Why an atelier can be everywhere

A toddler traces some marks with a stick in the mud of the garden. A child is playing with water and different containers in the kitchen. Some kids are drawing comics while sitting on the school bus. 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 nature as human beings, as well as expressing ourselves through what we find around us. It is always about a transformative relationship with the world, between inside and outside, in both directions. This happens since the very beginning in early childhood through free play, then it always remains a need and a potential for life.

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, letting it go wherever 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 municipal 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 as an experience container has continued to extend, including unconventional materials and fields: ateliers of light, of food, of gears… 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 an 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 by a certain kind of insight and approach, not only through physical boundaries or characteristics.

It could be a collection of tiny, pocket-objects for short bus rides; a chair, paper and watercolors in nature; a notebook and a pencil case in a bench; a garden and a camera; and other endless options.

You can create again and again endless containing “frames”:  it is a world within a world, as Nona Orbach defines it in her book The Good Enough Studio. A space where we allow ourselves and others to play, transform, explore just for the sake of it, without a precise product or 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 art materials come from a tradition that makes them particularly suitable for a certain type of expressive research.

But 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?

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. And a selection is still necessary: an intentional choice of some tools, objects, materials for discovering their creative potential, that would otherwise be dispersed or remain latent. Therefore, there are neither templates nor two identical ateliers.

The everywhere essence of the atelier allows us to experience endless variations of it and to enjoy creative relationships with the world, wherever we are.

Paper Atelier in a kitchen table

You are welcome to join the the next Everywhere Atelier Tour in Italy!