Reggio Emilia:

Early Childhood’s

Natural Approach

to Learning


In 2008, Early Childhood Principal Dorothy (Harrison) Halverson (C’85) was searching for ways to attract more families. Halverson recognized the pivotal role that Early Childhood played in shaping the future of Principia School. Parents were becoming increasingly discerning when selecting early learning and preschool programs for their children. These formative years lay the foundation for a lifetime of educational success, making the Early Childhood program a vital component in preparing students for their journey through the upper levels of the School.

As it turns out, Reggio Emilia emerged as a remarkable opportunity for Early Childhood.

Reggio Emilia Comes Into Play

The Reggio Emilia program is a child-centered and collaborative approach to early childhood education. Originating in Reggio Emilia, Italy, it emphasizes the child’s innate potential and curiosity. The natural environment is seen as a “third teacher,” designed to inspire exploration and creativity. Teachers act as co-learners, fostering critical thinking and problem-solving. The program values diverse “languages” of expression, including art, music, and movement, to encourage communication and understanding. 

Collaboration among children, educators, parents, and the community is essential. The Reggio Emilia approach promotes a strong sense of community, self-expression, and lifelong love for learning, nurturing children’s social and emotional development through play and creativity.

Principia Terrain: 
A Playground for Curiosity and Learning

Children in Principia’s Early Learning Center (ELC) and Preschool spend 80 percent of their time outdoors—rain or shine. Students as young as 18 months can be seen exploring Principia’s 360-acre campus. What may look like a simple walk in the woods is actually an impactful educational opportunity.

Acorn teacher Heather (Jenkins) Buchanan (C’81) noted that, “It isn’t just about playing outside. How do we extend that learning? We are a mediator in their learning. We are constantly prompting them to think deeper about what they are seeing, ‘What would happen if . . . ?’ ‘Why do you think that is . . . ?’”

Louise and Ashley Cadwell, a pair of consultants specializing in the Reggio Emilia approach, worked with Principia for eight years, and noted what stands out about the faculty working in the program: “There are plenty of schools with access to beautiful woods. But the kids never go in. The teachers at Principia think nothing of putting on raincoats and boots and going for a walk in the woods. They’ll stumble through the streams with the kids. It’s fantastic.”

“We can’t teach our kids to sustain and care about our earth if they don’t know about it,” remarks Halverson.

A Shining Program

Nine years into its Reggio Emilia implementation, the Early Childhood’s classrooms and waitlists are full—a testament to the impact of the Reggio approach and Principia’s stellar staff. Prospective families are drawn to the nature-inspired learning, collaboration, and sense of community among students, educators, and parents. Kara Moe, a parent with two children attending the ELC, noted that she was drawn to Principia by the big open spaces and natural light pouring into the classrooms, “I think that was the biggest difference from the other preschools that we toured.The kids had all of their nature masterpieces hanging in the hallways. I just loved that.” 

During Principia’s time working with Cadwell Collaborative, Louise and Ashley Cadwell worked in partnership with the teachers to strategically arrange items to ignite students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. The transition involved a deliberate shift away from plastic toys and bins, favoring the use of natural materials to foster open-ended exploration.

In Patti Matthys-Pearce’s (C’94) classroom, where she engages with infants and toddlers, the principles of Reggio Emilia are enthusiastically embraced. Matthys-Pearce watches as 12–24 month-olds take initiative in their learning, asking to take clay off a shelf and playing with it for long periods of time, totally enveloped in the play—a testament to the profound impact of these Reggio-inspired changes.

Principia Leading The Way

There is a remarkable connection of shared values between Mary Kimball Morgan, Mary Baker Eddy, and the founders of the Reggio Emilia approach. Each recognized the inherent potential and capabilities of children, embracing the conviction that they are capable learners from the very beginning—vessels already full and complete.

The Early Childhood program embodies the adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Having garnered a reputation as an exceptional Reggio Emilia-inspired school, Principia is inspiring other schools around the world. When Cadwell Collaborative featured Principia in their blog, it caught the attention of an esteemed school in Brazil. Upon seeing the captivating photos and insights shared about Principia’s practices, they showcased it in their own outreach efforts.

Principia’s program has also made waves locally. The School’s innovative approach has piqued the interest of nearby universities and schools, prompting them to embark on tours and classroom observations. This resonance within the educational community stands as a testament to Principia’s remarkable impact and its role as a source of inspiration for educators worldwide.

Love at the Center

At the core of Principia’s program is a deep sense of respect and love for each child. Halverson states that their mission is for every student to leave feeling loved. Kate Booher, an ELC parent, can attest to this. Booher herself is an educator and teaches in another local Reggio Emilia-inspired school in St. Louis. At Principia, she says, “The way they talk about my child, even on a hard day for him—they describe his interactions with so much love and empathy, and reassure me that whatever he is experiencing is a beautiful part of life. They really focus on his wonder and awe of nature. It is so evident in the videos and photos we see of him at school and the way he is exploring at home.”

Louise Cadwell’s profound words from her book, Bringing Reggio Emilia Home: An Innovative Approach to Early Childhood Education, strike a chord with the core philosophy at Principia’s Early Learning program and Preschool. “Education begins the moment we see children as innately wise and capable beings. Only then can we play along in their world.”  The educators at Principia have wholeheartedly translated this principle into practice. Their mastery in creating an environment that recognizes and nurtures children’s potential is evident in every aspect of the school. By engaging in the children’s world, they have crafted a transformative learning experience that empowers young learners to thrive—and, above all, to feel deeply loved and valued. What more can you ask for these future leaders of our world?

Diving into Reggio’s Italian Roots

Early Learning Center and Preschool Principal Dorothy Halverson and Preschool/Lower School Art teacher/Atelierista Louise Elmgren (C’84), participated in “The Reggio Emilia Approach to Education” conference in Italy in April 2023. Over 400 educators from 27 different countries joined the 50-hour International Study Group—a deeper investigation of the concepts, values, and content learning of the Reggio Emilia Approach.

“We had the opportunity to connect with pedagogisti, atelieristi, administrators, and teachers who work in Reggio Emilia’s infant—toddler centers and preschools,” Dorothy remarked. What an extraordinary opportunity for Principia’s educators to deepen their understanding and practice of the Reggio curriculum!

What is an atelierista?

As an ‘Atelierista’, Louise Elmgren collaborates closely with classroom teachers, devising and facilitating learning experiences that complement classroom curricular learning. Elmgren works with the children in the atelier (art space) focusing on producing art through different mediums, embracing the idea that children have many languages of expression and ideas. At the Early Childhood level, Elmgren spends time with levels from infants through Preschool, observing how they interact with the materials and using their interests as inspiration for the next project.