We find that children are most eager and successful in their learning when they drive the learning based on their own interests. Therefore, our classroom curriculum is centered around and inspired by the children’s own ideas, experiences, and imaginations, and their play is at the heart of all that we do in school. We as educators believe that children are not blank slates who come to us to be filled with facts and knowledge; far from it, in fact! Children, even those at the youngest ages, come to school with many prior experiences, interests, and ideas about the world around them. Each classroom, and its environment and yearly curriculum, is sculpted around the interests, questions, and ideas of the particular students and teachers who inhabit it.
We begin school with many empty walls and bulletin boards that the children will soon fill up as the year goes on. As we begin to get to know the children and their interests, curricular themes and ideas will begin to emerge and develop within the whole group, small groups, or even through one-on-one work between a teacher and student. Soon a curriculum is co-constructed and emerges based on interests of both students and teachers. One year and one class will likely look very different from the next. Whatever the framework that we are working within, we find ways to support and incorporate literacy and language development, as well as science, math, and inter-personal skills in different ways. This work is often done informally, as we meet children differently based on their interests, skills and challenges, and it may even be slightly different for each child.
Our co-constructed emergent curriculum often comes from an initial spark teachers notice of shared interest and excitement around a certain topic or idea. The children’s play is a source for learning; teachers watch, listen, and document the children often during their play in different areas of the classroom. Once we notice a topic that seems to interest several children in the class, we will put out materials for exploration to inspire and provoke the children’s learning and play around a central topic. Then we will document their work with these materials, and see if we can determine what aspect of this topic interests them most. In this way, we will often find that the children’s interests take us in a very different direction than we had initially expected!
A great example of this type of emergent learning is our “grocery store” curriculum, currently underway in our 3s Preschool classroom this year. It all started with a squash; we first noticed an interest in grocery stores when we attempted to lead a class discussion and science activity around autumn vegetables. In the following excerpt of a class meeting, the teacher begins the initial discussion about the five senses, then eventually follows the children’s lead towards a clear interest in other topics, as the conversation veers away from the senses and towards different kinds of grocery stores. She asks open-ended questions and allows the discussion to engage with the children’s interests and ideas around their own experiences.
…. Teacher: The last of our senses is our sense of taste. We won’t taste this squash right now, but what do you think it would taste like?
H: I haven’t had squash before, but I like it.
E: Maybe you can ask your mom to buy it at the store.
S: I had squash with syrup on it.
Teacher: How did it taste?
T: Do you remember our big science word, hypothesis? It means a guess. Scientists guess, or hypothesize, about things. What is your hypothesis about what is inside this squash?
J: You can eat squash with pasta…
A: Maybe it’s coconut!
J: There’s no coconut in the squash and no strawberries in the squash.
Teacher: How do you know?
J: Because one day I was eating it with pasta, and there was no coconut or strawberries.
Teacher: So J___ is using his past experiences and memories about other squash to give him clues about what might be inside of this squash.
J: We bought it at Wegman’s.
H: If you go in the back where the yogurt is, there’s a train.
Teacher: It sound like you’ve been there too! Who can tell me about Wegman’s?
O: It’s a grocery store.
H: Hey, you have to drive to Wegman’s.
S: I have something to say. Wegman’s is between Brookline, and Boston, and Newton.
Teacher: I did not get this squash at Wegman’s…where do you think I might have gotten it?
A: At Trader Joe’s. It’s a store. They have yogurt there.
E: They have cheese.
J: They have peas.
S: Yeah, I’ve eaten those peas from Trader Joe’s.
H: There’s a tasting test station there too.
S: I think you got the squash from Whole Foods. It’s another grocery store.
Teacher: I actually got this squash from a little market near my house. Are all markets big like Wegman’s and Whole Foods?
E: No, the bread store near the gym is small.
S: There’s a place called Clear Flour near my house where you can buy bread. And macaroons. ….
After this conversation, we knew that at least some of our children had an interest in some aspects of grocery stores. We then used the resources around us to facilitate more learning, exploration, and discovery within the classroom, taking care to document the children’s interactions with materials and experiences, which would further dictate where our curriculum would take us next. We gathered research together by embarking on a class field trip to Trader Joe’s. We shared “Weekend News” on Mondays about out of school visits to different neighborhood markets. And eventually we turned our own dramatic play area into a grocery store.
Within emergent curriculum, teachers must work to thoughtfully add many important developmental skills into a certain curriculum. In our classroom, we were able to incorporate important social emotional skills in our dramatic play area, as the children used nametags and took turns taking on different roles at the grocery store. They developed their math skills with a cash register we brought into our room, even making their own money—“Tziporim bucks,” we call them! We practiced writing grocery store-related words in the art studio, writing out shopping lists, and mapping out pictures of how to set up a grocery store, utilizing literacy, art, and fine motor skills. Children used gross motor skills to build and set up the store, and worked on science skill development through exploring different foods and where they come from. Our curriculum also led us to social justice experiences, as we learned about soup kitchens, food pantries, and even organized our own food drive. And now, as spring weather approaches, we are beginning to explore farms, gardens, and farmer’s markets as well.
A frequent question that comes up with this kind of co-constructed emergent curriculum has to do with the inclusion of children whose interests may not be directly in line with others around the central topic of exploration. One of the nicest aspects of this kind of learning is that while we also continue many other educational activities and lessons throughout our school day and year, the central topic of study permeates all areas of the classroom environment and there are opportunities for all to be actively involved. Some children are most interested in learning about the origin of food and spend a good deal of time engaging with that area of scientific discovery, while others lean more towards exploring different roles as they play and negotiate “working” in our Tziporim grocery store. Whatever their interests, we find ways to incorporate necessary skills seamlessly into their learning. For example, a child who gravitates towards dramatic play may be encouraged to incorporate literacy and fine motor skills into her work, as she writes out a shopping list for the grocery store. A child who spends most of his time in blocks will be asked to create signs for the different areas of the store he has built, which brings him into our writing area with little added pressure. Small groups also begin to form around common interests; in our class a small group of children with a shared interest in social justice met regularly to plan and implement our food drive initiative, frequently bringing their work and ideas back to share with the rest of the class so that all were involved in the larger experience.
As we near the end of our school year together, we can’t wait to see where this rich curriculum will take us next; only time, and the Tziporim children, will tell!