What is an Atelier?

Art studio or 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…

You are welcome to subscribe the newsletter if interested in this topic. And enjoy your atelier, whatever it looks like!

What’s the meaning of the 100 Languages?

The hundred languages

The idea of “the hundred languages” was originally born of a poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, and later became a famous educational topic. The language of poetry is made of images, metaphors, rhythm: and in fact it is not a theory we can understand at a cognitive, conceptual level and then apply. Does it tickled some of your childhood memories? How does it resonate with all your body and mind? Moreover, a poem evokes specific images through which it tells some universal truth. And in fact, “The hundred languages” does not concern only our everyday work with children, but our idea of who a child is and – after all – our idea of a human being.

The hundred languages poem

After reading the first lines, let’s focus at the word “hundred” for a while. I think this number is a metaphor representing the great multiplicity and richness of the potential that belong to each child. “And a hundred hundred more…”: it’s probably much wider than what we can figure out as adults. That’s why children can always surprise us, for example using things in a way that we could never imagined.

In the meantime, all the hundred and more possibilities are connected in a special way to shape the child uniqueness. In other words, every child holds within himself a unique, personal treasure of hundred. This is why not all the children should necessarily do the same experiences and activities. For example, if a teacher proposes each day a different material to the classroom (watercolors on Monday, oil pastels on Tuesday, clay on Wednesday and so on), that’s not bad itself, children will probably enjoy… But the essence of the hundred languages is something else.

It is not a list of many different materials. It does not concern the quantity of things (“the more I have and I do, the more I will be creative”), but the variety, the molteplicity of the qualities of materials and experiences, so that every child will naturally find his own way, unique and hundred-faceted in the meantime.

However… Continuing to read the poem, something unexpected happens: they steal ninety-nine! How is it possible?

Here there seems to appear a clear division between the child and the adult. So we may wonder: do the Hundred Languages concern only childhood? And if so, until what age? What happen while growing up, where has the Hundred gone when we become adults?
Let’s try starting from the beginning. For a child, everything is a fresh, new encounter. Why should the kitchen be less interesting than the atelier?

A child is completely involved while exploring, with all the senses, body and mind. It is an holistic approach that holds together many dimensions – emotional, cognitive, social, the child’s needs, goals, stories and questions. A child plays and learns at the same time. “Playing with fun and seriously learning” is a division that adults and school make later, and I think this is what Malaguzzi was referring to.

In his book “Art, mind and brain”, Howard Gardner explains that in early years, children begin to use various symbolic skills and expressive languages in a very flowing way, easily moving from one field to another. This is because they do not know anything yet about the culture and conventional uses of things, tools and symbols. Then, after some years (according to Gardner at about 7 years old), children are becoming more interested in cultural patterns, social conventions and rules. They want to understand deeper how things really work, focusing on one thing at a time.

So we could say that growing up, there is a natural movement from an horizontal dimension of connections to a vertical dimension of deepening. In the meantime, the school tends to divide the knowledge in many disciplines. These two dimensions are both necessary, there is not an exclusive opposition: but every age, or better, every developmental stage, will have a different kind of balance between the two.

For what concern the 0/6 age-range, the horizontal direction of connection is fundamental, while becoming older and more interested in the cultural aspects, the number of connections and of the explored languages can become less and less… Of course, later in life this dimension can be hopefully recovered and nurtured by new awarness and knowledge. Anyway, I think this gap can explain why children have 100 while some adults (that remain firm in a phase of specialization) only 20, or maybe only one. We just have to be aware of it and not forget there are other 99!

So how can we (as adults and educators) set up an environment for children according to their hundred possibilities?
Here is a typical proposal that is generally associated to the Reggio approach: some flowers on the table, along with sheets of paper and materials for drawing in different chromatic shades. But how can we say it is consistent with the 100 languages theory, only by looking at one picture, knowing nothing about the context within the proposal was offered? Why did the teacher suggest children to draw a flower? And what was the relationship between the children and that flower?
If the teacher offers this same proposal every year, with every new group of children, it is just an activity, a technique, an experience. That’s not wrong itself, some children will probably enjoy it, but the essence of the hundred languages is something else. And what if children were not interested in the flower at all but focused on the movements of a ladybug that suddenly appeared? What would you do?
Do we actually observe children, listen to them, give them space or maybe are we too worried about expectations and curriculums, following the last trendy pedagogical slogan?

No template can ensure we are really following the path of 100 languages. Why? Because every child is unique, as every teacher or atelierista and each context as well, with its specific cultural and social background. Thus, we are always joining a flexible, dynamic dance, created by the encounter of our identity (along with our pedagogical-artistic knowledge) with children’s identity, within our specific context. What wonderful, neverending intersections… Why always choosing a table with a flower, paper sheets and some drawing materials among the hundred and hundred possibilities?

“The Hundred is there”: what is the unique hundred of your children? As educators, we have an active role in the process and if we take part of it with empathy, we will not fill the child with hundred things, but provide a rich and welcoming environment where a hundred per cent potential of children will flourish.

