Reggio Emilia, Emmi Pikler, and Rudolf Steiner: Different Approaches to Learning


students in class with their hand raised

Over time, numerous psychologists and theorists have offered their views on the development of children during early years learning.

Through various tests and experiments, they have tried to better understand how children learn and how this experience can be improved. By exploring the way students think and how they interact with their environment, it has led psychologists to believe certain teaching methods are more effective than others.

For nursery school practitioners, it’s useful to understand these different theories and how they can be incorporated into the classroom setting. By having an awareness of the core principles, they can vary their teaching techniques and cater to a variety of needs.

No two children are the same, and each child has their own way of learning. Having a broad knowledge of different theories helps practitioners provide the best possible education. This helps all students find success in learning regardless of their individual strengths and weaknesses.

In this blog post we’re going to analyse Reggio Emilia, Emmi Pikler, and Rudolf Steiner approaches to education. Each of these theorists have their own opinions when it comes to the development of a child based on studies and findings.

We’ll also identify how these learning approaches can be incorporated into your classroom to provide a varied, inclusive educational setting.

What is the Reggio Emilia Approach to Learning?

The idea behind this approach is that children direct their own learning. They are in charge and learn from their environment and their relationships with others. This makes their interactions with peers very important as they learn through their experiences.

It’s believed children absorb everything that’s around them which makes their environment the ‘third teacher’. Therefore, the progress of their development depends on the resources available to them and the community.

The approach believes that children are curious beings and have unlimited power and potential to develop, given the right opportunities. Children are keen to interact with and contribute to the world.

Central to this philosophy is the image of the child as a subject of right. Instead of viewing children as having needs which need to be met, they are seen as strong, intelligent individuals who are capable of reaching their full potential.

By directing their own learning, they have control over the direction of the curriculum. They are not passive learners, but instead play a highly active role in determining different outcomes. This encourages them to develop confidence, self expression, communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills.

What are the Origins of the Reggio Emilia Approach?

The Reggio Emilia approach was founded by teacher and humanitarian Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy hence the name of the approach.

Following the devastation of the Second World War, Malaguzzi and the local community believed the educational system was in need of reform. Parents wanted an education that fostered their child’s critical thinking and collaboration.

With the help of parents and local citizens, Malguzzi developed the Reggio Emilia approach to education. In 1963, the first Reggio Emilia preschool was opened, and since then the approach has continued to evolve.
It is now a popular means of teaching in the UK and around the world, with many nursery school practitioners including these principles in their practices.

The approach is child centred as Loris Malguzzi believed children had 100 different languages which they used to express themselves. He believed that using these languages helps support a child’s learning and understanding of the world.
child sitting reading a book

What are the Core Principles of the Approach?

Loris Malaguzzi believed that children had ‘100 languages which they used to communicate. This includes the many different ways children show their understanding, learning, and thinking styles. Central to this approach is the expressive arts.

Although literacy and numeracy are still important, this theory encourages children to express themselves through non-verbal activities including painting, sculpting, dramatic play, and puppetry.

As well as the concept of ‘100 languages’ the approach is also underpinned by the following principles.

Children take an active role in their own learning

Children are in the driving seat when it comes to their own learning and their opinions should be listened to.

An emergent curriculum

Children steer the topics and direction of learning. By observing children, teachers prepare activities that play to their interests.

Educational documentation

It is a key part of a teacher’s role to document a child’s progress as this gives structure to teaching practices.

Community involvement and building relationships

Children learn by making connections. A distinctive feature of this approach is the role of parents and the community. Parents should be encouraged to play an active role in their child’s learning to create a link to the wider community.

Teachers are equal learners

Teachers learn alongside the child. Rather than instructing them on what to do, they guide the child and look for opportunities to further improve their learning.

The environment is a ‘third teacher’

Children are influenced by what’s around them. Therefore all resources in the classroom and home environment should inspire children to explore.
playing area in a classroom

How Does the Reggio Emilia Approach Apply to Nursery?

In a setting that follows the Reggio Emilia approach, children will be at the forefront of their own learning.

Teachers will observe children and work closely with parents to understand how each child learns. The teacher can then use this information to effectively prepare and plan activities that harness a child’s interests.

The learning process is considered to be much more valuable than the final outcome as teachers create projects based on feedback from parents and a child’s own input.

With this approach, children will also be encouraged to revisit activities and to view them from a different perspective. This deepens their understanding as they are solidifying their own ideas.

What is the Emmi Pikler Approach to Learning?

Piklers aim was to ensure physical and mental health in young children. By providing respectful and loving care, she discovered this was achievable. Particularly during times of bodily care such as nappy changing, bathing, and dressing, secure attachments between a caregiver and an infant were formed.

