It’s the start of a new school year. The teachers have spent countless hours meeting and discussing best practice, strategizing about the year ahead, and carefully preparing their classrooms. Their introduction letter to parents is thoughtful and detailed; there’s even a postcard that arrives in the mail, eagerly welcoming your child to the class with a photo of a team of smiling teachers. The classroom is clean and neat, cubbies and shelves are labeled, materials are sorted and displayed in appealing, eye-catching ways, perhaps organized by size or color. But when parents walk into that classroom on the first day of school, or perhaps during a meet-and-greet or orientation event, their eyes may gravitate upwards, to an empty bulletin board or two. Clearly these teachers have put so much thought, energy, and time into setting up their classrooms. Why then, some may ask, have they neglected to fill the bulletin board? Did they run out of time? Or out of ideas? Or is it just a careless lack of motivation to finalize the classroom preparations?

None of the above, in fact…! This teacher choice is highly intentional, and serves a very specific purpose. We strive to make the classroom inviting and exciting for eager little learners. However, it is ultimately their own space to inhabit. We begin school with many empty walls and bulletin boards that the children will soon fill up as the year goes on. A blank bulletin board is an exciting provocation of what is yet to come within the classroom environment. Rather than initially filling up boards with cookie cutter cutouts of paper ducks and bears, we wait to see what the children in our class are like, what topics intrigue and inspire them, and let them inhabit the space. Then, we make sure that the boards will be filled with meaningful work and materials that accurately portray and reflect the children and their ideas and abilities, inspire feelings of pride in them upon gazing at their own work, and show parents and classroom guests the deep and valuable learning that is taking place in our classroom curriculum and environment.

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.

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.

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!

Within emergent curriculum, teachers must work to thoughtfully add many important developmental skills into a certain curriculum. For example, a class that is studying grocery stores (as my class did last year) will teach math skills through counting coins in a cash register, and literacy through writing produce signs. 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 last year a small group of children with a shared interest in social justice met regularly to plan and implement a 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.

A classroom environment, just as a curriculum, is part of a shared journey between teachers and students and as we embark upon this journey together with the children, and they begin to fill the space, making the room their own, shared interests will emerge and our walls will slowly begin to fill up, reflecting the class that inhabits the classroom and brings it to life.