Text adapted from an article in Journeys Fall 2016 issue by Cara D'Avanzo

Inspired curriculum shapes our youngest learners

The classroom hums with the sounds of SAS’s youngest learners busily at work. Some mix cookie dough to celebrate a friend’s birthday, while others experiment with paints and glue. Students gather around a projector to explore light and shadow. In one corner, pictures, paintings, and songs reflect activities sparked by a recent full moon. In another corner, children play on a wooden structure that last year became an airplane, a doctor’s office, a bus, and a haunted house.

Welcome to the SAS early learning center, where learning is fun, questions become adventures, and student interests result in class inquiries ranging from guinea pig habitats to airplane design.

Last year, as part of the schoolwide research and development process, the ELC (then the ECC) looked intensively at best practices in early childhood education. ELC teachers continually came back to the philosophy out of the town of Reggio Emilia in Italy. It was there that, as World War II ended, mothers came together to design a new kind of preschool. Since a 1991 Newsweek article entitled “The 10 Best Schools in the World, and What We Can Learn From Them” named Reggio Emilia’s preschools the early childhood winner, the approach has gained international recognition.

interesting, inviting spaces are included For Students as they pursue their inquiries.

The Philosophy of Reggio Emilia in SAS

Reggio Emilia’s early childhood philosophy was a response to the wartime devastation and government retaliation against resistance activities suffered by the town’s residents. In the weeks following the town’s liberation, mothers rejected the state-directed, church-bound educational norms they felt had fostered the rise of fascism. Instead, they created Italy’s first secular, community-centered preschools.

At the heart of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is respect for young children as unique, capable, and curious individuals filled with wonder and potential.

Under the leadership of Loris Malaguzzi, an educator inspired by progressive educational philosophers, a Reggio-inspired learning experience came to mean one in which children were encouraged to develop their own personalities and explore their interests and learning styles, supported and guided by parents, teachers, and their environment.

How does this philosophy fit the larger SAS culture?

“The beauty of the Reggio Emilia approach is that it’s not a prescribed program, but rather a philosophy about learning that can be applied contextually to the unique culture, place, history, social diversity, and institutional reality of each school,” explains ELC director Jo McIlroy.

There are no specific formulas to follow, no boxes to tick. Rather, the original Italian nurseries and preschools serve as inspiration for other schools’ programs. Those teaching according to Reggio Emilia see themselves as part of a work in progress—each of them developing a structured and intentional curriculum based on students’ interests, and facilitated by teachers’ strategic contributions and guidance.

At the heart of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is respect for young children as unique, capable, and curious individuals filled with wonder and potential.

Students Develop their own personalities and explore their interests and learning styles.

The Three Anchors of a Reggio-Inspired Learning Environment

Image of the Child

Every child is unique. Children are capable, competent, full of wonder and potential.


Creating and maintaining strong relationships between child, parent, and teacher leads to genuine, mutually empowered learning between home and school.

The Environment

The surrounding environment inspires the child's interests, provokes questions and curiosity, and provides materials for research and expression.

What does a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool look and feel like?

  • Interesting, inviting spaces through which children move as they pursue their inquiries;
  • Students working together to investigate topics and build relationships with those around them;
  • Teachers listening carefully to their students, observing their interactions and encouraging in-depth engagement with questions and skills as they arise;
  • Students expressing themselves through what Malaguzzi called “the hundred languages of childhood,” such as drawing, drama, dance, building, song, dress-up play, cooking, and sculpture;
  • Proud and visible documentation to remind children what they have achieved and share their learning process; and
  • Teachers collaborating purposefully with each other to make class-time meaningful, relevant, and joyful.

An Inviting Learning Environment


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years of combined teaching experience


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engaging learning hubs for children to explore


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building blocks


books in the early learning center library

Student work is displayed to remind them what they have achieved and document their learning process.

Confident Young Learners

At SAS, inspiration from the Reggio Emilia approach has led to a number of changes from our previous ECC program. Most obviously, summer facilities projects in 2015 and 2016 turned traditional classrooms into learning hubs, each accommodating two classes that work collaboratively but may also separate into smaller groups. Instead of solid walls, large interior windows offer light-filled learning spaces that allow students to observe their surroundings and interact with the greater ELC community.

A central shared space now hosts a cozy library, block area, makerspace, puzzle area, and dress-up corner. The Move and Groove (formerly perceptual motor) room and Chinese room still function as separate classrooms, fostering curiosity and exploration as appropriate.

“Students will arrive in kindergarten confident in themselves as learners and their relationships with others, and ready to plunge into the learning opportunities there.”

Inside each learning hub, the two teachers and two teaching aides no longer organize learning time around predetermined, standardized units. Guided by the SAS desired student learning outcomes (DSLOs) and a concept-driven curriculum, they prompt students to consider open-ended questions, often based on student observations, and then design activities and lessons around the children’s responses. “When we looked at the tenants of this approach, we saw they matched very closely with our DSLOs,” says McIlroy. “All seven—character, collaboration, content knowledge, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and cultural competence—can be satisfied by appropriately guided, in-depth exploration. This philosophy gives teachers the opportunity to weave the DSLOs into class inquiries, resulting in more enjoyable and authentic learning experiences for students.”

Students find learning through open-ended investigations and inquiry-based activities fun, exciting, and motivating.

Some parents wonder whether this approach will prepare our youngest learners for kindergarten and higher grades, but McIlroy stresses that ELC and kindergarten teachers routinely meet to ensure alignment between the divisions. “We are very aware that we are a part of a large school system. We changed our name from early childhood center to early learning center because that is what we are about. This was very intentional. What the kindergarten teachers see as crucial to success is the social and emotional preparation that the Reggio-inspired ELC program fosters,” she notes. “Students will arrive in kindergarten confident in themselves as learners and their relationships with others, and ready to plunge into the learning opportunities there.”

Students find learning through open-ended investigations and inquiry-based activities fun, exciting, and motivating. Recalling a fascination with spooky sounds that led her preschool hub to research the math and physics behind the sounds, create a haunted house, research bats, and discuss Halloween traditions, teacher Nancy Devine says, “The energy and excitement of just two or three kids who want to explore something fuels the fire, and suddenly the whole class is on board!”

Ice Adventure: The Evolution of One Hub's Inquiry


Last year, our class became fascinated with ice, a transient material in sunny Singapore. Investigating the properties of ice, the children took it to the playground. As an ice block slid down the slide, a child noted, “We could make an ice playground!” This delighted the whole class, and the idea grew to an ice city.

Weeks of designing and testing gardens, houses, schools, and playgrounds followed; the children considered both practicality and aesthetics as the ephemeral city emerged.

Next, seeing icebergs in the water tray with toy polar bears, the students considered the polar ice caps, asking “But why are they melting?” They decided to consult experts like Santa (because he lives in the North Pole), NASA (because they can see the world from space), and a scientist (because they research) for answers. An NTU scientist gave us answers to our questions in a letter, along with a challenge: “How can you prevent climate change?” This led to an investigation into the greenhouse effect and humans’ impact on climate, and culminated in a student-produced video entitled “Save the World.”

From tiny ice cubes, this project grew into a yearlong investigation in which students gained knowledge about city planning, climate change, and responsible choices, and built skills in communication, social interactions, literacy, numeracy, science, art, and geography.

Hannah Olsen, early learning center teacher

Join Us or Find Out More

There's only one way to truly understand what makes SAS one-of-a-kind: come visit and experience our community. If you are thinking of applying to the early learning center for your child, the best place to start is by getting to know us. We look forward to hearing from you.