playing to learn

Nico Fiumara with his concept of alien life.


It started with a passing comment in a conversation about the weather: Wow. It’s bright and sunny. But how can it be so cold at the same time? Shouldn’t the vivid sun make it warm outside? The preschool class, at the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) at Temple Emanuel of the South Hills, took it from there, pushing the conversation to Earth’s position relative to the sun in winter, which led to crafting a model of the solar system, which led to a spirited conversation about aliens, which led to a writing assignment about aliens, which led to an art project about aliens.

Weather to aliens. How did that happen?

The transformation was an example of the collaborative teaching style of Reggio Emilia, an Italian model of early childhood education with a curriculum that lets learners, teachers and parents go in the direction they want to, while continuing to work toward kindergarten readiness. The students develop critical thinking skills as well.

Leo Nicolotti
Reggio Emilia is a play-based learning method used at Temple Emanuel.

“Collaboration is easy to say, but hard to do,” says ECDC director Iris Harlan, who has headed the school for three years and is enjoying the program. Instead of being a top-down format, where the teachers dictate what the kids learn, or a child-centered model, where kids set the rules, everyone gets to participate. Although moments like that happen in every school every day, Harlan says Reggio is “trying to build and create fertile soil for this to happen.”

Reggio Emilia was founded by parents and teacher Loris Malaguzzi in the rubble of an Italian city just after World War II to ensure their young children’s education wouldn’t be a casualty of battle. The system is now in the first year of a pilot program at Temple’s ECDC, a five decades-old school on Bower Hill Road with approximately 200 children from all backgrounds (only 20 percent of the enrollment is Jewish). Classes start with First Experience, where an adult attends with the child, and it extends through all the preschool years, to kindergarten enrichment, which complements local public schools’ half-day kindergarten. The school also provides full day programs.

Temple’s ECDC is the only school in the South Hills teaching with Reggio Emilia, although several others in Pittsburgh use it, most notably the Cyert Center for Early Education at Carnegie Mellon University, which has been on board with it since 1993.

Collaboration was instrumental in getting the program running at Temple. The implementation is part of a five-year program called the Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative. ECDC was able to secure a $25,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for each of the initiative’s five years but was told it needed to provide matching funds—an amount that wasn’t practical for the school to raise.

In stepped Mt. Lebanon resident and ECDC alumna Sarah Levinthal, who had inherited money from her grandmother, Martha Klein Lottman. Lottman, who had a passion for working in education, requested that the money be used to fund a worthwhile learning program. Levinthal and her mom, Amy Gremelspacher, pledged to match the $25,000 each year of the grant.

“I’m really excited about it,” Levinthal says. Her son, Aaron, aged out of ECDC this year but her other children, Michael and Zoe, will soon be there. “[My grandmother] was such an amazing woman with a passion for education and she would have been so thrilled to see the funds used in this way.”

Alie Lowe and artwork.
Alie Lowe and artwork.

So far, so good, says Harlan. “The teachers have been amazing at making changes,” she says. “There’s no manual for this.”

Laura Young, whose son, Evan, 5, is in ECDC, says she saw a shift from worksheets to more creative work in the classroom, and from generic updates from teachers to more specific documentation of what the kids are learning about.

“It’s more play-based learning,” she says, noting it can be easily tailored to everyone’s learning style. Instead of being taught that “E” is for “elephant,” her son’s class learned that “E” is for Evan. Parents are brought in more often to share their skills and there’s more of an effort to make it a communal learning environment.

“It’s being done in a more meaningful way,” Young says. “I’ve been very happy with it.”

She especially liked a photo display in the hallway. The class was learning about animals that use camouflage. After the lesson, the kids went to the playground and started finding how their clothes matched the environment. Kids with blue shirts were standing next to blue equipment. Others dressed in muted colors were hiding by shrubs. They then took photos to make a collage.

“It’s definitely very refreshing to see this,” Young says.