atelier kids

How This Child Care Center Transforms Children’s Learning With a Reggio Emilia Approach

On this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we have Bernadette Testani, Owner & Head of School at Atelier Kids. Bernadette discusses how her child care center uses the Reggio Philosophy to educate and provide the best learning experiences for children.

Bernadette states that they’re not just “using” the philosophy at her center, rather “it’s at the core of everything they do.” The child is at the center of everything they do and every decision they make has to take into consideration the image of the child. Each child and staff member are valued for their ideas and contributions and what they bring to the environment.

Bernadette states that “there’s a huge deficit of nature when it comes to our children today. They’re not outside enough but yet, it’s a wonderful opportunity for learning. But, if you think about it, a lot of families may be nervous, especially with a newborn of the concept of having children outdoors.” At Atelier Kids, their Forest School removes the barriers from families around the concept of “the outdoors and young children”. Atelier Kids educates families on the importance and safety measures they take in their programs as well as how they remain prepared when the class is outside all day every day.

What we really need to teach our kids is to love learning. You need to keep learning if the world keeps changing

Bernadette Testani, Atelier Kids

While many centers may call themselves “Reggio-inspired”, this is often just the beginning process in order to incorporate the full Reggio Emilia philosophy into everything a child care center does in order for it to become the focal point. At Atelier Kids, they have an Atelierista ad Pedagogista. The Atelierista is responsible for working with the educators and children to incorporate in-depth projects and journeys where children are learning. The Pedagogista is responsible for ensuring that Atelier Kids takes all of the elements of Reggio Emilia philosophy and all of the other philosophies that are present at Atelier Kids and ensuring that it fits the community.

Another key element that Atelier Kids has implemented is ensuring that children who are off to a traditional school setting are prepared for their next chapter. Atelier Kids’ kindergarten program ensured that children were ready by instilling a love for learning and showing diversity in the classroom and showing that their voices were heard regardless of their age.

Bernadette mentions a Ted Talk by the late Sir Ken Robinson as an excellent discussion for creating an education system that nurtures children rather than undermines their creativity. As well, she praises the book “The Visionary Director, Second Edition: A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing, and Improvising in Your Center” as a goldmine for all directors and owners Want to learn more about Atelier Kids and their philosophy and resources? Check out their blog which is full of educational resources for educators and families and their Instagram to stay up to date with all of the exciting happenings on site!

Episode 261 Transcripts:

Bernadette TESTANI:

Our main thing is talking about kindness and inclusion, and it’s something that we actively nurture. We really, really emphasize the value and the importance of finding positive connections, rather than focusing on differences.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Bernadette, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

TESTANI:

Thank you, Ron, it’s a pleasure to be here again.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, great to have you back. We’ve had a couple of returned guests lately, which is always a pleasure. With us today, we have Bernadette Testani. She’s the owner and the head of Atelier Kids here in Toronto, Canada. And we’re looking forward to talking to her today about Reggio [Emelia], something that a lot of folks in our network have been interested in learning a little bit more about. So, I think it’s a really timely conversation.

So, Bernadette, welcome back to the Preschool Podcast. For our listeners who have not had the opportunity to meet you or listen to our previous podcast, maybe you can tell them a little bit about who you are and your philosophy on education.

TESTANI:

Sure, I’d be happy to, Ron, thank you. First of all, from on a personal note, I’m a mother of two wonderful young adults who I describe as successful. And for me, when I say “successful”, I think that they are kind people who are pursuing their passion. And that’s one thing that’s always guided me.

In terms of my own background, I had 20 years of corporate business experience. I was a partner with an executive search firm. And then I started running daycares, which is the natural progression, apparently. And my own personal philosophy of education has really stemmed from my experience as a mother and raising children.

And the thing that has really struck me both in my corporate practice and what I see with what’s going on in the world, whether it’s because of technology, social media, etc., but there’s a fast pace of change in innovation and we really don’t know what the future holds for our kids. We think we know, in terms of some of the jobs that are going to be created. But something like over 50% of jobs that our children will have don’t even exist today.

So, it really kind of blew me away when I thought about that. And I said, “How do we educate and prepare our kids for a future that is so unknown?” And it was around that time that I had exposure to the Reggio Emilia philosophy.

And what I realized is what we really need to teach our kids is to love learning because you need to keep learning if the world keeps changing. And the question becomes, “How do you still instill that in a child and make them love the concept of learning?”

SPREEUWENBERG:

Very cool. Yeah, it’s an interesting point. I never thought about that in terms of how many jobs or careers in the future don’t even exist today. But it actually makes sense when you think about the pace of change and then I guess how that relates to learning. It makes a lot of sense.

And I think it aligns with how we think about things in child education, too, right? Just focusing more on some of those fundamental pieces. And by the way, maybe we should get you back for a podcast, then, on recruiting early-childhood educators, given your background.

