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.

The Grammar of Matter

Every material has got a set of specific characteristics and qualities resulting from its nature, that defines its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations, reversible or not. It is what I call a kind of “natural grammar”, meaning some inner rules that can be empirically investigated. How?

Observing and transforming the material with a friendly approach, remaining attuned to its nature, with the curiosity and discretion of a guest. If we do not impose a shape but are in a respectful interaction, the material itself will suggest us what to do. A sheet of paper, for example.

all the possible ways to fold a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book ” Folding Techniques for Designers: From Sheet to Form ” by Paul Jackson

Just taking it in your hands, you will immediately guess it can be rolled or folded. In how many ways? The exploration of this simple actions open up endless variations: you can try different dimensions, inclinations, proportions, forms of the starting sheet, and so on. We couldn’t imagine all these possibilities without an hands-on investigation.

The same applies to many other actions, that we can develop (rubbing, piercing, cutting, rolling, wetting …) and combine. The richer our inventory will become, the more available choices we will have for creatively transforming the material.

some possible ways to transform a sheet of paper
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 1 La carta” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Paper comes in several shapes, weights and textures: the grammar of each type of paper has got some characteristics in common (with all the papers) and some different, specific ones. Let’s think, for example, of a toilet paper roll: the actions of folding and cutting are still possible (like in a sheet of paper) but influenced by the cylindrical shape and the weight of the cardboard, thus effecting different results.

all the possible ways to transform  a toilet paper roll

The same goes for whatever material, artistic, waste or everyday, from the simplest to the most complex and structured one, to some objects (like newspapers, magazines, books ord catalogs in the case of paper).

But why is it important to explore the “grammar” of a material? Won’t it be boring using a material just for the sake of it, without the goal of a specific product?

all the possible ways to transform  a magazine

A deep exploration of the identity of materials is really enjoyable and useful to discover all their transformative potential, that than can be used for whatever goal or context. Thus we will be able to make the most of its technical and expressive possibilities.

Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Stefano Arienti
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj
Art works by Zbigniew Salaj

In some cases, such as clay, the “grammar” mostly coincides with what we call “technique”: a set of rules and coded informations handed down over time, necessary for more complex works. For example, before cooking a piece of clay, we need to know how to avoid air bubbles to prevent the piece from breaking, and so on. But, in addition to this knowledge, it is still important to directly explore the material firsthand, for understanding its nature: how can it be transformed? Through what actions? How does the material react? With what results?

some possible ways to transform a piece of clay
Pictures from the book “Il gioco creativo – 3 La ceramica” by E. Rottger and D. Klante, Il Castello Edizioni

Following a gradual increase in complexity, our exploration can go on with the encounter between two or more materials: what possible dialogues between two languages and grammars? The encounter with “diversity” reveals even better the specific identity of each material and brings unexpected solutions. Maybe these dialogues between materials can represent a significant metaphor of our relational patterns as human beings. Of course, there are not simplistic and linear interpretations, but subtle correspondences between external and internal world, very interesting to be deepened. You can find more about this in the post “Dialogue with a sheet of paper”.

some possible ways to use clay and cardboard together
some possible ways to use clay and other materials together
Atelier of the Loris Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia

At all levels, from the educational field to the industrial design, using a material with a respectful approach towards its nature generates a more authentic, ecological relationship with it, as well as a more pleasant and coherent aesthetic result.

As Bruno Munari explained in his book “Da cosa nasce cosa”, we can learn this kind of approach by observing nature. Simple shapes like a drop of water, or more complicated ones like that of the praying mantis, are all built according to laws of constructive economy. In a bamboo cane the thickness of the material, the decreasing diameter, its elasticity, the arrangement of the nodes, all of these respond to precise economic laws: if it was stiffer it would break, more elastic it would not bear the weight of the snow. There is a limit we cannot go beyond, in the sense of constructive simplicity.

The orange fruit as example of perfect packaging by Bruno Munari

For example, the traditional blown glass bottle has a logical form in relation to the material: in fact its shape is nothing but the shape of the drop of molten glass, dilated by the blower. This means that it is a logical form, where the thickness is uniform over the entire surface, such as in soap bubbles. You can’t make a square bottle with blown glass, because the square shape is unnatural compared to the expansion process of this incandescent magma which is glass.

Picture from the book “Da cosa nasce cosa” by Bruno Munari, Laterza

Thus, it seems that an “exact” thing is also beautiful. This is why the observation of natural forms is very useful to designers, who learn to use materials for their technical characteristics, according to their nature, and not to use iron where wood would be better, and so on.

Discovering the grammar of matter allows us to use a material respecting its limits and enhancing its potential. It allows an meaningful dialogue with matter, for anyone interested in a creative and interactive relationship with the world.

how to represent trees with a string
Picture from the book “Saremo alberi” by Mauro Evangelista, Artebambini

Click here for exploring the Grammar of Matter through my Course, where I have condensed my experience about materials (20% off for Newsletter Subscribers!)

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