It would be truly naïve to imagine that the mere presence of an atelierista might constitute an important change in learning if the atelier culture and the pedagogical culture do not reciprocally ‘listen’ to each other or are not both of quality. To introduce an atelier into a school means that materials available for children’s use will most probably increase in number, that techniques and the formal qualities of final products will improve. Above all, however, it is an approach, the relation with things that must be activated through certain processes where the aesthetic dimension is a significant, fundamental presence. To my mind an indispensable premise for ideas about the atelier is a reflection on the role of aesthetic dimensions in learning and education in general – and a topic deserving of deeper evaluation and understanding. The topic is a difficult one but must at least be mentioned, for among Reggio pedagogy’s most original features is an acceptance of aesthetics as one of the important dimensions in the life of our species and, therefore, also in education and in learning. While in Reggio schools the role of an aesthetic dimension can be felt immediately, the opposite is usually true and the world of education generally keeps a distance from the subject. I do not think a true understanding of Reggio pedagogy is possible without due consideration of this issue; an issue which can be approached from various points of view and studied in different ways. For my part, I will discuss it mainly with a view to giving far more attention to the role of atelier and atelierista in places of education and in learning. Undoubtedly it is difficult to say simply and clearly what is meant by an aesthetic dimension. Perhaps first and foremost it is a process of empathy relating the Self to things and things to each other. It is like a slim thread or aspiration to quality that makes us choose one word over another, the same for a colour or shade, a certain piece of music, a mathematical formula or the taste of a food. It is an attitude of care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and wonder; it is the opposite of indifference and carelessness, of conformity, of absence of participation and feeling. The aesthetic dimension is certainly not only these things. On the level of education it deserves deep thought and I am confident its presence, together
with awareness of it, would raise the quality both of relations with the surrounding world and of learning processes in schools and in education. With the help of some stories to illustrate, I will try to argue how sensory perception, pleasure and the power to seduce – what Malaguzzi called the ‘aesthetic vibration’ – can become activators of learning; how they are able to support and nourish kinds of knowledge not based uniquely on information; and how, by avoiding simply definable categories, they can lead to the sensitive empathy and relation with things which creates connections. I believe everyone senses on entering Reggio Emilia’s municipal schools how the presence of an atelier and atelierista gives them particularly well cared for physical environments, including striking products and documentation by children and teachers. However, not all visitors fully appreciate their positive educational value. Reflection is needed in order to understand to what extent Reggio Emilia’s recognition of aesthetics affects not simply such appearances, but a way of ‘doing’ school and consequently learning by children and adults and the pedagogical philosophy. This is the most difficult part of the story to tell and we can attempt to do it through examples and personal experience.