Believing in the Unbelievable

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While visiting La Villetta Municipal Preschool in Reggio Emilia with fellow Canadian study tour participants, we had the opportunity to explore the school’s outdoor play space. An invitation immediately caught my eye. I was drawn to the area, excited as the children were on that day when they ventured outside to see what welcomed them. I was inspired to come and explore.

I found myself in front of a roped off section that surrounded the stump of a fallen tree. To the side of the stump was an offering of pencils, papers of various sizes and clip boards. This was an invitation to the children to wonder about the possibilities…the “what ifs”.

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Educators displayed a piece of documentation from the children’s previous day’s exploration to encourage them to continue the work they had started. The documentation was a picture of the children exploring a small hole in the tree stump along with this thought provoking sentence, “It was a tree…maybe it was the highest in the sky.” Another sentence described the intent behind this invitation, “Real landscapes and imagined landscapes: for ecological approach to knowledge.”

That picture triggered many thoughts and visuals for me. I envisioned the children peeking and poking their fingers in the hole of the stump and wondering about the tree that once stood there. I’m sure it sparked their curiosity about who or what might be living in that hole.

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“It was a tree…maybe it was the highest in the sky”

Real landscapes and imagined landscapes: for an ecological approach to knowledge.


As an educator I began to wonder what I would have offered children in these same surroundings. I definitely would have offered books on different types of trees and possibly additional books on wild animals or insects. Perhaps I would have offered carefully selected animals or bugs found in similar habitats. These thoughts concerned me. Perhaps these offerings might only teach children that a certain type of tree once lived there and only the selection of the “props” I provided could have possibly inhabited that hole.

My role as educator is constantly evolving on this journey into emergent curriculum. To be an educator is to educate, to make knowledge visible, to show the many intelligences of children. Living in a fantasy world challenges this thinking. Whimsy and fantasy are not factual; they are difficult to measure in a society that is based on assessment and productivity. However, whimsy, fantasy and imagination are the free spirits and true essences of childhood. Children believe in the unbelievable.

We are so quick to provide the knowledge, the correct understanding, all with well-meaning intent. We want to show that children are capable of understanding the complex world around them. We feel it is our job as educators to prove children are learning something that equates to an academic accomplishment. When doing this are we losing site of the importance of imagination? What about the world THEY see around them…the world THEY imagine?

Often we as a society talk about how quickly our children are maturing or how fast they are growing. What is our role in that? Are we too quick to entrench adult thinking into their minds? I observed this invitation in Reggio and wondered, do I allow my own children the opportunity to imagine enough? Do I encourage whimsy and fantasy that creates a blissful childhood? Do I provide them opportunities to pretend, make believe and create silly stories? Or am I too quick to give them answers? Would I say that hole in the stump is just where the wood is beginning to decay without exploring other possibilities? Would I allow myself to wonder with the children if this could be a place where fairies hide or question whether it is a deep hole that travels to the middle of the earth?

Children’s imaginations are always evident in the documentation in Reggio Emilia. Stories are created out of real life objects, wrapped in childhood fantasy. The children of Reggio taught me that lion statues come to life in the city squares at night and birds need amusement parks for thrill and excitement.

I believe if imagination is fostered, children will be visionaries. They will be the ones that imagine a world without cancer and make it happen. They will envision literary works that will change the world. They will become mommies and daddies that build forts with their children under coffee tables to keep them safe from monsters and boogie men.

As an educator and mom, I gained more from this seemingly simple exploration of a tree stump than I did through hours of schooling, lectures and tours of inspiring environments. This intentional offering of a tree stump made me leap into an imaginary rabbit hole and envision the world through the eyes of children. More importantly, it reminded me to nurture children’s thoughts and discoveries, real or imagined, before offering them my own knowledge.

Kerri RielSubmitted by:  Kerri Riel, Pedagogical Team Leader for Compass ELC School Age Programs in the City & County of Peterborough

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