Orienting Participation

REAIE made a public statement earlier in the year in response to the global call for respectful relationships. This statement continues to be the catalyst for the current pedagogical direction that REAIE is taking.  In this blog, we have chosen the concept of participation to explore to “stand in solidarity with Australia’s First Peoples and advocate to uphold human rights for all citizens” (REAIE, 2020).

Let’s start with the question, ‘What is participation’? Your understanding of this concept may be strongly connected with the dictionary definition; the act of taking part in something but in Reggio Emilia, their meaning of this word and concept is steeped in the history of the town. To understand participation as a value in Reggio Emilia, we go back to the beginning to understand the nature and birth of the educational program.  Emilia Romagna, the region in which Reggio Emilia is located, was at the forefront of resistance against fascism. “The origin of public ECEC institutions was therefore rooted in the collective struggles of progressive movements for the promotion of civil rights:  on one side there were women’s movements claiming equal opportunities (such as the right to employment and maternity leave), while on the other social justice movements claimed a more equal society in which the right to education should be granted to all children, especially those from lower social classes” (Lazzari, 2012, p. 557). The values of resistance, solidarity, citizenship and co-responsibility emanate from these origins.

Carlina Rinaldi said that “participation is an educational strategy that characterises our way of being school and doing school. Participation involves the children, the families, and the teachers and is viewed not only as taking part in something but being part – the essence, the substance of a common identity, a “we” which comes alive through participating” (Rinaldi cited in Cagliari et al., 2004, p. 28). 5-year-old Aurora says, ‘participation is an invitation’.

“Participation is the value and strategy that defines how the children, the educators and the parents are the stakeholders in the educational project: it is the educational strategy that is constructed and lived day by day in the encounter with other and in the interpersonal relationships. Participation then is a common journey which makes it possible to construct a sense of belonging to a community” (Reggio Children, 2010, p.10).

Loris Malaguzzi saw participation as a concept and value that could only exist in a pedagogy of relations; “We consider relationships to be a fundamental, organising strategy of our educational system” (Malaguzzi, cited in Edwards, 1995, p.1). Participation does not just centre around families as protagonists, but also children, teachers and the broader community. These groups are is not considered in isolation from others, rather, in relationship with others. Children are considered within a web of interconnectedness with their family, their educational setting, their neighbourhood, suburb, state and country. If we were to connect with the National Quality Framework (NQF) here, we might highlight the concept and outcomes of identity, wellbeing; and being connected with and contributing to one’s world.

Social media posts in Australian contexts often show children drinking baby ‘cino’s’ sitting in a local café. Is this really what the NQS wants us to do? Is this engaging in reciprocal relationships with community?  Collaborative partnerships with families and communities are not just about getting OUT; it is also about inviting others IN.

Into the centre,

Into conversations and debate about children and about change

Into relationships

Into thinking together

Into your community

Participation is an invitation, so how do we invite children, families and the broader community to participate?

There are many strategies to enable the commitment to democracy and participation in pedagogical practices.  We will highlight three for this blog.  The first is educational documentation which is another concept and fundamental value in Reggio Emilia.  Documentation is a strategy that makes the learning of children visible.  Documentation is collected through observations, which are then interpreted and shared for objectivity and perspective.  The documentation in progress transforms as it is “revisited, reconstructed, re-signified and assessed; that is interpreted, in the exchange and with the contribution of different points of view” (Municipality of Reggio Emilia, 2010, p.12).  The process of sharing documentation is an act of participation, democracy and citizenship.

Another strategy to enhance and promote democratic, participatory processes is the practice of keeping groups of children together for three years.  Loris Malaguzzi rationalised this decision by saying, “it makes possible the greatest density, richness and complexity of communications, negotiations and collaborative problem-solving.  The three years spent together allow the group to construct a history of relationships and a sharing of culture that creates the sense of community and guarantees the quality of life and wellbeing for children as part of families” (Malaguzzi cited in Edwards, 1995, p. 8).

Projects are another strategy and practice that enables everyday democracy and participation. Projects are often misunderstood in the Australian context and become teacher-driven, theme-based and linear.  Projects in Reggio Emilia are designed for a multi-lingual dimension based on a belief of relational knowledge; rhizomatic in nature, driven by research and the pre-figurations of the educators.  Participation is encouraged by children and families in connection with the community. “When school and parents can converge toward a cooperative experience, an interactive experience that is the rational and advantageous choice of everyone concerned (we are all pursuing more meaningful experiences), then it is easy to see how hostile and mistaken is the pedagogy of self-sufficiency and prescription, and how friendly and fertile is the strategy of participation and shared research” (Reggio Children, 2019, p.17). What does this mean for teachers and children in primary schools where often knowledge is divided into disciplines and curriculum is delivered rather than participatory co-constructed?

Educators in Australia should critically reflect on their practices and ask themselves if they really draw on the expertise of families? Are families ideas welcomed?  Do you have authentic partnerships with families? Do you only dabble in the dominant practices and discourse of inviting the mother who is police officer or the father who is a nurse into to the centre to talk about their professions or do you tap into and draw on their thinking and perspectives of other aspects of the program? What strategies do you use so that parents see the value of being involved and is there a team vision to drive change and innovation in Quality Area 6 of the National Quality Standard in Australia?

We hope that these questions and perspectives on participation will disrupt your thinking and can be, as Malaguzzi suggested, ‘one of the many itineraries for orienting our walking together” (Cagliari et al., 2016, p.106).

©Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange. (Volume 2, No. 4).

To quote this blog, please use the following referencing citation.

Reggio Emilia Australia Information Exchange (REAIE), (2020). Orienting Participation.  REAIE Blogs, Volume 2, No. 4.



Cagliari, et al. (2004). Thoughts, theories and experiences for an educational project with participation. Children in Europe. Volume 6 (1).

Cagliari, et al. (2016) Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia: a selection of his writings and speeches 1945 -1993, U.S.A., Routledge.

Istituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, 2010, Indications Preschools and Infant toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Lazzari, A. (2012). The Public Good.  Historical and Political Roots of Municipal Preschools in Emilia Romagna. European Journal of Education, Vol. 47, No.4.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd, United Kingdom.

Reggio Children. 2014.  Participation is an invitation. Citizen, Citizenship, Participation.  Istitutzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia and Reggio Children.  Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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