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 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.


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…

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