Profile: El Nido and El Atelier

Friday, August, 10, 12 § Leave a comment

Children as protagonists and teachers as learners: two learning centers in Colombia inspired by the groundbreaking pedagogy of Reggio Emilia.


Place: El Nido (The Nest) preschool, and El Atelier (The Workshop) are part of Colegio Bolivar, a private American K-12 school in Cali, Colombia. A modern city of 2 million people, with strong traditions in dance, music and sport, Cali is noted for the warmth of its residents and its tropical beauty, but also has been plagued by over-rapid expansion, social inequity and insecurity.

 History: Conceived by Maritza Gonzalez and Amanda Felton, El Nido opened its doors in 2007. El Atelier evolved shortly after as a way to extend the methodology into the primary school.

 The Skinny: El Nido and El Atelier were inspired by a model of early childhood education that comes from the town of Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy. Among the revolutionary principles that have been adapted from the Italian model are the ideas that children and teachers must co-create the curriculum, and that teachers work in teams to document and observe the children. Learning through arts, play and language are key. El Nido has 50 students aged 18 months through 4 years old. El Atelier, in a separate facility on the larger school campus, is coordinated by three teachers (an artist-pedagogue, a teacher, and a teacher’s aide), and is accessed on a rotating schedule by approximately 60 children aged 4-7, as part of their pre-primary curriculum.

 What Matters: Children are protagonists of the learning process. Teachers document and observe their students to co-create the curriculum with them. Play, language, and artistic exploration are vital elements of their education.

More info:

Reggio Emilia website

El Nido website (Spanish Only)

Colegio Bolivar Pre-Primary Website (Spanish Only)

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach, Eds. Edwards C., L. Gandini, and G. Forman

One of the most compelling innovations in education in the last fifty years comes from the town of Reggio Emilia, in Northern, Italy. Legend has it that when WWII ended, the citizens of this town found themselves in possession of a tank and some other cast-off military gear. After some discussion, they decided to sell the war-making material and use the money to build preschools—but not just any preschools. Having suffered through totalitarianism and war, they determined that their preschools would treat children as they believed a government should treat its citizens: as protagonists, as human beings who had a right to explore their interests and a duty to collaborate for the good of all. A visionary educator named Loris Malaguzzi showed up around then, on his bicycle, and the community got to work creating a revolutionary pedagogical model that has spread around the world.

I have not been to Italy to see the now internationally-acclaimed Reggio preschools in action, but I recently did visit two learning centers in Cali, Colombia, where I currently live, that have adopted and adapted some of the model’s principles.

Though the kids are just learning to read, posting children’s conversation on the classroom walls serves as record of the learning process, and helps teachers understand how best to extend the project.

Both of these centers live within the campus of Colegio Bolivar, a bilingual K-12 school that offers the children of Cali’s wealthiest a traditional college prep curriculum. The school’s modern facilities sprawl, country-club style, over several acres of manicured grass and palm trees. The campus is monitored by armed guards and enclosed by ten-foot hedges, reminders of the fact that Colombia, despite its warm, innovative people and the beauty of its landscapes, has not yet shaken its glaring income inequity, nor a legacy of senseless violence and war.

I stopped first at El Nido, a preschool with some fifty children, and found a group of four-year-olds in front of the school’s new white building, busily painting plastic tubes yellow, red and orange, while three teachers helped out.

At first, it seemed like little more than a fun art activity. But then Maritza González, one of the school’s co-directors and a pedagogue par excellence, helped me understand what I was seeing.

A model of “fire,” made by painting discarded plastic tubes.

The painting was not your typical, single-morning art project, the type that the teacher suddenly presents one morning, lets the kids work on, and then sends home the next day, when the paint is dry. No, the tube-painting experience was part of a curriculum that the  children and teachers had been co-creating for months—they were exploring the concept of fire. Inside the building, an open, flowing series of spaces, adjoined by windows so that children can observe other groups at work, I found the space were this particular group met, and got an idea of the scope of their project by glancing over their drawings of “fire” legends, captioned by the children’s own story-telling words. The painted tubes, I learned, were going to be set up as a “model” or fire.