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Investigating nature with 100 languages

As every human being, you already own the “hundred languages” Malaguzzi was talking about. This does not mean you need hundred materials or tools, but that you have hundred possibilities to enter in a relation with the world, starting from your wonder and using what you already have. Don’t think of a final product, as a realistic drawing of a flower or a leaf: just try to be in a relation with that flower or that leaf.

For example, have you ever really observed the colors of a flower you like? Are you able to count and name all of them? It is not as easy as it sounds. The “green” (as every other color’s name) includes such a large number of different hues that there are not enough words to identify and name them. Moreover, outside the color changes over time: through the seasons, during the day, and looking more closely, even at the same moment: just changing point of view, or because a cloud suddenly moves in front of the sun.

So what is the “true” color of the flower I am looking at?

And what if a child noticed the shaded colors of a petal, how – as educators – can we support this interest and make it develop? Of course, giving value to his observation, eventually making some questions. Adults and children are dialoguing and wondering together, it’s not an interview with the teacher writing the child’s answers for the documentation. This also means that they can just silently observe. Infact, making questions to children is not a good thing itself. A question could be asked too early or effects too much the answer. For example, what if a teacher asks the reason why colors change along with light before the child has noticed it?

Then, which materials could we offer to children and how, in order to deeper the investigation of chromatic shades? There isn’t only one right way – it depends on the context, the school organization, the age and the number of children, and so on. Anyhow, if we just invite children to choose some markers, it will be a very poor answer compared to the endless possibilities of overlapping and mixing colors (“of the hundred they steal ninety-nine”…).

Why don’t ask children what materials they think would be better in order to explore shades? Then, try to follow and support the process. Maybe children will choose markers but soon realize there are not enough chromatic tones… so their research will probably lead to water colors or gouche, as water is a crucial element for mixing colors (somehow closed to the nature of the shade’s phenomenon). I think it would be very different if the teacher offered water colors since the beginning.
What is the exact spot where a color ends and another begins? If we cannot clearly define the boundaries between different colors, we say there is a “shade”. So, what exactly is a shade?

According to the artist Paul Klee, a shade is a type of “order” typical of the natural world, that develops through a continuous process of “growing” and “decreasing” (crescendo and diminuendo), where the opposites flow into one another. On the other hand, the artificial order is poorer but perceptible through a kind of organization divided into measurable steps.

Klee made a deep research about plant forms and about how natural shapes develop. He was used to write his thoughts in a notebook, that later he used for teaching to his students at the Bauhaus school (all these notebooks have been printed in Italian in two beautiful books, I hope theys exist in English too).

For example, how does the leaf-shape form? According to Klee, the ribs are lines of constructive energy and the final shape depends on these forces: the outline is formed where the linear irradiation stops. From this perspective, the outside shape results as an effect of a inner, primary force (or cause). But many other answers and theories are possible from different perspectives.

The biologist and mathematician D’Arcy W. Thompson, in his book “On Growth and Form”, ventures into a search for algebraic formulas that regulate the growth of natural forms. From another point of view, the Italian designer Bruno Munari approaches every natural thing as a perfect example of good design and every natural shape as built according to laws of constructive economy. In his tiny book, “Good design”, he describes in technical details an orange, a pea pod and a rose, as perfect objects in which the absolute coherence of form, color, use, consumption is found.

What is the right explanation? There is not only one, nor even a unique way to look for it. As well as there are many languages ​​to look for an answer, many answers are needed to get closer to the truth. Moreover, an holistic approach – that holds together many dimensions – characterizes the spontaneous playing of children and their learning processes. Of course, I do not cites these theories for encouraging to agree with them or use them with children, but as examples of what rich and various processes can develop from every personal research. Have you ever tried your own one?

In light of this, why do exist some recurring proposals that are usually associated to the Reggio approach and the Hundred languages, like drawing the shadow of an object or a flower placed at the center of a table? Maybe, do we need ready-made answers because we do not trust “enough” that an interesting process will flourish from children?

Why drawing the shadow – among the hundred and hundred possibilities of exploring it? During my walks and researches into nature, the encounter with shadows had nothing to do with drawing. Once, it seemed to me that the leaves shadows of some branches were writing a code, an alphabet of different balances of full and empy spaces within the same shape. I was mainly interested in the visual rhythm created by the continuously changing interaction between leaves, light, air and my point of view. The process was leading me to play with some leaves-pentagrams…

What about the child originally interested in the petal’s shades? Maybe, he would continue to wonder about colors even through shadows: where does the color go when a shadow covers it? And what color is the shadow?

I think that the first-hand experience of a creative process is strictly connected with the capacity to trust others’ processes and let them flourish. What is your personal experience with the “hundred languages”? What are your favourite ones?

That shadow or that flower is unique, however many dimensions are there – scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, emotional, narrative – and they are all connected. The atelier is a place where these exploration paths can be developed thanks to materials and tools it offers.

That flower is one, the reality is one, but in the meantime it is reflected in hundred mirrors, one for each expressive languages and also one for each person. Isn’t it amazing?

Enjoy your nature exploration!