Character at the Core! The Too Infrequently Discussed “Secret Sauce” of Reggio-Inspired Learning

What is it that distinguishes Reggio-inspired learning? 

An array of lists from Reggio-inspired schools across the globe distill the program into a relatively small number of key elements. These typically include:

Student Interest: Learning stems from children’s interests and curiosity.

Relationships as Key to Learning: Learning emerges through relationships with others including peers, teachers, and other members of the community.

Self expression and Creativity: Reggio has a notion of “100 languages” or the many ways children express their ideas, feelings, and creativity. Children deserve experiences engaging them in a wide range of materials and modes of creativity.

Project-Based Learning: Learning occurs through short and long terms projects and teachers create the conditions for children to become engaged in these projects

The Physical Environment As a Central Teaching Element: The classroom is considered the “third teacher” (parents are first and school educators are second). As such, the physical environment of schools is a critical contributor to learning.

The Flexible Use of Time: Children are given time to become deeply immersed in activities of interest to them.

Documentation and Sharing: A record is kept of the process of learning for children to review and see their own progress, as well as to share with others. 

Parents as Partners: Parents are respected as the primary influences on children’s learning and are actively engaged in life at school.

While I love each and every one of these key elements of Reggio-inspired learning, there is another central principle, rarely highlighted as a core to the approach, that inspires me even more.

The Reggio approach emerged out of inspired parental love and hope. 

What is now known around the world as Reggio-inspired learning began in the days following World War II when a group of parents in the war torn region of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy banded together to build a preschool. Having just withstood the horrors of Nazism and fascism, they wanted a school that would prepare their children to stand strong against oppression, injustice, and inequality. 

And so, for me, the core of Reggio-inspired learning is to strive to recreate the inspired parental love and hope that existed at the very beginning in Reggio-Emilia. It is our role as educators to support parents to prepare children to stand strong against the oppression, injustice, and inequality they may experience in a future we cannot yet even imagine. How to do so requires ongoing reflection and creative collaboration. As a beginning, at Discovery Village we have embraced the core value of caring – caring for self, others, our communities, and our world. We spent the entire month of February in interdisciplinary projects and activities focused on caring. 

Putting values and character at the core of what we do will be an ongoing commitment. As we focus on impactful implementation, I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and insights.


Play, Imagination, and Rocket Science: Creativity in Early Childhood

In the early years of the Apollo Project, NASA commissioned George Land, a scientist specializing in the enhancement of creative performance, to design a creativity test for engineering and rocket scientist job applicants. The test, which measured “divergent thinking”, challenged applicants to look at a problem or object and come up with multiple solutions or different ways to use the object.

After identifying truly gifted engineers and rocket scientists for NASA using this creativity test, Land wondered how children might fare with his creativity test, and how the results might change as these children aged.

So began a fascinating longitudinal study on creativity. In 1968, Land administered the same test he had given to aspiring NASA engineers and rocket scientists to 1600 five-year-olds. He re-tested the same children when they were 10 and again when they were 15. In 1985, Land later tested 280,000 adults.

How many individuals at each age scored in the highly creative range?
  • 5 year olds: 98%
  • 10 year olds: 30%
  • 15 year olds: 12%
  • Adults: 2%

Those numbers are astounding. While 98% of five-year-olds scored at the “genius” level on a creativity test, only 2% of adults achieved the same results.

Land’s conclusion: Non-creative behavior is learned. Or, as Pablo Picasso put it:  “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

I first read Land’s study while serving as principal of an elementary school. Considering myself a forward-thinking educator, I offered my students project-based learning, nature-based learning, school-wide enrichment programming, and quality experiences with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). And yet, I recognized so many signs of learned non-creative behavior. I wondered and I worried. If my students took Land’s creativity test, how would they fare?

I strove to find solutions, becoming involved with various schools and programs seeking to reimagine education in more foundational ways. Could we design schools that not only preserve the natural creative genius of young children, but even enable that creativity to flourish, deepen, and expand?

We made progress. And, yet I remained unsettled. What would the results be if we administered Land’s test today? Would there be substantial differences in schools remaining quite traditional, schools adding more opportunity for creative expression than existed when Land conducted his research, and schools fundamentally reimagining what education can be? And, would five-year-olds today, with the many shifts in our technologically advancing society, fare better, worse, or the same as the five-year-olds Land tested in 1968?

I became enamored with the potential of nurturing and celebrating creativity in childhood. So many questions ran through my mind.

Could educators and parents thoughtfully craft environments enabling children not only to maintain, but even to enhance, their innate high levels of creativity?

Could we embrace the creativity in early childhood as a time to set a foundation strong enough to shield children from absorbing non-creative behavior later in life?

Could a start in life that celebrates and encourages creative expression lead both to more joy in the childhood years and greater creative adapt-ability far into the future? Could creativity in early childhood set a lifelong foundation?

I opened Discovery Village Childcare and Preschool in Tarrytown this past July. I now stand in awe each day, recognizing how blessed I am to spend my days with individuals (from 6 weeks to five-year-olds) who have the creativity levels of elite NASA rocket scientists. Our primary tools are our imaginations, as playful learning and discovery is elicited by just about anything: bubbles, play dough, snow, water, paints, leaves, puppets, animals, books, cardboard boxes, and so much more.  Our children are joyfully having fun, while at the same time strengthening their innate creative capacities to craft lives of joy, possibility, and meaning.

