'A School Must Rest On The Idea That All Children Are Different'

The glass-walled Diana School in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia looks more like a cheerful greenhouse than a public kindergarten. Children's art is everywhere--on walls, painted on windows, hanging from the ceilings, spread across tables. There are ceramic tiles of sea horses, a mobile of human profiles made of wire and beads, and clay figurines of trees and leaves. Two dressing areas offer costumes for children who might want to "disguise" themselves for the day.

Until World War II, Reggio was known more for the quality of its wine and ham than for the excellence of its schools. But as the Germans retreated, the women of Reggio decided to build a school from the rubble. In Villa Cella, then a borough of Reggio, parents and children gathered stones and sand from the river, made bricks and hauled wood. In 1946 a teacher named Loris Malaguzzi rode over on his bicycle to take a look at the work in progress. He was so impressed that he never left. By the time he retired as director in 1985 he had built a program praised by early-childhood educators around the world for its commitment to innovation. "A school needs to be a place for all children," he says, "not based on the idea that they're all the same, but that they're all different."

At Diana and the city's other 32 schools for children from infancy through the age of 6, master teachers design the curriculum and parent-volunteers work alongside the teachers. Classwork is organized around themes that allow children to learn a variety of skills and help them understand their world. What looks like art, for example, is actually a science, math and art lesson. On a recent morning 4-year-olds worked busily on plant projects. At one table youngsters made leaf figures using metal wires while other groups worked with clay, paper or paint. Luca, 4, glued real leaves to his painting of a tree. He chose one from a basket of dried plants and flowers. "Did you notice that the leaf looks different on the back and the front?" asked his teacher, showing him different textures and veins. Luca studied both sides before deciding which fit best into his painting.

The program is also unusually comprehensive. Children can start at infancy in what is called the asilo nido (literally "nest"), for kids up to 3. After that, they go to the scuola materna ("maternal school"), for 3- to 6-year-olds. In the scuola materna youngsters are assigned to classes of 24 that stay together, with the same two teachers, for three years. Besides the bright, cheery classrooms, children can mingle in an adjoining small-group room, go to a corner kitchen for snacks or play in niches-such as a tumble aria-designed for different age groups.

Reggio's system is not typical of Italy. In a poor section of Rome, for example, teacher Simona Manganozzi has been trying to run a special classroom for immigrant and disabled children. She can't even afford toilet paper for her class, never mind pencils, paper, paint or clay. As she looks wistfully through a book on Reggio, she sighs: "This is a dream, not a school."

It is a dream that has become a reality largely because the region is one of Italy's richest, with a sturdy base of small and medium-size industry and agricultural production. The tax base supports the schools, but families pay $69 to $269 per month, depending on their income and the age of the child. Space is limited and not everyone gets in. Disabled children and those of single parents are admitted automatically; other admissions are based on interviews.

In class, each child's special qualities are recognized and nurtured. Teachers often leave a tape recorder on an activity table in order to learn how children are reasoning and expressing themselves. "It helps us understand better the diversity among children," says Vea Vecchi, a mother who started teaching 20 years ago and now oversees the staff at Diana. Each classroom also has a communication center--a series of white cardboard boxes with teachers' and students' names. "Three-year-olds will start out maybe by sending a piece of candy or colored paper to a friend," says Vecchi. "By the time they're 5, they're sending real letters." That's a splendid preparation for first grade-and for life.