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Provocations: the catalysts of learning

Provovcations Learning

If you have spent any time in the world of Early Childhood Education, in particular the Reggio Emilia philosophy, you have likely happened across the use of the term Provocations. Provocations are one of the cornerstones of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning and a fundamental aspect of exploration-based understanding.

So what are they? As the name suggests, Provocations provoke. They can generate conversations, produce ideas, conjure thoughts and stimulate interest in a subject. They may provoke the beginning of a child’s comprehension surrounding a subject or they may be a tool for furthering their current ideas.

Provocations have no set outcome and no predetermined result.  They are purely a vehicle for exploration-based learning that allows children to explore the many aspects of the installations without limitations on what the findings may be.

“Ideas fly, bounce around, accumulate, rise up, fall apart, and spread, until one of them takes the decisive hold, flies higher and conquers the entire group.” – Loris Malaguzzi

The beauty of Provocations is that they can be relatively simple in design, or as elaborate as your imagination allows. They can be a small installation of rock formations or a table of paints with elements of nature and a thought-producing picture.

By using a mix of nature, creativity and inspiration children are encouraged to explore the depths of free-reign thinking without the limitations of pre-ordained results. It allows them to learn without the constraint of the traditional methods of outcome-based play.

So how can Provocations be implemented? In Reggio Emilia philosophy, the classroom acts as the third teacher for children. Care and learning is facilitated in a way that allows for children to be more capable and competent, allowing educators and parents to work in partnership with children, forming relationships based on a common desire for exploration and discovery.

There is no right way for a Provocation to be formed. They can come in any form and the beauty lies in the knowledge there is never a “wrong” outcome. They are open-ended and curiosity-driven.

“Learning is not the transmission of a defined body of knowledge.. learning is a process of constructing, testing and reconstructing theories, constantly creating new knowledge.” Rinaldi, C. and Moss, P.  

So what do Provocations look like? In the outside world, these can be as natural as a child walking through sand for the first time, the sensation of mud squished in their hands or the curiosity driven from watching water create pathways to the ocean.

In a learning environment, a similar organic representation can be derived from the placement of items and withdrawal of limitations.

Some examples of Provocations used to ignite ideas include:

  • Multiple sized rocks placed alongside bark and leaves
  • Objects such as magnets or metals
  • Recycled or up-cycled materials presented in a new light
  • A thought-provoking book or picture
  • A natural concept such as the seasons
  • New media or scientific apparatus

Often children can be prompted to explore their own thoughts by use of something as simple as a question or interest they may have.

The Journal of Childhood Studies details the beautiful synergy between using nature as a way of observing the learning process of a child. The educator writes;

“For example, (we had) tree cookies perched on childrens’ bodies. I remember hearing childrens’ breathing and watching them observing their own bellies moved by the air they breathed in and out. So much was there in those moments. Toddlers willingly lying still on the floor, controlling their (own) breathing. Discovering that if they laughed, the cookies would slip off their bellies.”

When developing a Provocation-rich environment for Care and Learning, children are encouraged to be independent, forward thinkers. They are inspired to enter areas of play by themselves, explore the realms of cause and effect, investigate the properties of nature and engage in testing the confines of coordination. The space is calming and organic, researched and purposeful. The educators are gaining as much knowledge from watching the children’s interactions as the children are from their own exploration.

It is in this context that the children, educators and families are able to progress on their journey of education together.

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