First You Must Observe

By Patricia Reedy


Shortly after WWII, educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy came together determined to ensure that fascism would never again occur in their country. Hope for the future would lie in the hearts, minds and imaginations of children. Over 35 years, they built a municipal early educational system founded on the democratic principles of American educational philosopher, John Dewey. Since 1995, Reggio Emilia schools have received worldwide acclaim for child-centered education that reveals advanced creative learning for children zero to six years of age.

I had the opportunity to study with the Reggio educators when they were in residency at Mills College from 1998-2000. I was struck by their commitment to creativity revealed through a circular process of observation, exploration, art making, observation, editing, display, observation, discussion. This process took place on all levels—in the classroom, at staff meetings, in the community and, luckily for U.S. educators, internationally. This process felt familiar to me as it mirrored that of the choreographer.

The most memorable story revealed during their 1998 Making Learning Visible tour was the development of the crowd scene in the project titled The City of Reggio Emilia. Four by six foot photographs of the children’s sculpture of a crowd around the piazza were displayed. Viewers gasped when they remembered the age of the children at Reggio. What struck me, however, was the story of the process of creating the sculpture. The children sketched a crowd scene, then sculpted it from clay. Sitting in a circle, they examined their creation and critiqued it. One boy, in particular, was having difficulty with it. After a long silence, he piped up, “that isn’t right—it isn’t how a crowd looks.” Their teacher used that observation as a starting place for the dialogue that finally revealed that what was wrong with it was that “people don’t all face the same way.” She sent the students on an investigative photojournalism assignment to spend an afternoon observing, sketching and photographing real people in the real space. Back in the classroom, they studied their photographs and drawings and began to edit and revise their work. Ultimately, a consensus of approval was reached among the classroom of 4-6 year old artists.

Children are capable of similar inquiry when making dances. While our culture tends to fall back on the “good job” response to work, constant praise might not elicit the true creative potential of children, nor, as Alfie Kohn says, be the most respectful. Art making requires one to develop a critical eye—to become an expert observer, not of the finished product only, but all along the way. The Visual and Performing standards for dance lists Aesthetic Valuing as one of the 5 major strands. Here, in the U.S., this is often interpreted as arts criticism. Reggio educators define aesthetics as “the ability to judge and evaluate images or theories that work best for the particular project at hand.”

Every child’s dance education can include observation skill-building. In addition to kinesthetic awareness of the body’s place in space, children learn to tweak their dances to become closer to their intention through a process of observation, feedback and revision. Even at an early age, the 3-4 year old can raise her hand “if you saw high shapes in this dance” or respond to “show me in your body the favorite part of his dance.” Children learn to respond using the language of dance so that by age 7-8 they are responding to the work of their peers with comments such as, “the part where you held that rigid bent shape really created contrast in your flowing dance.” With practice, they eventually learn to view two different endings to their dance, critique them with peers, choose the best one and develop it further. It becomes less about being a “good dance” or a “boring dance” and more about what works best in a particular situation. If you want to dance about a crowd, you can begin by really looking at crowds, continue by closely observing your dance as it is being formed, and end with final edits that realize a crowd dance as authentic as it can be. This is using observation in the process of creation as opposed to critiquing a finished product. Aesthetic Valuing can be more than just criticism. It informs what you see, how you see and how to use what you see in service of your choreography.

The following books served as sources for this article and are recommended for further reading on children and the creative process: The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, by C. Edwards and G. Forman. Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” to Young Children, by A. Kohn. Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners, by C. Giudici, C. Rinaldi, and M. Krechevsky.

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.