The following post was authored by Dana Hirsch who has been at SEEC since 2005 and has taught almost every age group. She is currently the Director for Preschool Programs. Dana studied Child Development and Family Science at North Dakota State University, and has a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction for Early Childhood Education from George Mason University. Her three-year-old daughter is currently a student at SEEC. For this blog she drew upon her experience in the classroom, and intimate involvement with writing SEEC’s current emergent curriculum approach.
During my career as an educator, and now director, I’ve had the pleasure of working with every age from infant to kindergarten. People often ask me which is my favorite age, and my answer is always the same; “I don’t know, I love different things about each age.” While each stage of development is unique, there is one element that permeates through all ages and is one of my favorite parts of working with young children: the way curiosity leads to connections. It doesn’t matter if you have a classroom full of five-month-olds, or five-year-olds, they are all naturally curious about the world around them and even the youngest children are able to communicate their interests.
The Evolution of Curriculum Development at SEEC
Until the early part of 2013, SEEC followed a curriculum that used museum and community visits as way to explore pre-set monthly themes. This type of curriculum was helpful in allowing educators to plan far in advance and demonstrated how similar topics could be approached in different ways. However, educators began to realize that they were often competing with the interests and curiosities of their students. For example, during the month that the school focused on clothes, there was a construction project nearby. We recognized that the vast majority of the children were interested in the site and what was happening. Such instances encouraged us to wonder, could we focus on the children’s interests and create learning opportunities from that?
Simultaneously, we were working as a team to reexamine what we believed about children and learning. This reflection launched us in a new direction that moved away from monthly themes. We began to observe our students more closely in order to understand the emerging interests of individual classrooms. This different approach was still very much steeped in our model of using museums and the community. Essentially, we took many of the guiding principles of our program – hands-on, object based, experiential learning – and used them to support an emergent approach. Hence, the emergent curriculum we follow today.
At SEEC we believe that children who are encouraged and enabled to explore the things they are curious about will develop a lifelong love for learning. Children learn best when they are able to make meaningful connections, so we want to foster that natural “emerging” curiosity and desire for knowledge by giving the children every opportunity to ask questions, find answers, and have hands-on, object-based experiences. We know that all of these things together create meaningful experiences which is at the heart of learning for young children. By blending our museum-based approach with an emergent curriculum, we have seen the curiosity and inquiry of our students soar to new heights.
So, What is an Emergent Curriculum?
An emergent curriculum allows educators the freedom to choose a topic that is of interest to the children in their classroom and use that topic as a platform to provide experiences and learning opportunities that naturally foster curiosity and a sense of wonder, two important elements of SEEC’s philosophy. Educators have the ability to follow the lead of the children because the curriculum is not prescribed and does not follow a set timeline. The exploration into a topic can last as long as there is interest. As the class explores the topic, new questions or interests may emerge that change the initial direction of exploration or bring in new elements. Teachers follow the path that the children’s questions and exploration leads them. The children in turn learn how to ask questions, probe deeper, and find answers they were not expecting. They are able to make connections that are more meaningful because they are interested and curious about what they are exploring.
The other benefit of the emergent approach is that educators are able to maintain the children’s attention better because they are focusing on that which is interesting to them. The emergent approach allows educators to create lesson plans that target specific areas of development while maintaining a love for learning. For example, a child who needs a little extra support with her fine motor abilities may normally show disinterest in these types of activities. However, if she’s interested in flowers and plants, gluing small pieces of paper petals (or even real petals) may help engage her. Another child might struggle to enter into play with her peers and, as a result, avoids dramatic play with others. However, she’s shown an interest in space and rockets
so her teachers decided to create a rocket themed dramatic play area. This gives her some extra encouragement to explore this kind of play and thus, she is able to work more on developing her social skills.
Emergent Curriculum’s Endless Possibilities
When I was first introduced to the idea of using an emergent curriculum, it took some time for me to figure out what that really looked like in the classroom and how best to implement it. At first, the idea of having the freedom to choose to any topic at all was both freeing and intimidating. Where do you start? How do you choose where to focus? What do you mean you cannot plan out the next month in advance?! For me, the hardest part was finding the balance between having a plan but being flexible enough with it to follow the interest and curiosity of the children. It took time and practice to notice the children’s interest. I observed them during circle time, at community/museum visits, playing with choices, and on the playground. I learned to allow myself to spend an extra day or even an extra week on a particular topic because the children just seemed so interested rather than steamrolling ahead with what I had planned. As someone who really likes to plan things out and be organized, this really took some getting used to. However, after some time implementing this type of curriculum, I began to see how much the children’s curiosity and genuine desire to learn and explore blossomed.
Emergent Curriculum in Practice
When SEEC first transitioned from a theme-based approach to the emergent curriculum we have today, four of our preschool classrooms decided to focus on the same overarching topic: The Wizard of Oz. At that time there had been a lot of interest in the ruby slippers on display in the National Museum of American History. Many of the children were interested in the movie and liked to pretend to be the different characters. Those children who weren’t initially interested picked up on the interest of their peers and gravitated towards it as well, so it seemed like the right area to explore. What was so interesting, though, was how the direction that each classroom took differed from one to the next — each based on the group’s particular areas of interest.
One classroom chose to specifically focus on the characters themselves. Their exploration involved a lot of dramatic play and costume design. Another classroom choose to think more about the natural elements of the story such as weather, plants and flowers. From there, they even explored human anatomy using the characters as a comparison. Two classrooms focused on the Emerald City, but in very different ways. One classroom explored architecture as it related to the buildings in the city and the other on emeralds themselves. This initial interest in emeralds led to a unit focused on geology – something the educators had never expected.
Using an emergent curriculum approach has transformed the way we think about teaching and learning at SEEC. There are a myriad of possibilities with emergent curriculum implementation and exploration. I think the success of this approach is largely because it supports children at every age in making meaningful connections and developing a lifelong love of learning. I know adults often pick up on things much more quickly when interested in a topic, why would children be any different?