Like all projects at El Nido, this one had arisen because the two teachers of this small group had been paying close attention to their students, and had noticed that several of them were interested in light, and fire. Week by week, the teachers had introduced new materials and ideas, telling legends about mythical fire beings, and worked with the kids to keep the topic alive and open.

It sounded complicated, a bit like fixing the car while it’s moving. As a teacher myself, I’d been trained to plan out the entire unit—or even the entire academic year—and then stay as close to the plan as possible. But El Nido teachers are able to co-create the curriculum with the students for two reasons: 1) they have discarded the paradigm of teachers as deliverer of information, and 2) they work in teams.

Watching the El Nido teachers, I noticed that two of them were painting alongside the children, and chatting with them about colors and fire as they did. The art project seemed as much theirs as it did the children’s. A third teacher, however, stood back and did not engage. Instead, she took pictures and film, and jotted down some of the children’s conversations. Maritza explained to me that later, the teachers would review the photos and documentation so that they could bring in new materials and ideas based on the understandings and questions presented by the children.

This is the Reggio model at work: the teachers are co-participants in the educational experience, but they are also expert pedagogues, who document their own work and then draw on their training and experience to extend the learning. This is why El Nido students and teachers engage for months on a single concept—like “height,” in the case of a group of two-year-olds—while in so many other schools and preschools, the teachers and students get bored with a topic in a matter of hours of days—if they ever get interested at all. The teachers become genuine learners, fascinated both by the subject and by the children’s interaction with it, and since no group of children is the same, no curriculum is ever created the same way twice.

Struck by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a group of pre-primary kids spent months developing a stop action film about the iconic bull and horse, and developed this backdrop as setting for the claymation figures.

When they graduate from El Nido, many of these students will move into the more traditional Kindergarten classrooms of Colegio Bolivar, but will continue their Reggio-inspired learning twice a week during short sessions in El Atelier, where artist and pedagogue Paula Agudelo and two teachers invite the children to develop year-long, artistic group projects of their own choosing.

Affixing an upside dining room set to the ceiling is one way the artists and teachers of El Atelier instigate new ways of thinking. The teachers never drew the children’s attention to the curiosity; it just appeared one day.

I did not see El Atelier in action when I visited, but I did visit its end-of-the-year “museum,” in which the child-initiated projects were on display. El Atelier, like El Nido, has developed a pedagogical emphasis on the appropriation of what our society has deemed as “trash,” inviting children to find new ways to recycle and repurpose discarded computers, cardboard boxes, plumbing fixtures, and more. The kids had chosen to explore the ideas of relaxation (they took over a small balcony, and created a lovely miniature natural reserve), rock bands (creating life-size drum sets, guitars and other instruments out of repurposed materials), camouflage, Picasso’s Guernica, and more.

In both El Atelier and El Nido, the emphasis is not on bringing information to the children, but on helping them understand how to enter into dialogue—with each other, with adults, and with the physical world they inhabit. The ideas and understandings that the children bring into the room are not to be interrupted or overlaid by an adult agenda, but rather extended, explored and adapted. Working in groups is a key part of the process.

“It’s not that the kids have to agree,” explains Paula, “but they must learn to be conscious of the differences between themselves and others, and learn how to create together.”

El Nido and El Atelier are relatively rich in resources, but I don’t think it would be difficult—logistically, at least—for less wealthy schools to adapt basic Reggio principles, especially the ideas that children should be co-creators of the curricula, and teaching should be a collaborative, exploratory endeavor. The tricky part is helping educators and communities make the philosophical shift toward more inclusive, constructivist schools. This shift requires placing real trust in the curiosity of our children, and in the intelligence and capability of the people who choose to explore the world at their sides.

Seth Biderman | Site visited May and June, 2012

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