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.

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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.

What about the language of 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

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


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