A dynamic forum focused on the experience of childhood and the process of learning

Getting to Belonging: Embracing Ambiguity and Rethinking What is Developmentally Appropriate

29 Jun 2023 12:35 PM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

by Rie Gilsdorf and Christy Spencer

Rie Algeo Gilsdorf, MS, MA, has broad experience as a principal, arts administrator, instructional coach, teacher of science and dance and parent in many settings, including the Reggio-inspired programs of Portland’s Opal School and The Blake School in Minneapolis. Rie is a past Board Co-Chair and Civic Engagement Committee Chair of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota and current member of its Resource Development Committee. She now provides racial equity seminars, coaching and consulting through Embody Equity (www.EmbodyEquity.com).

Christy Spencer, MA revels in playing with possibility. She is inspired by children’s curiosities and perspectives, and thus roots her practices in relationships, deep listening, designing dynamic learning environments, observation and pedagogical documentation. Christy has had an array of experiences in various Reggio-inspired contexts, including being a part of the kindergarten faculty at The Blake School and serving on the teacher education program advisory council, as well as being a mentor teacher at Boulder Journey School, a member of the RINM communications committee and board, the Learning and Impact Specialist at the Minnesota Children’s Museum and an educational consultant in a variety of settings. Current professional interests encompass exploring the intersection of design thinking and the Educational Project of Reggio Emilia, mindfulness practices, anti-racist theory, neuroscience around empathy and humanitarian projects focusing on children’s rights.

Belonging is a common theme across websites and pamphlets about early childhood programs. And who wouldn’t want to send their children to a place where the family feels a sense of belonging? Programs intend to create inclusive and equitable educational systems, yet often get stuck in the realm of intention. Efforts to propose positive systemic change generally rely on well-crafted but superficial diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) statements, which can result in a display of aspiration without implementation. In a rush to action, these DEIB statements are often developed internally without taking the time to engage with the invaluable perspectives and insights of key stakeholders, including children. Without a road map, people may feel left uncomfortably floating on a cloud of ambiguous possibilities. Discomfort with ambiguity frequently leads to these statements being rooted in a “one and done” lesson or in a packaged curriculum that is delivered as a quick fix. What if we considered a different approach that embraces ambiguity as an asset?

Reggio-inspired educators structure children’s choices by creating finite holding spaces for their encounters. They provide provocations which open a multitude of possibilities, yet focus children’s work. We’re proposing a Reggio-inspired design process for adults to animate substantive change and actualize early childhood communities that are dialogic and democratic. Contrary to a “one and done” mindset, this learning process is iterative and generative.

What is a Reggio-inspired design process and how can it apply to antiracist practice?

In Reggio Emilia, “progettazione” describes the process of design and the development of educational projects. This is a “process of thought and action that takes into account the multiple viewpoints of children and adults and allows for doubt, uncertainty and errors as part of the rich context of learning,” (Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota, 2010). Reggio educators firmly state that every context is different, which necessitates a process that can respond to the uniqueness of each community. Neither the process nor the outcome can be standardized; this can be daunting, as is true for anti-racist practice. Reggio-inspired practice “requires a deep awareness and a suspension of our judgments and prejudices. It requires openness to change. It demands that we value the unknown and overcome the feelings of emptiness and precariousness that we experience when our certainties are questioned,” (Rinalidi, 2012).

The design thinking resources we encountered also offer steps that, like progettazione, invite multiple perspectives and reframe uncertainty and error as a necessary part of learning. These steps are so generative; there is always the probability that stakeholders will be surprised by the outcomes.

The broad strokes of the design process are:

Activating Open Mind - Listen to the experiences of all stakeholders. This requires suspending the voice of judgment.

Embracing Open Heart - Quiet the paralyzing inner critic that says “why bother?” or “it’ll never work,” and instead engage children’s sense of “Why not?” This requires redirecting the voice of cynicism.

Cultivating Open Will- Detach from the old ways of doing and let new possibilities arise. This requires letting go of the voice of fear. ·

Co-creating - Explore the future by doing, while remaining open to feedback about what’s working and not. The smallest practical idea will produce the clearest insights to inform next steps. This requires letting go of the voice of grandiosity.·

Co-evolving - Create flexible infrastructure that adapts to an ever-evolving context. This requires letting go of the voice of certainty (Scharmer, 2018).

