Mess, chaos and the Reggio Emilia Approach
What looks like chaos to you might be a source of creativity to young learners, so don't be so quick to clear things away...
Most often when people think of a Reggio Emilia Approach classroom or early years setting they think of a beautiful room, natural materials and an orderly aesthetic. And yes, there is an element of truth to this, but it is not the whole story.
Learning is not orderly or aesthetic, it is organic and that means it can get messy, it can get chaotic, and that is perfectly fine.
Over the years I have come to understand that creativity comes from chaos, that messiness and failure are necessary to create new ideas. We need a variety of experiences - not just neat and tidy ones, for the imagination to kick into gear and to make connections. For me, being “Reggio inspired” is about ideas, about connecting ideas, expanding ideas, interacting with each others’ ideas, building ideas – and doing this collaboratively. This means we need to get prepared for mess – to explore, to discover, to make mistakes and try again.
I have also come to terms with the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that we really don’t all see beauty in the same way, so why should children consider the same things as us beautiful?
I have seen creations children have made (dens, loose-part worlds etc), seen the pride on their faces, and I have been unable to find the beauty they see (as it looks chaotic)– unless, that is, I see through their eyes.
We must also be prepared to make a mess to support learning... and not be afraid of cleaning up.
For instance in the image below you can see we took in lots of autumn leaves for the 1-2 year olds to play with... at first wet... and then we allowed the to dry and we could play again.. the same leaves now behaved in a very different way when played with. So much learning... so much cleaning/tidying up afterwards... which the children enjoyed participating in too.
So, this brings me back to the classroom. Does it have to be pristine in its beauty? Can order look chaotic? And how long is it OK for a mess to be left in the room?
Over the years I have visited many different settings in many different countries. Some have been breathtaking, awe-inspiring, in the sense of “how could I ever create something so amazing?”
One of the best experiences I’ve had was returning to one of these awe-inspiring settings a year later after a day of preschool (as opposed to my first visit during a summer conference when it was set up for maximum beauty) and witnessing the traces of play everywhere - it was comforting.
Things were not perfect. There were messes everywhere. You could actually see the learning that had happened rather than the educators’ reflections on the learning.
Maybe it is not so much about the beauty of the classroom, but the educators’ understanding of the children – that the classroom responds to their learning, skills and interests, that the room is set up with respect for their competence, and that it is a space that allows interactions with peers, materials and the children’s own learning.
I’m sure that if we are creating a classroom that is respectful of the learners, then there will be beauty – regardless of whether the materials and furniture are specially designed or second-hand and recycled.
And the materials don’t need to be tidied away at the end of every day. There is value in letting the children’s work evolve over time. I find that after a while children stop playing with what is no longer interesting – an idea that is no longer expanding – and that’s when it is time to tidy it away, creating a fresh slate for new ideas.
Over the years I have entered many dialogues about the need for a well-ordered setting. I see it like art. Sometimes we just aren’t finished with the work of art and it need days, maybe weeks, to keep on creating; other times we need fresh paper each day on which to create.
In the same way that sometimes children need a blank canvas to create and play, and a tidy room, like a clean sheet of paper, can offer that.
It is about balance.
Not being afraid of mess, but also understanding when the chaos has stopped being creative and has started to become a hindrance. This means listening to the children and listening to the room.
All kinds of play can become messy and chaotic. With sensory play there is the strong likelihood that the materials will get spread around the room, and social play being collaborative means that there is always the opportunity for social mistakes. These, of course, can be chaotic, but they are also rich moments of learning.
It is important to be brave enough to allow the children to tidy up their social mess themselves, to resolve their problems and gain/refine skills in the process. So learning is not just quiet, it is noisy, it is not just harmonious but raucous, it is not just peaceful but tempestuous... we cannot only create a quiet, harmonious and peaceful learning environment - that is not the sign of being a successful teacher (I have seen films of such classrooms and shudder a little as it is portrayed as "perfect") - because if children only have access to this, are being reprimanded for mess and chaos, then they are not getting the chance to develop their whole brain. We need access to as many experiences as possible for whole brain learning, for imagination, for creativity... (of course as adults we shield children from hazards and danger).
The concept of a hundred languages in the Reggio Emilia Approach means that learning happens in many ways – that sitting, reading and writing in an orderly fashion is just not going to work for all children, there needs to be alternative ways to process information and experiences.
Messing about with learning ideas is not only essential for the children but also for the educators. David Hawkins is one, of the many, who inspired Malaguzzi, and one of his theories, ‘messing about’ was that educators needed to play, to mess about with materials, if they are truly to understand the learning that happens in play.
Being able to see the beauty in the mess; the sensory value of messy play, the benefits of children resolving their own social messes enables the educator to mess about with ideas on a larger scale. And taking learning and play outside gives mess more freedom – a place where educator and children can explore, learn, mess about and play together.