The Everywhere Atelier

A two-year-old child traces some marks with a stick in the mud. Another one is playing with water and different containers in the kitchen. A group of kids are painting on the easels of the art room. A ceramist models a sculpture in his studio. A man of the Paleolithic engraves an antelope in a cave.

What do these so different events have in common?

Exploring the world belongs to our shared human nature, as well as communicating and expressing ourselves through what we find around us. It is always about a transformative relationship between yourself and the world, between the inside and the outside, in both directions.

This happens since the very beginning through the free play in early childhood. Then it flows into the various disciplines and educational curriculum, until it is somehow integrated into adult life, for example becoming the core of some creative professions or, at worst, almost disappearing in certain daily routines. In any case, it always remains a need and a potential of human nature.

 

The atelier is a space-time frame intentionally set up for continuing to develop and enrich this transformative interaction with the world, without other objectives than the interaction itself, going where it will take us.

Do you remember how important it was to define a space for playing in your childhood, carefully choosing objects and stuff that were part of the game? Now, add to that involvement your actual knowledge and awarness acquired over time, and you will have a good starting point for setting up an atelier.


In the Italian educational landscape, the atelier and the atelierista were introduced by Loris Malaguzzi in the preschools of Reggio Emilia. It was a revolutionary act, putting the expressive languages (drawing, modeling, music, dance, body movement, stories) at the center of learning processes.

Since then, the research about several possible “shapes” of the atelier has continued to extend, including unconventional materials and fields: ateliers of light, of food, of gear… up to the concept of a spread atelier in recent years, coming out of a dedicated room to other areas of the school (classrooms, entrance, gardens, kitchen) and even the city (squares, shops, parks).

It is not about where. Meaningful processes can happen everywhere.


That’s why the most common objection of many educators – We do not have an extra room! – is just a very weak, apparent obstacle. The atelier is not necessarily a room.

This applies to any educational contexts, to the dimension of personal research and others fields, like the therapeutic one. Creating an atelier – for themselves or for others – means first of all selecting a part of the world, not only through physical boundaries but with a certain kind of insight and approach.

Here are a few of the many possible variations, explored by me or by some very good artists, art therapists and friends of mine (click them for more info):


You can create again and again endless containing “frames”:  it is a world within a world as Nona Orbach defines it in the book The Good Enough Studio. A space where we allow ourselves and others to play just for the sake of it, without a product or a goal or to be achieved.

Are there certain minimum conditions to enable this microcosmos? From the point of view of space and materials, is there something absolutely necessary?  

During the Covid emergency, I remember many teachers were really disoriented for the impossibility of using most of materials.

What do we do now? We have almost nothing! – as if the ability to play, explore and create was due to some particular materials… Of course, there are differences. For example, the so-called “artistic” materials come from a tradition that makes them particularly suitable for a certain type of expressive research (we will go into this topic in another post).

It is the world itself, with all the things it contains, that represents a really interesting interlocutor… and also, have you ever thought of the potential of an empty space? Maybe just with a tool or a material in the center of it?


Gallizi Preschool, Italy (Fano)

The “atelier-bubble” is everything except impermeable, always related and connected to its context, while being safe and defined by some kind of boundaries. Therefore, there are neither templates nor two identical ateliers. Moreover, a selection is still necessary: there is always a more or less conscious choice of tools, objects, materials. This enables the development of a creative potential that would otherwise be dispersed or remain latent.

A certain “limitation” often occurs spontaneously, as children play in a defined area – to the exclusion of all else. Despite this spontaneous ability, a space can sometimes be so hyper stimulating, saturated and dispersive that it makes it very difficult to orient, pause, focus and immerse  in the flow of a creative process.

Thus, the question about what and how many materials to choose is really crucial. We will investigate it in the next posts.

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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 never neutral, but one of the active elements of the relation. Your uniqueness is part of the process, or we could metaphorically say, part of the dance, together with children and materials, within the atelier.

What’s the meaning of the 100 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 your body and mind? A poem evokes specific images through which telling 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 belongs 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, what if a teacher proposes each day a different material to the whole classroom (watercolors on Monday, oil pastels on Tuesday, clay on Wednesday and so on), and repeats the same every year? That’s not wrong itself and 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 at the same time.


In the following part of the poem, something unexpected happens: they (the adults) steal ninety-nine! How is it possible?

It looks like 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, what was the relationship between the children and that flower?
And what if some 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 curriculum, following the last trendy pedagogical slogan?

No template can ensure we are really following the path of the 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 a specific context. What wonderful, neverending intersections! So why always choosing a table with a flower, paper and drawing materials among the hundred possibilities?

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

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