These five design thinking steps parallel what we ask of children: express and listen to ideas across multiple languages, embrace multiple perspectives with a sense of “why not,” disrupt habits and try new things, learn by doing and cope with variable circumstances.

With these steps in mind, we wonder how anti-racist practices might evolve if we trust the competencies of young children to understand difference and fairness in the United States? When afforded this trust, children might develop a deeper disposition to enact their rights and ultimately create a more equitable future. When trust is withheld, we inadvertently position children to perpetuate the status quo. Instead, we need to redesign environments of belonging for the future.

“Developmental appropriateness” perpetuates an antiquated, dominant narrative

In early childhood communities, there are competing narratives about what is developmentally appropriate with respect to race. The dominant narrative suggests that discussing race challenges young children’s innocence. A counter-narrative, that young children must engage in these conversations, is frequently asserted by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) families. They share concern for young children’s innocence, yet feel obligated to initiate conversations about race, framed in ways that honor children’s sense of agency. This reflects parents’ views of their children as competent. Although an increasing number of White families and educators are beginning to acknowledge race with children, the dominant narrative is still that it’s not developmentally appropriate. This perpetuates a view of White children as not competent to have these conversations. When we embrace ambiguities as assets we can begin to dismantle the dominant narrative and trouble the discourse of what is deemed “developmentally appropriate.”

Dominant discourses are powerful because they operate outside of awareness. They make “assumptions and values invisible, turn subjective perspectives and understandings into apparently objective truths and determine that some things are self-evident and realistic,” (Moss, 2018). Most White parents are not accustomed to talking to their children about differences, perpetuating the dominant narrative that conversations about race are developmentally inappropriate. By contrast, BIPOC children’s experiences often include ongoing conversations about race, beginning at an early age, which may lead to greater social awareness and intercultural competence.

We revealed a nest of ambiguities: are children competent or aren’t they? Which children are competent in which circumstances? How can we leverage the strengths of each group to see the possibilities of competence for all children? Are we willing to acknowledge both children’s innocence and competence? Taking note of this ambiguity, we can begin to imagine a broader understanding of what “developmentally appropriate” could mean, leading to an expanded image of the child.

Conversations about difference fall into well-worn ruts unless we actively course-correct to be sure that people of all ages, races, genders and lived experiences have agency. For those who have lived many years within a dominant narrative, careful listening offers insight into the world in which children are growing up, which is not the same environment that today’s adults did; projecting adult understandings onto children’s experiences is futile. We can’t afford to wait until we or the children are “ready” to initiate and build upon this conversation. If we design conversations to connect with children’s awareness and lived experiences of race before they cement the dominant narrative, then they are able to play an active role in co-constructing a new narrative and co-creating equitable communities.

In a future issue, we’ll take up working with the uncertainty of emergent curriculum.


Goel, Ashish (2022). Drawing on Courage: Risks Worth Taking and Stands Worth Making, A Stanford d.school guide. Ten Speed Press.

Moss, Peter (2018). Alternative Narratives in Early Childhood: An Introduction for Students and Practitioners, Contesting Early Childhood series. Routledge.

Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota (2010) “Key Principles of the Educational Project of Reggio Emilia, Italy.” Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota. Adapted from Indications: Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. Reggio Children.

Rinaldi, Carlina. (2012) “The Pedagogy of Listening: The Listening Perspective from Reggio Emilia.” In The Hundred Languages of Children:The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd ed. C. Edwards, L. Gandini and George Forman, Editors. Praeger.

Scharmer, Otto. (2018) The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications. BK, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., a BK Business Book.

Small, Andrea, and Kelly Schmutte. (2022) Navigating Ambiguity: Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns, Stanford d.school guide. Ten Speed Press.

Wise, Susie. (2022). Design for Belonging: How to Build Inclusion and Collaboration in Your Communities, A Stanford d.school guide. Ten Speed Press.

All content and articles may be used for educational purposes with proper citation (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License).

Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota is a 501(c)3 non-profit located at 525 Pelham Blvd. N., Saint Paul, MN 55104 

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