These activities shouldn’t be rushed but should provide a key opportunity to form trusting relationships. As these moments occupy a large part of a child’s daily routine, it’s important they feel safe, secure, and recognised.

The way in which a child experiences these moments will influence their physical and emotional well being during their early development. By providing a tender and respectful care routine, babies will develop a healthy self image and self control.

What makes this approach so unique is the emphasis placed on attention. Pikler believed that caregivers should provide children with their undivided attention and devote themselves during the care routine. This demonstrates to the child that the carer is truly there for them as they are not distracted by other factors.

The main ethos behind this approach is that children need a caring and nurturing environment for their development. It is the responsibility of their caregivers to make sure this happens and children are valued and respected.

What are the Origins of the Emmi Pikler Approach?

Dr Emmi Piker was a Pediatrician and early educator who developed a new way of thinking about childcare during early childhood.

Born in Austria Vienna, her family was jewish, and they only survived the Second World War thanks to the help of parents Pikler cared for.

In 1946, a year after the war ended, Pikler opened the famous Lóczy orphanage to care for children who had lost their parents in the war. She carried her philosophy on childcare to the children she looked after, providing them with a respectful and safe environment to flourish.

At the orphanage, nothing was done ‘to’ the baby, but ‘with’ the baby. Compared to other institutions, children were never left in their cots for long periods of time but were allowed to freely move around and explore.

They weren’t rushed through their routines, but instead caregivers used this time to interact and bond with children. Emmi Pikler believed that each child had the right to a respectful upbringing in line with their natural development.

The Pikler institute was opened to turn her philosophy into a course that could be used to train other caregivers. This led to a lot of children receiving a better standard of care and influenced many other childcare professionals to follow her approach.

Pikler’s most well known apprentice was Magda Gerber, an early childhood educator who brought these ideas back to the US. Since then, the theory has been found to be in line with recent discoveries of neuroscience and attachment theory.
baby getting nappy changed

What are the Core Principles of the Approach?

Dr. Pikler’s work provides valuable training to caregiving professionals.

There is a list of core principles behind the method which can also be used by parents when supporting their child’s learning at home.

Full attention

Babies need your full attention. By giving them 100% attention, it demonstrates your care and love. If you have several children they should receive your full attention at one time. This brings a sense of stillness back to our chaotic lives.

Slow down

Pikler believed babies develop better and are happier when their environment is calm and their caregiver is peaceful. We are led to believe that babies need to be stimulated, but Pikler believes the very opposite. She encourages caregivers to avoid stimulating toys and let a child’s development be slow and stable.

Build trust and your relationships between caregiving moments

Parents and caregivers need to take time to make activities such as nappy changing, feeding, bathing, and dressing unhurried and enjoyable. This provides quality one on one time and is sacred when building relationships.

‘With’ and not ‘to’

Building a cooperative relationship with a child requires you to work together. Pikler viewed babies as active participants rather than passive beings and encouraged parents to talk to their children through different processes. This lets them know what is happening and gives them the opportunity to help.

Babies are never put into a position that they cannot get into by themselves

Babies learn by doing things themselves. Whether it’s rolling over or sitting down, they learn how to overcome challenges independently. If adults put babies into a certain position, they do not learn anything and it might be uncomfortable.

Allow babies uninterrupted time for play

We don’t need to entertain babies as they are capable of doing this themselves, provided they have a nurturing environment. Our help and support can also interrupt their playing experience so they should be free to be independent.

Listen to a baby’s cues

Parents and caregivers need to be responsive and respectful to a child’s physical and verbal cues. If they aren’t then this sends a message to babies that you’ve heard them but ignored them.

How Does the Emmi Pikler Approach Apply to Nursery?

In a nursery setting which practices this approach, teachers share reciprocal relationships with all the children but a deeper level of understanding with the primary caregivers.

Through observation, teachers can interpret a child’s body language, gestures, and cues to gain an insight into how they are feeling. Teachers are also aware of a child’s pace and will slow learning down if necessary.

In the nursery setting, it’s about listening to what the child wants and responding accordingly. Teachers should be flexible in their approach and understand that each child is different.

For example, if a child is finished eating and no longer wants to be fed, don’t try to give them another spoonful or push them towards having more.

Similarly, if a child is used to being propped up while they are sitting, they will become frustrated when lying down. Teachers should respect this and respond by sitting these children upright.

What is the Rudolf Steiner Approach to Learning?

