The contribution from women to the birth of the Reggio Approach

The presence of women within the birth of the Reggio Approach is one that is very strong and incredibly influential. To look closely at the work in which they have done, we must retrace history and the steps of those who came before us, injecting innovation into education.

It was the end of the ‘800 that the Emilia-Romagna region saw the creation of Public administrative systems that focused their energy into education. These years are when the socialist administrations worked to open the first public and laic Infant- Toddler Centers. When the “Gabinetto Pedagogico”, a laboratory of self- reflections about education and professional development, was created in Reggio Emilia, Italy, a place where educators were free to share their experiences and observations within colleagues.

After such progressive development the First World War and the fascist party’s rise, unfortunately, wiped off all these innovative and avant-garde experiences.

In 1925, the Creation of ONMI (Opera Nazionale Maternita e Infanzia – National Organization of Maternity and Infancy), helped to place focus on Early Childhood for the first time within Italy. Through dealing with maternity and child protection the institute intended to take care of mothers, infants and young people from disadvantageous families and leading this effort with the opening of specialized clinics focusing on the dissemination of prenatal and infant hygiene standards. Alongside these clinics, nurseries were built for children up to the age of three and the revolutionary introduction of nursing/breastfeeding rooms near to the workplaces of mothers and in the city centers. Together with childhood health care, the ONMI also had the task to indoctrinate families with ideas linked to the totalitarian regime. The goal of the Dictatorship at that time was the demographic growth in defense of the race. With these aims, the indoctrination was promoting eugenic theories aiming for the ‘improvement of the human race’ and the subordination of woman as a mere submissive breeder, in opposition to a ‘working woman, unable to take care of her household, as duty assigned to her by the nation’.

‘In September 1943 a ceasefire between Italy and the allied forces was announced. On the very same day, German troops occupied the country establishing a regime founded on murder, torture, rape, deportation and forced labor. Over 600.000 Italian men were taken prisoners those remained had no choice if not hide underground, and they were no longer free to move around. A liberation movement was created from over the next 20 months, by the end of the war hundred thousand people were involved in it. In contrast to men, women were allowed to move around more freely. They delivered messages, information, weapons, munitions, and essential relief supplies. They also safely escorted a group of partisans and other people. For a long time, women participation in the resistance was not appropriately recognized” (Lingenauber, 2018)

“At that time was really dangerous to speak of a new pedagogy, even if we were already attending the school specializing in education here in Reggio. This was a period with food rationing primary goods like sugar, bread and flour couldn’t be found… This was the period during which you entered a store and there were big signs with written: ‘in this shop is forbidden to talk about politics and higher strategy’ (…) And everything we were talking about was secret, something we kept inside of ourselves hoping to concretize it later. We didn’t have any right: the right to vote, the right to culture, to social equality… We didn’t even know what it could represent for us… During our encounters and meetings, we spoke about all the activities we wanted to do after the Liberation (…)“.  words of Giacomina Castagnetti, born in 1925 (from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

a group of partisans women in Cremona

The active participation of women in the resistance had contributed to the end of the conflict and was a significant step forward in their emancipation and which later resulted in a greater presence in political, public, working and civil life.

“These women who came out of the war were new women, underwent a change, they were no more the same women they used to be in 1940: they had acquired a certain self-confidence, women who wanted to do things, women who really demonstrated the will a mother can have so as to create better conditions for their children.” Words by Marta Lusuardi, born in 1927(from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

26 APRIL 1945, a Women’s defense group in Milan

The voices of many women were calling for action, requesting for the closure of the ONMI and the reorganization of educational services for children with a modern perspective, ensuring that it was embracing the new form values and ideologies of society.