TESTANI:

You know what, I would love to do that. I really had a lot of experience in that.

SPREEUWENBERG:

That’s cool, I didn’t know that. Okay, so tell us then a little bit more. So, at Atelier Kids, how are you using the Reggio Emilia philosophy at your center?

TESTANI:

The one thing I’ll say is, we’re not using the philosophy. It’s actually at the core of what we do. We’ve really taken it to heart. The philosophy talks about a lot of different things – environment is the third teacher, one hundred languages of learning. But at the center of it all is the child.

And one of the things… I’ve been to Italy several times. I’ve been studying the philosophy now for several years. Any time you make a decision, it has to be based on, what is the image of the child? And it’s predicated on the fact that there’s no one right way to learn or teach. Everyone is treated as an individual. And each child is valued for their ideas – as well as staff members –and what they bring to the environment. But the child is always at the center of it.

So, I’m going to give you an example. One of the things that we know – and I think most people will agree with – is that there is a huge deficit of nature when it comes to our children today. They’re not outside enough. But yet it is a wonderful opportunity for learning. So, I think most people would agree with that. Right, Ron?

SPREEUWENBERG:

I agree.

TESTANI:

Yeah, but if you think about it, there are many parents that, with a newborn or a young child, they’re very nervous about this concept of having children outdoors. We are in High Park [Toronto] all the time. We actually have started a “forest school” where we have the older kids outside for the entire day.

Now, some parents might think, “Oh, you’re taking my kid out of the daycare. There’s stranger danger. What if they have to go to the washroom? What if this happens? What if that happens?”

So, what we need to do in order to focus on the image of the child, we know this to be good for the child. Let’s remove the obstacles. And that means educating the parents and being prepared. So, we’ve got a first aid kit. Everyone is well versed in checking for ticks. We know how to ensure that children are self-regulated while we go on dry runs to make sure that they just don’t go run off.

And so all of these things take a lot of work and energy. And not a lot of people are willing to do it because, quite honestly, they’re afraid. But let’s think about the image of the child. The child needs this. So, that’s what continues to guide me every day, which is we can all talk about reasons why not to do things. But I think it’s important enough for the child. So, we find a way to do it. And we’ve been very successful with the example, which is the High Park trips.

Yeah, I like that. You take the most fundamental, important thing and then you can figure out all the pieces around it. It makes a lot of sense because you can kind of get bogged down in all the all those details, otherwise. So, I like that. And I’m sure you’ve probably learned a lot and gotten better and better at running programs outside and in nature over time, as well, I might imagine.

TESTANI:

Yeah, I mean, we’ve partnered with the High Park Nature Center. And they’re the ones that got us started because it’s very difficult. You need to know where to go, what areas of the park to go to, etc. And from there, the teachers, initially they may have been a little bit hesitant – maybe they didn’t have the right clothing, etc. But now they just love being outdoors. And I notice our staff are a lot happier when they’re outdoors, as well. And it all is kind of like, “Duh, of course, everyone’s happier outside.” That’s where we should be most of the time.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, I know. That’s come up on the Preschool Podcast before, too, where it’s just like, everybody’s had that feeling, I think, where you’re inside, you’re feeling kind of groggy or whatever, and you go outside and you do something and then all of a sudden you’ve got a bit of a boost in energy.

TESTANI:

Yeah, absolutely. And then another part that is becoming more important for us, is our parents when they when they entrust us with the care of their child, this whole idea of, “Let’s go back to 21st century skills and being successful, however you define it,” it really requires… it’s a social endeavor. Social skills are the things that are going to help us all be successful.

And diversity is so important. And it can be diversity of anything, whether it’s diversity of thought, diversity of culture, etc. And we know that our main thing is talking about kindness and inclusion. And it’s something that we actively nurture. We really, really emphasize the value and the importance of finding positive connections rather than focusing on differences.

So, if you can focus on your similarities in life, rather than why you’re different from someone, it really just opens the door to mutual understanding and acceptance. And I think it’s that simple, quite honestly.

And what we need to do, all of us, is to get better at asking questions and doing better than we have in the past. So, whether that’s… recently, on National Indigenous Peoples Day, we had a speaker that came in. Kierra came in to talk about the Three Sisters Soup and the role that that plays in terms of showing how three different things can come together and make each other stronger. Plus it tied in with our urban gardening curriculum. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of the Three Sisters Soup?

SPREEUWENBERG:

I’m not, no.

TESTANI:

Okay, so what it is, is essentially planting corn, beans and squash alongside each other so that each of them makes the other one stronger. So, the corn is planted for strength and height that the beans can grow around. The beans naturally bring nitrogen to the earth while they climb up the corn. And the squash protects itself and the neighbors by sprawling growth and the prickly stems.

