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Reflections on the Language of Light and Shadow: Thinking about Beauty, Agency and Time

02 Mar 2021 1:38 PM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)


by Meredith Dodd

As lead teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, Meredith’s teaching is structured to build young children’s democratic dispositions through social emotional learning, mathematics, symbolism and ecological systems approaches. Meredith loves to help people understand the power of documenting children’s learning in ways that reveal children’s growth in comprehension and understanding - and inform teachers’ decision-making.

The goal (of educators) is to better understand and reflect on the capacity and skills and way of thinking of children.
Magdalena Tedeschi, Pedagogista

The Reggio Emilia Approach views interactive, kinesthetic mediums as languages children use to express their knowledge. At the November Network Gathering, Sandy Burwell presented a rich tableau for how light and shadow are such languages. Her examples of children enthusiastically engaged in playful, creative ways demonstrates a natural and yet intentional approach to learning.   

Burwell’s presentation reminded me of the 2020 Reggio-Children E-Learning Webinar, Children and the Digital. Teachers in Reggio Emilia are intentional in the integration of materials into classroom learning spaces. In fact, they view their spaces as living environments. Their classrooms grow and change to reflect children’s developing interests and acquired knowledge.  The webinar presenters, Magdalena Tedeschi and Simona Spaggiari, described three important concepts that guide the Reggiani educators thinking, decision-making and planning: agency, beauty, and time. They use these concepts to thread together images, anecdotes and the idea that digital is a place for expanding upon languages to interact with each other.

The language of light and shadow naturally lends itself to support children’s agency. Burwell’s examples for exploring light and shadow invite children to independently construct their learning about the world around them. Children enter into a magical world of light and shadow intentionally constructed by teachers to create deep, feelings-based relationships with the language. Children have space to actively explore the language and begin to use it with their own intentions. 

The Italians believe beauty is a necessary condition for learning. Beauty, in our interpretation, is not a characteristic to just be added. It is a crucial condition. It’s part of our DNA in the construction of the environment so that children and adults can feel at ease and can support each other.  Tedeschi

The images shared in Burwell’s presentation and the Reggio webinar were environments of simplicity. Children’s use of open-ended materials with the languages of light and shadow emerged due to an absence of distraction. The beauty of the spaces appeared because the children could clearly read and interact with the materials presented by the teachers. There is not too much, not too little.  Burwell states, “What matters is the intention you have for the materials. What are you thinking or focusing on with a few materials?  What are you and the children excited about? Keep it simple.”

In their webinar the Italians describe that time is experienced differently as an adult and as a child. “We found a sort of oxymoron in the construction of the culture of the adults around technology…As adults, we speak about time as a dimension that passes by very fast.” Thus, the adult’s intention for a language may be at odds with how children desire to explore and utilize the language. “Children can really just lift up the dimension of time by unzipping their mental steps and by slowing down their reflections.” Tedeschi’s statement focuses on the dichotomy between a child’s use of technology and an adult’s understanding of the purpose of technology.  The adult views technology as a tool to accomplish tasks faster. The Italians found that children’s use of technology can be a tool for slowing down time. Children use technology to look closely at an object, an idea, or to bring together many languages to express their understanding of the world around them.

This idea of using a language for different purposes as a result of one’s experience of time resonated with me in one particular example in Burwell’s presentation. Like Burwell, I love the overhead projector as a material to explore the language of light and shadow. The projector provides so many possibilities for individual and group discoveries. Burwell shared an image of a child’s assembly of mixed objects illuminated on a white wall:  transparent, colored plastic alongside and on top of opaque letters and necklaces. I have seen images such as this in my classroom. There are moments when I question my purpose for offering this exploration of an overhead projector and loose parts. Why do children seemingly always create a mound of materials onto the projector? Am I not listening to the children correctly? Have I provided too many loose parts? Is this language of light being lost?  What happens next? The following quote from Burwell brought me comfort, gave further insight into this “oxymoron,” of time’s purpose, and reminded me of why I love what I do. She states, 

There is a tendency of children to keep intentionally and carefully placing objects on the overhead until the whole thing is a pile and you can’t see the light. I wonder what problem they want to solve? What wonder!


Agency, beauty and time are all found in this image of a child’s first experiences with an overhead projector. Burwell’s presentation challenges us to explore languages alongside children.  In doing so, the adult needs to model patience and curiosity. It is the responsibility of adults to reflect on their assumptions of children’s purpose. We need to consider the meaning of a child’s use of a language as a part of their relationship with time. Burwell ends with a gift for early childhood educators during this time of separation due to COVID-19. She reminds us of the power we have to influence generations of human beings. We have a commitment to play with children in the ever-growing environments we co-construct. 

We need stories of hope. These stories can nurture our spirits for a future of joy. We get to be a part of it!  

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