Our Approach

Our Story and Values

Founded in 2012, The Willows Nursery School is a community that values open communication and mutual respect, learning through play and inquiry, as well as listening and dialogue. With the support of trained educators, children ages 3 to 5 explore an array of materials, tools, concepts, and projects in an environment designed to embrace their individual needs and interests. Because we know that deep learning often takes place within a social context, our teachers support children as they connect with their peers while building relationships of collaboration and reciprocity.

We believe a child’s play reveals their theories about the world. By listening with respect and intention, teachers, parents, and children can develop relationships in a democratic community where ideas are explored in depth. Environments are created to extend children’s thinking, and materials are provided as “languages” to express their theories. Time is honored in the context of our school life, and our pace allows children to develop social relationships essential for learning.

The Reggio Emilia Approach

We find philosophical and pedagogical kinship and inspiration in the principles of Reggio Emilia, first developed in the 1940’s in the Italian city of the same name. Loris Malaguzzi, Reggio Emilia’s founder, was a dynamic educator familiar with the work of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and other great childhood psychologists. Malaguzzi believed that all children are born with tremendous natural intellectual appetites and innate abilities. He endeavored to create a comprehensive approach to early education that respects the rights and intelligences of our youngest citizens. Reggio Emilia has since been embraced worldwide; Newsweek Magazine has named the preschools of Reggio Emilia as “the best, most innovative preschools in the world.” Today, educational experts and neuro-scientists alike continue to find Reggio to be an approach that is most consistent with how children learn.

Emergent Curriculum

Our curriculum emerges from children’s interests and explorations at school. Teachers are skilled collaborators that support and guide children during their play, value their thinking and interests, and encourage further inquiry. Through close observation and pedagogical documentation, teachers help to inspire children’s shared inquiries and designs.

The Importance of Play

Children learn best through play: making choices, solving problems, planning what they are going to do, and gaining a sense of control. Play—the foundation of every child’s social, emotional, physical, creative, and cognitive development—is a natural medium for children to work through experiences, ideas, and feelings. It is the foundation of curriculum at The Willows Nursery School. Teachers at The Willows observe the children’s play closely and look for ways to support the children’s explorations, further their inquiry, and build collaboration among children and teachers.


Children use a rich variety of materials to tell their stories, solve problems, and develop relationships. Their thinking processes are represented through drawing, block building, dramatic play, sensory play, writing, painting, sculpting, and more. Teachers and children collaborate and reflect, continuing a process of inquiry until the process or project meets the child’s expressed intent.

Blocks, clay, paint, sand, and water—these are the essential materials of early childhood. At Willows Nursery School, we use these materials to encourage in-depth experiences and explorations. Teachers support children as they learn the characteristics of each material as well as the techniques for exploring them. As a child gains mastery of these materials, s/he is increasingly able to experiment, represent thinking, express creativity, and further play scenarios through these important media.


Observing children’s play and documenting their dialogue and interactions is fundamental to the curriculum of The Willows Nursery School. Documentation helps teachers develop a deep understanding of both group dynamics and individual children. Through documentation, children’s learning processes become shared knowledge. They also become visible to the larger community. By taking time to listen, we better understand how children learn and how they give meaning to their world. Documentation can be seen both inside and outside The Willows Nursery School, whether in written pieces, “mini-stories,” traces of children’s work, or photographs. The environment and documentation change as the curriculum evolves.

The Environment

The Willows Nursery School is an inviting place, flooded with natural light and stocked with a wide variety of “intelligent materials” to spark inquiry and imagination. Project materials and tools are of high quality. Consideration is given to everything that children see and touch, because we recognize that children are aesthetically sensitive and learn from their environment on many levels.