Shira Leibowitz, Ph.D founded Discovery Village, a Childcare Center and Preschool that offers young children the care of a village with the creativity of an art study and the discovery of a science lab. Shira is an adjunct faculty member in the doctoral program in Education at Northeastern University, and served as a principal of nursery through eighth grade schools for twenty years prior to opening Discovery Village. Learn more at or email Shira at [email protected] 


It’s Not Small Talk: The Wonder of Weather In Early Childhood Learning

Noticing, wondering, sensing, and experiencing are all characteristics of the curious and the creative. They are also at the very core of Reggio-inspired early childhood learning, a  project-based educational approach in which learning stems from student interest. Among the countless topics that can ignite children’s inquisitive nature, the weather, with its seasonal, daily, even hourly changes has near limitless potential in early childhood learning. Connecting art and science, while holding the potential to lay the foundation for a life-long commitment to care for our planet, investigations stemming from weather, make for profoundly meaningful learning. 

At Discovery Village, which opened this past July, we did not initially imagine how central the weather would be to life in our village. Committed to learning stemming from children’s interests, we watched, attentive to children’s conversations and self-initiated activities. With large windows in each classroom facing the outdoors, and outdoor play and nature walks twice daily, we quickly noticed our students’ conversation, wonder, and explorations into nature, the weather, and over time  the changing seasons.  



Family trips to pools and beaches, boating and fishing, rainstorms and puddles, plentiful water play, and love for the song “Baby Shark” opened up endless conversation and curiosity this past summer about water.  We watched out our windows at the summer rain showers, jumped in puddles when the rain abated, and splashed around through water play outdoors and sensory bins inside. 

Investigations stemming from children’s interests included ways people explore the sea, using boats, submarines, and scuba diving gear. We engaged in learning both about creatures that live under the sea, and about ways land animals cool down in the heat. Sensory experiences with water, sand, and even one in which we made our own mud abounded, as did loads of splashing around and water play. We took nature walks collecting items related to summer and watched the sun and the clouds, as well as the shifting colors of the sky. Science experiments using water, as well as art activities with water rounded out our experiences. 


As the weather cooled and our relaxed short sleeves and sandals gave way to cozy sweaters, beauty and gratitude emerged as Fall themes. Science activities relating to the changing colors of the world around us, and art projects incorporating fall items we collected on nature walks occupied our imaginations. This led to increasing interest in art and the creation of our own museum and range of gallery exhibits. We learned about the harvest and where our vegetables come from, took many nature walks, and celebrated with harvest festivals and a special Friendsgiving feast. 


It is just the beginning of our winter explorations. We’ve already created a range of winter art, and are starting so many experiments with snow and ice.

Even more significantly, we’ve embraced our curiosity about the world in which we live. As we play, wonder, experiment, and create, we’ll also be thinking about ways of showing care for the world around us


Celebration as Self-Expression in Early Childhood Learning

Villages are places of warmth and nurturing; extensions of family. They are also places of celebrations and commemorations. Since ancient times, communities have joined together to express their deepest ideals and emotions through holidays – festivals marking the seasons, historical events, and core values. Celebrations remain central to the self-expression of children in early childhood education programs.

At Discovery Village, designed to offer a village environment of nurturing and creativity to children, celebrations are very frequent, typically occurring once a week. They are not just “add ons”, but are among the most central ways that we playfully embed in our program our three pillars – Relationships, Experiences, and Values. (REV – REV it Up with Discovery Village!) Celebrations are central to learning in exemplary early childhood education programs.

“Celebrations not only enrich our program, they are core to our understanding of ourselves as a village” explains Anna Hobbs, Assistant Director, who has both inspired and organized our robust calendar of events. “Festivals create opportunities for children to experience our ideals and values as a community in ways that are exciting, meaningful and so much fun.” 

Some of the Discovery Village core values celebrated at our festivals include creativity, caring, community, and discovery.

Celebrations of Creativity

Some celebrations of creativity are whimsical like 

National Play-Doh Day 


 Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Others are more substantive investigations into the arts such as

National Color Day 

(which was actually an interdisciplinary celebration of art and science)


 Pablo Picasso’s Birthday.

Celebrations of Caring

Celebrations of Caring (for others and for the world) have included 

National Do Something Nice Day (caring for others)


National Recycling Day (caring for our earth)


Celebrations of Community

Deliberating building community we include days in which we celebrate Discovery Village as a home away from home. We had an especially good time on 

Pajama Day

Community celebrations also include festivals connected to the seasons such as 

Fall Festival and Harvest Parade.

We’re now gearing up for Friendsgiving.

Celebrations of Discovery

We also enjoy celebrations connected to learning and Discovery. A favorite was our recent

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Day


All of this, and we’ve only been open a little over four months. 

There is so much more to come as we consider our core values and days to commemorate them. 


What holidays and festivals would you like to see? 

We are truly looking forward to celebrating with you!