And so the concept of modern farming and agriculture where you just plant all corn are all beans or all squash, it’s not natural. And it’s really this idea of a new way of gardening. And I’m not an expert in this. Again, I’m just learning as I go along. But it’s amazing when you go back to these stories of indigenous people that have lived on these lands for thousands of years, they kind of got it right. And we’re just discovering all this stuff now.

So, that’s the kind of stuff, we tie that into education. And we had our parents come back and say, they’re like, “I have never heard of this before. And my child came home telling me about Three Sisters Soup.” And then I kind of go, “Yeah, we’ve done our job there,” because then it opens their mind to say, “Well, if I’m learning that in the indigenous culture, what do other cultures hold for me? What can I learn about all the different cultures around the world?”

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, that’s cool. And it’s awesome that the children are going home and talking to their families about it. That means that they’re engaged in and the families are getting involved too, which is so cool to hear.

So, let’s talk a little bit more about the family. So, what has families’ reaction been? You talked a little bit about their initial reactions to the outside of play space. What’s their reactions generally to Atelier Kids and your Reggio-inspired philosophy and approach?

TESTANI:

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. And again, it’s not for everyone. But most of the parents that have come through and toured, etc. over the years are really kind of blown away. They kind of breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Wow, this is what I’ve been looking for.”

And I think that with the Reggio philosophy, I’ll just talk a little bit about that because there is a lot of people that are calling themselves Reggio inspired. And I love that; I love that people are taking that first step. But we’re at a point in our journey, a little bit further along, where we really are emulating what they have done in Italy because it’s so similar to what we’re trying to achieve.

And the reason why we’re so different is because we have really broken down, from a management point of view, how to run a Reggio center. And I’ll give you an example: most day care centers will have a director in place, right? And that director is responsible for staffing operations, parent management, bringing new families through the door, ordering toys, all that kind of stuff.

It’s, from a recruitment point of view, when I looked at the job description for the first time in my life, I was like, “There’s no way one person can do this entire job.” It’s like a CEO job with no direct reports. That means not only do you manage everything yourself, you do everything yourself.

But what they do in Italy is, they have added people to the management team. One is a “pedagogista” and one is an “atelierista”. So, the atelierista is really, when you think about languages of learning, children learn three different things. And the arts is one great way to teach children. And arts is not a subject. Arts are how you do things. It’s joy in life.

So, our atelierista, Joan, is phenomenal. She’s on site almost every day. She’s working with the children and the teachers to incorporate these very in-depth projects that they’re working on, or journeys, where children are learning. And that’s an amazing opportunity for everyone. And the stuff that she comes up with, I’m always scratching my head thinking, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

And then Alison, who’s the pedagogista, who’s done a lot of work on our indigenous learnings and reworking our land acknowledgment, working with some key people in the community. She’s focused on making sure that we take the best elements of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. But it’s okay to incorporate some Waldorf; it’s okay to incorporate some Montessori.

The key with creating a pedagogy and a center that when the parents walk through the door, they go, “Wow”, is that fits the community, not the other way around. So for us, we listen to what the community wanted.

And so one of the key things – we talked about the forest school – one of the key things that came back was the urban gardening curriculum. We just did a post on our website where we had kids that don’t like salad, quote unquote, but we grew our own salad and peas in the backyard.

And guess what? They cut the salad. They grew it, they cut it, they seasoned it and they ate it. And we had parents coming back saying, “I cannot believe my kid ate salad.” And that’s just showing them that it’s just engaging them and helping them understand, you don’t just go to Loblaws and get a head of lettuce and have it thrown on your plate.

And then the other key thing that we listen to: with everything that’s happened in the past year, parents are nervous about kindergarten and what it’s going to look like. And we have the stops and starts in the kindergarten, in the public school system and the private school system. But we stayed open the entire time. So, they’re saying, “We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation if there’s a potential shutdown. We know you guys were able to stay open safely.”

So essentially we started a JK/SK [Junior and Senior Kindergarten] program. And we had some great teachers that were on our staff that were able to help us create the program. And we really wanted to make sure that the Reggio-inspired program would dovetail nicely as they go into Grade One after the fact and make sure that they’re ready.

And by instilling a love of learning, by doing a lot of outdoor activity, by showing diversity, by showing that their voices are heard, it’s something that I think is going to prepare them for the future.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, that’s great. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about something you talked a little bit about before when we just started the conversation around the Reggio Emilia philosophy and you said, “We don’t necessarily use Reggio. It’s part of our culture, part of our DNA, almost, in terms of the way we do things,” which I think is interesting. How does that also influence, I guess, like, your communications externally, who you decide to work with and how you just operate on more of like a principles level with the center and the programs?