Austrian Philosopher Rudolf Steiner attempted to find a link between science and spirituality. The approach takes account of the whole child including their soul qualities and believes children learn best in a calm, peaceful, predictable, and unhurried environment that recognises the child’s sensory sensitivities.

Young children first need to experience the world before they separate from it and begin to analyse it in a detached way.

The Steiner curriculum is designed to be responsive to three key developmental stages – 0 to 7 years (the physical), 7 to 14 years (the imagination), and 14 to 21 years (the spirit).

According to Steiner, the first seven years of a child’s life are critical in forming their future well being, as this lays the foundation for future learning, including physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth.

It’s believed educators play a vital part in role modelling and scaffolding a child’s natural curiosity to learn.

Particularly the first three years of a child’s life are especially important as this is when they are most reliant and trusting on their caregivers. Therefore, nursery school practitioners during Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) need to possess certain skills and qualities to ensure each child’s needs are fulfilled.

They must also be aware of what it means to be a role model as during these early years, children imitate actions and behaviours as a way of learning.
child meditating in a forest

What are the Origins of the Rudolf Steiner Approach?

The Steiner approach to education was developed by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and educationist.

Steiner developed a spiritual movement called anthroposophy, which is based on the idea that a child’s moral, spiritual and creative being is just as important as their intellect.

In education, Steiner wanted to create a methodology which enabled students to achieve clarity of thought, sensitivity of feeling and strength of will. After hearing his lectures, the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart asked Steiner to open a school for their children.

In 1919 the first Waldorf School was founded and even today the schools are known as Waldorf Schools. The school’s benefactor was managing director Emil Molt, who asked Dr Rudolf Steiner to lead the school in its early stages of opening.

The philosopher’s insights inspired a worldwide movement of schools that promote universal human values, educational pluralism and meaningful teaching.

Bringing it up to the present day, the Steiner approach has proved successful. There are approximately 800 schools and over 2000 Early Years settings in over 60 countries serving children from birth to 18 years old.

Steiner nurseries began in 1926, and spread among Europe before gaining popularity in the UK and USA.

What are the Core Principles of the Approach?

The Steiner curriculum is built upon a flexible set of pedagogical guidelines, which take the whole child into consideration.

By viewing the child as a whole, Steiner gives equal attention to the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of each pupil. Below are the core principles of this approach.

Image of the human being

The human being is made up of a spirit, soul and body.

Phases of development

Each phase of a child’s development has unique physical, emotional, and cognitive dimensions.

Developmental curriculum

The curriculum should meet and support the development phase of the individual.

Freedom in teaching

The teacher is expected to meet the needs of the child regardless of their own insights.

Methodology of teaching

There are some key methodological guidelines that teachers should follow. This includes presenting topics in an artistic form, allowing the student to drive the learning process, addressing the child holistically as a whole human being, and using rhythm and repetition in teaching practices.


Relationships between students and teachers are essential and irreplaceable. Healthy relationships with parents are also key to the wellbeing of the child, the class, and the community.

Spiritual Orientation

In order to prepare their imaginations for work, Stein gave teachers thorough guidance for developing an inner, meditative life.
child with paint on their hand

How Does the Rudolf Steiner Approach Apply to Nursery?

During early years in Steiner settings, literacy and numeracy is not a priority as it’s believed these skills will develop once a child has had time to focus on their social, emotional, and physical capabilities. It’s important the environment emphasises play based learning experiences and interactions.

A typical Steiner day follows an organised structure, changing between child led and teacher led learning. Activities are structured and include painting, craft and domestic arts such as cooking, cleaning and self care, storytelling and music.

Steiner settings take great care in planning and ordering environments where children have the freedom to explore and play, ensuring all sensory inputs are considered. Where possible there are no hard corners, muted colours are preferred, providers choose natural materials over plastics and toys are simple to facilitate open-ended play.

Reggio Emilia, Emmi Pickler, and Rudolf Steiner: Different Approaches to Learning

Every parent wants their child to have the best standard of education and as a nursery practitioner, it is your responsibility to ensure this is achieved.

Throughout your career there will always be new and emerging ways of doing things but it’s important you familiarise yourself with different practices to deliver a high standard of education at all times.

You need to understand each child and their individual way of learning. By having knowledge of different learning approaches, you can implement a range of strategies in your classroom.

This helps you connect with different types of children and create teaching that focuses on a child’s specific needs and aptitudes. As a result, this demonstrates to parents that you’re catering activities towards their child’s needs and appreciate individual learning styles.

With Learning Journals, you can easily reach out and communicate with parents, giving them reassurance that their childs requirements are being met. Using our online platform, you can record, upload, and share limitless observations of a child which allows parents to stay updated with their progress.

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