic seascape? I believe that for any professional, a respectful and curious dialogue with the material is an indispensable element to reach a good level both from an aesthetic and functional point of view, as demonstrated by many examples in the field of art and design.
The great Italian designer Bruno Munari reminds us that the observation of natural shapes is very useful to the designer, who gets used to choosing materials for their nature, for their technical characteristics, and not to use iron where it would be better using wood (or glass where plastic would work better, and so on).

There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

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Architecture scale model in a design exposition, MAXXI Museum, Rome

If you are interested in the creative exploration of materials, you are welcome to join the Facebook group “The grammar of matter” and to eventually share your cardboard research.

A special thanks to Maria Kozlowska for her precious contribution and beautiful pictures, including the cover one.

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How can we play with paper strips?

transforming strips of paper and unstructured materials

I would like to introduce you a material I love and often use in my art work: paper strips, that you can easily ask for free to printing houses as a waste material.

How can our personal artistic research – as teachers and adults – be an inspiration for children processes and not a model to repeat? How presenting the materials in a educational context? Do we show to children some examples or “tecniques”? I think these are some central questions that not have only one always valid response.

Now imagine you want to present paper strips to a small group of 4-5 years old children, inviting them to freely play with this material and a stapler. How would you do it? Any prefiguration?

Here is my experience. In my case, I was not the theacher (or the atelierista) and children did not know me. One morning I just shortly introduced myself to the classroom. I told I was a professional, expert in transforming materials (that is the truth).
For example, let me show you how I could transform a strip of paper. Have you ever tried?

I slowly pulled out a long stripe of paper and a stapler, as if they were very special things. There were 48 eyes staring at me silently. As I formed a circle, they shout: It’s a sun! A hat! (and I put it in my head) A wheel! (and I made it roll). Without speaking, I went on with other trasformations, letting children being involved in this simbolic game.

Finally, I told I would have liked to come back to play with them with paper strips. When I came back, all the children remembered me and were very excited. We worked in small groups of four children for about one hour. In the beginning, many of them asked me to show how to create a heart, a house or another shape they remembered. But I answered: Well, I am not sure of what I exactly did and how… Please try by yourself, go on, and I will support you as I can. Trying by themselves, children started to develop a personal process and then, most of the time forgot the shape initially asked.

Even if it was a very limited activity from the point of view of the available materials, it allowed the development of many different, rich and unique processes. (Despite limits or thanks to limits?)

I tried to make each child feel comfortable, welcome and free to approach the material. If the environment is “good enough”, if we (educators and teachers) are not worried about educational goals, products or parents’ expectations, every child will express his/her unique potential through materials.

This process is often not a linear, with a clear result consisting in a single, final work, like the ones in the images below. For example, the most significant part could be the sensory exploration, the spoken words, the movements of the body or other interconnected aspects. If a final product is missing or less noticeable, it will be very frustrating for those who consider the product as the necessary proof to make visible children’s learning. I think we should try to have a different, wider perspective. Here is a short story about it.

Alessandro, 5 years old, repeated the same sequence of actions all along: folding a small strip on itself and then letting open it again, observing what happened to the strip. He created many spiral shapes, that were very similar but every time a bit different by chance. At some point, he used this sequence of actions to invent a game: he rolled up the strip, gripped it tightly in his fist, hiding it, then he moved casually near another child without getting noticed and suddenly left the stripe free, with a kind of spring-effect, in order to scare the child.


transforming paper strips in a creative worlshop for children

It was an investigation of the moviment that the spiral shape can produce, then this moviment became a game. Moreover, the transition from closed to open, from compressed to expanded is also significant from a symbolic point of view. You can see as in this case, the product can’t be divided from the process. It also makes us remember the importance of repetition: to consolidate a learning process, to investigate, to observe small differences, to reassure, to be enough sure before doing the next step.

Why is it important to know the characteristcs of the material we offer, to work it with our hands before offering it to children? Of course, not for showing them our beautiful works and skills, but to make the best choice for them: finding the most suitable way to present the material, good relaunches and ideas to manage the most difficult aspects. For example, in the case of paper strips, you would expect that such a serial material stimulates the production of a very big quantity of similar works (specially in the beginning of the activity), so that the available space will become probably full of stuff.

Already knowing it, you will be ready to cope with this kind of messy and overwhelmed situation, trying to contain it in order to support the process. For example, suggesting to join some of the paper works, to collect them, build with them, looking for a story or some kind of composition. In this way, what was overwhelming and cahotic can gain a new meaning.

children's works with stripes of paper

We should trust both materials and children. There is a reason or a need for whatever a child do or not do, and only from where children actually are, some kind of development can happen. Finally, I would like to end with some words by Nona Orbach, artist and art therapist, from her book “The Good Enough Studio”: A good kindergarten or elementary school educator needs to recognize the specific characteristics of each child. If an educator does see the child’s underlying qualities, they will be able to relate genuinely to each of them, and the children will feel that they are truly seen. If children are acknowledged and have a safe place to be themselves, they will also be less aggressive towards others. Children in such an environment tend to play and work for a longer period of time, and have better social skills. It is a profound need of our human nature to be genuinely seen by others; it assures us that we are loved and accepted as we are.
Thus any child, truly seen, will blossom.

If you are interested in exploring the creative use of materials, you are welcome to subscribe to the Newsletter and join the Facebook group The Grammar Of Matter.

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