TESTANI:

That’s a really excellent question because everyone we partner with, from our caterer to even partnering with your organization, I think values play as a big part of it. And we can get caught up in labels and titles and I can say, “Oh, I’m Reggio Emilia-based, but you’re not.” But the reality is a lot of people are talking about what I’m talking about. This isn’t something that I came up with. I’ve been influenced by it.

And some of the things that I’ve been influenced by… did you ever see that TED Talk given by Sir Ken Robinson years and years ago?

SPREEUWENBERG:

No, I don’t think so, no.

TESTANI:

As soon as we’re done, you’ve got to get off and watch it. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. But he, in ten minutes – it’s the most TED Talk – in ten minutes encapsulated the challenge we have for educating our children.

And so he doesn’t talk about Reggio Emelia but he’s talking about the same thing, which is allowing children expression. And even adults to say, “You know what, this is the way you think you need to educate someone but we really need to rethink that whole thing. Because guess what? It don’t work no more.”

That was set up one hundred years ago when we were primarily an agrarian society and we were trying to take farmers and have them work in industrialized factories. We’ve gone past that now. So, we need to educate in a different way.

So, values are important. And it’s like when we worked with our caterer and they were really understanding. Even though they were struggling, they were really understanding with what we were going through during the shutdown, just like you did with us. You have a great team, you really supported us. You went and developed new parts of the application to help us with the COVID [19] screening and the [temperature] checks. That shows me that there are other people out there that are like-minded, that are doing the right things for the kids for our future.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, very cool. You mentioned this Ted X [talk] by Sir Ken Robinson. Is there any other resources you can think of, in terms of growth mindset and continuous learning for our listeners? Maybe that’s a podcast or a book or a blog or something like that?

TESTANI:

I’m going to selfishly and shamelessly promote our blogs and our media. On our website, we have the [Sir Ken Robinson] TED Talk. We have some great Netflix videos. There’s one called The Beginning of Life, which is a four-part series. It will blow people away. If you have a child, you should definitely watch this.

The other thing that I, kicking it oldschool, I have a book on my desk. I don’t even know what year it was released, but it’s called The Visionary Director [A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing, and Improvising in Your Center]. And it’s by two ladies, Margie Carter and Deb Curtis. A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing and Improving Your Center.

It is gold. Anyone who runs a daycare should read this. I’ve got an edition on my desk, I refer to it all the time. And it’s about creating the type of center where employees are happy, families are happy, children are thriving and learning. And it’s a dream. I feel like some days I’m in a dream, considering what we’ve created.

And it all started with me stumbling into a Reggio Emelia-inspired daycare at my son’s school. And I walked in and I said to the ladies, “Oh, wow, your class seems really kind of quiet and all the kids seem engaged. You mustn’t have all the children here today.” And they said, “No, no, we’re full.”

And I go, “Oh, okay. Then, how come I can sit here and have a conversation with you and you’re not getting interrupted every three minutes?” She said, “Well, the children are working on their particular journeys.” And then she said to me, “I’m so much more happier now coming to work than I’ve ever been.” And that’s when it kind of hit me. And I was like, “Okay, they’re doing something here.” And that’s what started me on my journey of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of it.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Love it, that’s an amazing story and sounds like some resources folks should be checking out. If Bernadette’s recommending it, then I can attest that they’re worth checking out. Bernadette, any final words before we wrap up our conversation here today?

TESTANI:

I know that one of the things is that there are a lot of people that are interested in incorporating Reggio-inspired elements into their classroom. And it’s a journey. Don’t be discouraged, it doesn’t happen overnight. You need to get support from the top. So, whether you’re working in a center and you can go to your board of directors or go to the owners and talk to them about it, I would highly recommend that people take that journey and start. It starts with one step.

And I’ve run daycares now for 15 years. Our team right now is so happy and we’ve just come through arguably one of the worst times in our history. And we really came together, we listened to each other. And I did it based on not only what I read in the book under The Visionary Director, but understanding the Reggio philosophy and putting the children at the center of things.

So, once you do that, then the decisions all become really clear. It’s not financial decisions; it’s not things to make life easier for the staff; it’s not to make things easier for the parents, although obviously we want to try to do that. It’s really about advocating for the children. Who is advocating for the child at the end of the day? Someone needs to and we consider ourselves advocating for the children.

So, I’m open to talking to people if they’re interested. This is something that people have been so generous with me with their time, as I started on my journey. I’d like to repay the favor. And I think that it’s important to know that it’s going to take a really long time and a lot of energy and patience, but I believe it’s worth it.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, some good wisdom there. And if our listeners would like to learn more about Atelier Kids or get in touch with you, Bernadette, remind us what your website is.

TESTANI:

So, it’s a www.AtelierKids.com.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Wonderful. Bernadette, always a pleasure. Thank you so, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!

TESTANI:

You’re very welcome and happy to always chat with you, Ron!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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