Aesthetic Codes in
Early Childhood Classrooms:
What Art Educators Can Learn from Reggio Emilia
By Patricia Tarr
In this article I will compare the messages contained in the physical environments of early childhood classrooms in Reggio Emilia, Italy with typical early childhood settings in Canada and the United States from the perspective of the "aesthetic codes" (Rosario & Collazo, 1981) embodied in these spaces. I will discuss how these codes reflect each culture's image of
the child, cultural values and broad educational goals. I will conclude with the implications these codes have for art educators. For clarity, I will focus on the North American kindergarten which is specifically for 5-year-olds in the year prior to entry into first grade. Many aspects of this discussion also apply to preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds. While I will focus my description on kindergartens in the North American context, classes for 5-year-olds in the Italian context are an integrated part of their preprimary schools which serve children from ages 3 to 6 years. (The Municipality of Reggio Emilia also funds infant-toddler centers for children under 3 years of age which operate under the same educational philosophy.)
The term "aesthetic codes" comes from Rosario and Collazo (1981) who looked at the kind of children's artwork valued by teachers in two preschool classrooms. Rosario and Collazo drew on Pierre Bourdieu's work on the sociology of perception in which Bourdieu described aesthetic perception as a social construction which is learned consciously or unconsciously (Rosario & Collazo, p. 74). My purpose is to explore how these aesthetic qualities, or codes, operate within these early childhood classrooms and what these codes might be teaching children both formally and informally. In the context of this paper, aesthetic will refer to both the visual qualities of objects and the environment and to those experiences which permit deep feeling (Flannery, 1977). Flannery describes coming into aesthetic behavior:
As one allows one's attention to focus intensely upon the multi-faceted, multi-layered presence of feeling- visual feeling, tactile feeling, olfactory feeling, kinesthetic feeling, gustatory feeling, and emotional feeling - one comes into aesthetic consciousness and into aesthetic behavior. (p. 19)
I would also like to extend Efland's (1988) notion of "school art," art which only exists in schools (p. 518) and is "an institutional art style in its own right" (p. 519) to include the classroom environment as also an institutional style in its own right. I will argue that while all classrooms may have their own "school art style," North American early childhood classrooms
are more distinct aesthetically from other social contexts than are classrooms in Reggio Emilia.
North American Early Childhood Classrooms
I will begin with examining the classroom environment of a typical North American kindergarten. Of necessity, the descriptions will be generalized and do not reflect all classrooms. In both Canadian and U.S. programs there is a strong value for preparing children for future life in schools. For example, in Alberta, the Kindergarten Program Statement (Alberta Education, 1995) specifically states that kindergarten is to prepare children for grade 1 as well as for the future. This strong relationship to first grade, reinforced by the kindergarten's location within the elementary school, plays a strong determining factor in the aesthetic codes that operate within the classroom.
Diana School, atelier
As we enter the school there is traditionally a corridor for human traffic to move through and into self-contained classrooms as quickly and quietly as possible. The classroom space is a discrete entity which is subdivided into "centers" including art, writing, sand/water, reading, math, manipulatives, blocks, science, and a domestic/house or dramatic play area. There is also a meeting area. The room may appear crowded with the amount of furniture and shelves in the space. Consider what is allowed into this space. On the walls are commercially made (along with some teacher-created) charts or posters. Adjacent to the calendar, or included as part of it, is a weather chart. Along the top of the chalkboards, or just underneath, are strips depicting the alphabet and numbers to10. Charts identifying colors and shapes are posted on available bulletin board spaces. There may be seasonally related posters, or pictures of community helpers (doctor, firefighter, police officer, letter carrier), or information posters on dinosaurs, parts of the body or animals, depending on the current theme of study. The bulletin boards will be backed with colored papers and surrounded by a scalloped decorative boarder. Each bulletin board may be decorated in a different color of paper with a different scalloped boarder. For example, in one small classroom I visited recently there were seven different boarders around six boards each backed in one of three different colors. There may be mobiles or things hung from the ceiling. The overall impression is often of a visual bombardment of images. There is a particular "aesthetic" to this room. Just from the images on the walls we know at once we are in a kindergarten (or primary grade) classroom. This look, like the string paintings or string prints typical of school art (Efland, 1988), exists only in schools.