In 1943 women’s defense groups were born, purely female anti-fascist underground organizations that saw seventy-five thousand members join. From these groups, the defense of women’s rights was born UDI – Unione Donne Italiane- an association of women protagonist leading many campaigns for the rights of the women in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

“After the Liberation women started to get organized together with other women (…), I started to fight for women’s rights” word of Loretta Giaroni, born in 1928 (from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

“…When we were in these conditions in a small village here outside Reggio Emilia (Villla Cella) people bought, getting into debts, a small piece of land, on this piece of land they built the first ‘Scuola dell’Infanzia’ (3-6 early learning center) . It was called “Scuola di Cella, without a proper name… later it became Scuola XXV Aprile as memory of the Resistance (…) Just to tell you that even at that time people were thinking how to look after and educate young children (…)” Word of Marta Lusuardi (from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

Whilst these campaigns were being led throughout Italy, it was in Reggio Emilia that the UDI opened 60 Infant-Toddler Early Learning Centers as a response to the need for women returning to the workforce. Sadly many of these centers will be shot down in the 1950s and as a result of these times, women began to lead an effort for a new type of school system and for them to be managed by the Municipality. The women of the time were calling for a school where the educational component was considered to be of just as high importance as the ‘care’ for the children. This campaign saw the successful adaptation of the identity of the child, a development of his/her autonomy and an outcome that saw the child’s positive interaction within society.

“(…) when I became Councilor, one of the very first things I did in July 1967, was to organize an assembly with all the people asking for Municipal Schools for their children (…) and we said to them ‘step up and get this done: find premises that can be adapted for a municipal ‘school’ (…) every single municipal ‘school’ was obtained by struggling… it started from the ‘struggle’ of the parents and the citizens (…)” words of Loretta Giaroni (from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

“ the initiative started from the bottom this is what it is.”

“… The UDI in Reggio Emilia had 12000 women enrolled. We became so strong because we had all the women by our side, so… to say ‘no’ to us, was meant to say ‘no’ to hundreds of thousands of women”. words of Lidia Greci and Ione Bartoli ( extract from an interview of Sabine Lingenauber)

In the 1960s the Emilia region housed many revolutionary samples of Infant-Toddler Early Learning Centers as well as the development of many pedagogical reflections resulting in the strengthening of the image of the child in an educational sense. A recognition of the child’s cognitive process, their symbolic thoughts, their control of their emotions and how these influence the development of their verbal language. As well as these innovative changes in the way in which the child was viewed the centers were also aiming to be educational places for the families and the community surrounding the child.

In 1962 in many of the places using the term ‘Maternal school’ (Scuola Materna) interchanged this language with ‘Early Learning Center’ (Scuola dell’ Infanzia) instead of in order to honor the principles of the emerging modern pedagogy. Childhood itself was at the center of the educational and training theory and a transformation of it not just being an object but a subject in its own right.

1975 saw the end to ONMI as it was permanently shut down. A victory to those who supported the opening of Infant-Toddler Centers and who also saw several municipal schools opened, representing a substantial and symbolic battle since the post-war period had come to an end.

As one victory was celebrated another battle surged ahead, that of a new defense of motherhood. No longer were the traditional ideals of motherhood sufficient but new support was needed for the working woman, a necessity to guarantee equal opportunities and the protection of a sacred balance between work and family life. These requests were representing a fight for the redemption and equality of the most disadvantaged classes. These required the assumption of responsibility from political parties, in opposition to the conservatory parties that were still being represented in the 1970s.

15000 Women gathered in Rome in March 1971 asking for the opening of Municipal Infant-Toddler and Early Learning Centers. At the frontlines, Young mothers with the children in strollers.

This battle manifested into an uprising, which saw a radical march in 1971 organized by UDI and young mothers with the children in strollers at the frontlines fighting for their rights. The ‘piano nazionale per gli asili nido’ (national plan for the Infant-Toddler centers) was the first step into recognition of the importance of Early Childhood Education (especially for children from 0 to 3 years old) as a public responsibility and part of family education.

Ultimately the administration was given over to the municipalities and in 1972 the region of Reggio Emilia was able to create an interdisciplinary commission led by Loris Malaguzzi and form here a formalized document was composed called ‘Regolamento delle Scuole dell’Infanzia sulla Progettazione degli Asili Nido’ which became the first official educational project for Early Childhood education.

Bibliography (Excerpts and translations)

Lingenauber S. (2018), project-documentary: “The women and the schools of Reggio Emilia”,

Salati A. (2018) “Un senso del tempo. I servizi edcuativi della Bassa Reggiana, identita’ di un progetto per l’infanzia” , Ed. Libre, Italy.

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