The term “emergent curriculum” has become very popular in early learning. Curriculum is considered emergent when educators plan activities that build upon the specific interests and questions expressed by the children in their classrooms.
Emergent curriculum requires observation, flexibility, and trust between the educator and children. While you have probably heard this term used, you might be less familiar with how to successfully execute these practices into your classroom.
Defining Emergent Curriculum
Emergent curriculum involves teachers observing children’s play and listening to the questions they ask during and within their play. Interests sparked during play become the starting point for activities and lesson plans.
According to HiMama, “The emergent curriculum approach allows early childhood educators to gain greater insight into the needs of each individual child, allowing for thoughtful and customized programming. The flexible and open-ended nature of emergent curriculum lets children and educators alike explore, answer questions and guide learning in a way that evolves over time.”
Emergent Practices in a Local Preschool
The Good2Know team visited a local child center, Toddle, to learn more about what emergent curriculum looks like in their classrooms. Toddle is a flexible-schedule preschool in Menlo Park for children aged 2-6 years old. The school has two classes, the Penguins (3-5 yrs old) and the Puffins (2-3 yrs old). Their curriculum involves learning through play-based investigations that build from children’s current interests.
This semester, both classrooms are quite engaged with the book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The interest in the book stemmed from the children’s conversations about how they have grown or are growing. The teachers chose the book due to its specific mention of a growing forest. Conversations were facilitated with the children about how they grew from babies to children, and how plants grow, starting from seeds.
Project Based Learning
To learn more about this topic, the children watered and cared for individual plants to help them grow. This growing project allowed the children to practice patience and self control, while learning basic biological and scientific concepts. The children had to learn to patiently and gently care for the plants, giving them the right amount of water and attention to support their growth. Because the children were already curious about growth and changing, they have been able to maintain thoughtful attention to their plants over weeks, without getting bored and losing interest. This has allowed the teachers to incorporate several additional learning outcomes, all branching out from one initial topic that the children were interested in.
The book, Where the Wild Things Are, provided lots of examples of growth, and also introduced some new topics that sparked the children’s curiosity. When the main character, Max, travels on a boat, the children asked questions about how the boat actually moves. The discussion kept expanding as new questions were explored: What makes the boat move? How does the boat stay on top of the water? Is magic involved? Does water help the boat move?
The teacher guided these exploratory conversations, and the class moved into an experiment of creating their own boats to figure out how to make them float. This started with the children describing what a boat looks like. Of course, with Where The Wild Things Are in mind, most of them described Max’s boat. When these 2-dimensional creations failed in the water, the children were challenged to choose what they thought could be more successful materials (jar caps, drinking straws or popsicle sticks, etc). They chose to follow one of their older peers and created boats out of playdough and jar caps. Again, their choice closely resemble Max’s boat. Though the children’s perception of what a boat may look like was accurate, their jar cap boats were also not successful in the water or the water tunnels that they had created with PVC pipes.
The next week, they tried toilet paper rolls. Though their designs traveled through the PVC pipes well, the cardboard became too soaked to float. The following weeks, were filled with attempts to rebuild and/or improve their boat designs. After about 5-6 weeks, the children learned from the boats that failed and the boats that floated. Their last designs became more sleek, tightly bound, and less porous.
This project, inspired by a favorite classroom story, helped the children learn skills in creative problem solving and the scientific method. Curriculum topics can last for weeks or months if they stay age appropriate, challenging and fun.
The teachers at Toddle are constantly observing the children’s play to think about how to support their learning. The team is doing fantastic work, and we are so grateful to them for sharing their projects with us!
If you or your team have done any projects that you are especially excited about, email a brief description and some photos to natalie@good2knownetwork. We’d love to hear more about the curriculum that is happening in our County.