Bicocca Nursery and Infant School: “The child at the centre"

Susanna Mantovani, an honorary professor and dean of the project, explains the philosophy behind the centre for early childhood coordinated by the Department of Human Sciences for Education of the University of Milano-Bicocca

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"Every child is unique, and their development proceeds at different rhythms. We begin with the child, not the method," explains professor Susanna Mantovani, who is considered a reference point both in Italy and internationally in the fields of childhood, development and education, not to mention family policy and professional training for teachers and educators. Today, she is an honorary professor at the Riccardo Massa Department of Human Sciences for Education at the University of Milano-Bicocca. She has been developing her scientific research in the fields of childhood, educational services and family policy ever since the foundation of the Riccardo Massa Department of Human Sciences for Education, and she has also inspired the teaching methods implemented at the Biccoca Nursery and Infant School. Previously, she was dean of the Faculty of Education (2001-2007) and deputy pro-rector at the Bicocca University (2007-2013), as well as a member of the Board of Directors (2013-2016).

How did the idea of the Biccoca Nursery and Infant School come about?

It began in 2003, when I was dean of the Faculty of Science and Education and the Biccoca neighbourhood was growing at a rapid rate. The university's rector was looking for spaces to help increase the Bicocca's education programme and, on request, the municipality invited us to open a nursery too. I have always focused on services for young children in my research and it felt only natural to accept the offer. The nursery opened in 2005 in a hall of the U16 building in via Giolli. In addition to providing the service for people working at the university, we also immediately formed an agreement with Pirelli, a company with a historic presence in the Bicocca district. Pirelli became a supporter of the project, and the children of its employees were able to access the school. This led to a high quality corporate welfare initiative that, with the help of the university, also promotes research and education: the nursery functions as a training laboratory for educational services for young children and a place of internship for future educators.

Who manages the project?

The educational and scientific project is in the hands of the university's Department of Human Sciences for Education, of which I am the dean. The municipality offered to license us a space at via Giolli, before another location was then added at the piazza dei Daini, where we opened the Infant School. By uniting the Nursery and Infant School, we were able to create a centre, an integrated system that looks after children aged 0 to 6. Today, in Italian the phrase 'polo infanzia' (early childhood centre) is commonplace, but when we began it was not an obvious idea to plan a single path for the two cycles. In 2019, a university ‘spin-off' was created, Bambini Bicocca (Bicocca Kids), which manages the nursery and playschool and has seven members: six social cooperatives and a foundation (la Nuova Musica).

What is the philosophy behind it?

Our philosophy places the child at the centre. The idea is that children are adept and very active from the first few months of life, and that children develop at different rates in the first years. Every child is unique, special, and has their own pace and temperament. This is why we have chosen not to have one codified, rigid method. We have a lot of research experience and we are very familiar with a range of different methods, and this helps us to adapt to the specific needs of every child and every group. We have a great deal of respect for development rhythms, though this doesn't mean we don't pay attention to learning and that we don't have a rich programme designed through experience and scientific, linguistic and expressive work. We believe that today – given that the importance of a rich education from the very first years is now widely accepted – one extremely important – and I would also say urgent – factor is to offer children rich and balanced social experiences with both their peers and adults outside of their immediate family. I would say that the balance between individualisation and sociability, project proposals and cooperative learning and sharing experiences, and family experiences and experiences offered in the nursery and in the school, are the hallmark of our approach. The world changes, as we have seen in recent years, and the educational programme needs to be constantly redesigned, verified and adapted to equip children with the ability to go out and learn about the world.

But how is it possible to properly understand the needs of every child?

Listening and observation are fundamental. There should be flexibility instead of automated processes: a dialogue with every child, and an ongoing discussion with the children as a group.  In this way, we are able to let their talents and the characteristics that make them unique emerge. Language is one example. If we have to talk about leaves or feelings, for instance, everyone speaks in a different way, the language changes and we adapt to the topics and circumstances of each individual.

What are your areas of research?

We have projects on different topics, on multilingualism and science, for example, we offer naturalistic experiences, educational robotics, inclusion. In both the nursery and school, English accompanies activities through a range of voices, including that of Richard, who enriches his presence with music and circus-related activities. We are not a bilingual school, but we do offer reflections on how we speak and how a child interacts with a language that is not their own. In the nursery, we also experiment with groups of children of various ages, as it is important for them to encounter social complexity and develop the required respect and responsibility in relation to others. We have taken part in several international projects; in a European project (CARE) the nursery was analysed as an exemplary case. Today we are involved in another project as a hub to experiment with inclusive science laboratories (C4S Community for Science).

How should the years spent in the Nursery and the Infant School help the child's growing process?

In these years, children learn to ask questions, they are tireless explorers. This urge then declines in their school years. Keeping this curiosity alive, asking questions and working in a team are lessons that should remain. In these years, their socialness develops and enables richer learning, friendships and greater well-being. They can learn to simultaneously be free and follow the rules of the community.

How should the relationship be between educators and children?

First of all, educators and teachers must have fun and be passionate, and I must say that the new graduates of the Department of Human Sciences for Education are today very well suited to the task. Almost all of our educators and teachers graduated from Bicocca. We have been able to create a group of similar-minded adults. We have to be aware that educators serve as a model. Children learn how to behave themselves at school and repeat the actions of the teachers, because they copy what they see at school. And children are able to tell if the teachers are enthusiastic or not. There must also be interesting activities, freedom from stimuli and time to look at things in-depth. Everything which you also need in research. All children are researchers.

What role do parents have and how are they assisted in a phase that for many is the first time they are separated from their children?

It is a role of great importance; parents are never an optional extra. Children arrive at the nursery with a set of relationships already in place: the main ones provided by the family. Even if unhappy situations occur, the family has a huge reserve of emotional energy and is always an essential part of the conversation. To assist parents in their commitment to education, we try to get to know each other and regularly plan individual meetings, which complement group and thematic meetings. In the Covid era, the development of remote connections has also allowed us to introduce short calls between teachers and parents, which has also helped fathers become more familiar with nursery and school activities. Support for mothers, especially in the nursery, is also crucial, as today children are brought to the nursery when they are a few months old. It is a choice of great confidence in us that requires concern and delicacy on our part.

The Covid pandemic has had a major impact on children, families and those who work in the world of education. What impact has it made? 

The signs of Covid are still with us. From a piece of research conducted by Bambini Bicocca with SICUPP (Children and lockdown, talking to parents), one association of general paediatricians, through a questionnaire addressed to parents with children from 0 to 11 years, found that while during the first lockdown the majority of parents said they could cope, after the second many claimed they were no longer able to do so. Parents experienced great difficulties with Covid, even if they were not in significant distress. Our and other surveys identified difficulties for children in terms of controlling their mood. Though younger ones may have appeared stronger, they also displayed some signs of discomfort, with more frequent crying and more marked withdrawals.  In some cases, there was greater suffering through grief and illness. Seeing a grandparent pass away or hearing the worries and uncertainty of the parents led adult anxiety to resonate with children, too. Another mark was left by the masks worn by educators and teachers: this delayed the reading of emotions and how to articulate words and language learning, limited interactions and influenced the tone of their voice. It was an effective and lived limitation: teachers were not permitted to share meals with the children, whereas for us the common lunch is usually an important convivial moment, a time of well-being, of conversations, of natural and peaceful learning of the rules and autonomy.

And what lessons were learnt for the future?

New and more intense yet also more articulated contact with the family, being outdoors without fear of the cold, frequent and natural hygiene practice. We finally understood that children know how to regulate themselves, and attention to good hygiene and nutrition habits has increased. Certain rules, such as hand washing, must be followed. When parents and teachers doubt, children also doubt, when adults are convinced and therefore calmly decisive – and we could not be otherwise with Covid – the results are clear to see.