Pedagogy: Emergent Curriculum

Setting the Stage

Research consistently points to several common elements that are characteristic of the way that young children learn. First and foremost, we know that children use play as a medium for exploring and manipulating their physical environment. What is also evident is the fact that the integration of new knowledge is best assured when children are actively engaged and when learning experiences align with their interests, individual strengths and learning styles. Traditional approaches to instruction for young children rarely speak to these findings. In fact, conventional classroom curriculum continues to be initiated by the teacher, who delivers units and themes that are planned and prepared well in advance. To this end, child-centred topics of study are abandoned in favour of “cookie-cutter” curriculum experiences that treat children as passive participants in the learning process while simultaneously ignoring the important contributions they can make to enrich curriculum content as co-constructors of knowledge. The end result is an early educational experience that lacks in imagination and relevance.

What is emergent curriculum?

One method of curriculum design that has emerged to counter the “theme-of-the-week” approach to program delivery is emergent curriculum. Emergent curriculum is based on the premise that children are most successful at learning when curriculum experiences account for their interests, strengths, needs, and lived realities. Educators committed to this philosophy use observations of children throughout their day as a tool for constructing curriculum content. Meaningful learning opportunities are then provided in support of key developmental skills relevant to a specific age group. When ongoing opportunities for practice lead to skill mastery, educators respond by enriching the learning experience through the planning and implementation of increasingly difficult tasks. As children repeatedly confront and master these “achievable challenges,” they come to view themselves as competent learners. In addition, the alignment of curriculum content with individual interests and social realities serves to validate all forms of diversity and inspires a lifelong passion for learning.

In emergent curriculum, both adults and children have initiative and make decisions. This power to impact curriculum decisions and directions means that sometimes curriculum is also negotiated between what interests children and what adults know is necessary for children’s education and development. Ideas for curriculum emerge from responding to the interests, questions, and concerns generated within a particular environment, by a particular group of people, at a particular time. Thus, emergent curriculum is never built on children’s interests alone; teachers and parents also have interests worth bringing into the curriculum. The values and concerns of all the adults involved help the classroom culture evolve.

The Role of the Teacher

Educators play an important role in their commitment to the implementation of emergent curriculum in the classroom. In the beginning, skilled observers use their knowledge of child development theory and follow the child’s lead by providing materials for children to actively explore as a means of inspiring a deeper understanding of a particular topic of interest. Since learning requires repeated practice, these interests are sustained through the continued planning and implementation of experiences that challenge each child in a manner that is mindful of his/her individual ability. Once skill mastery has been achieved, learning interests are enriched through the addition of new materials that suggest or support new ideas. At this stage, the teacher scaffolds the child’s learning to bring him/her to a new level of understanding. This is done only when a child has demonstrated a developmental readiness to move forward.

In addition to providing ongoing opportunities for play-based exploration across the curriculum, emergent curriculum also requires educators to document learning as it unfolds. Documenting learning experiences helps teachers understand where they have been and inspires ideas for where the curriculum might go next. It also helps children remember and understand the process of their own learning and gives parents concrete representations of their children’s developmental growth. Documentation takes many forms at the University of Toronto’s Early Learning Centre (ELC) and includes the use of written observations (recorded in planning books), progress reports, photographs, portfolios and journals (with preschool and Kindergarten-aged children). Parent-teacher conferences are also arranged as a means of celebrating individual achievements throughout the course of a year.

The Program Plan

Program plans inspired by emergent curriculum take many forms. The ELC uses a curriculum “web,” which our early childhood educators post weekly as a visual account of the learning experiences that are offered across all curriculum areas. The benefit of the curriculum web is that it allows flexibility in program delivery in consideration of children’s changing needs and interests. It also encourages creative and open-ended thinking, which serves as a stark contrast to the restricted, linear approach that is typical of more traditional classrooms.

Group interests for the week are indicated at the centre of the curriculum web. Experiences in each of the curriculum areas are then recorded as a reflection of these interests. Typically, curriculum categories vary according to the age group educators are planning for or reflect individual program priorities. Infant, toddler and preschool programs at the ELC offer curriculum experiences in the following areas: Art/Sensory; Language; Gross/Fine Motor; Block Play; Drama; Music; Cognition; and Science/Math. Our Kindergarten curriculum webs, on the other hand, more closely follow the Ministry of Education’s curriculum areas. These include: The Arts (Visual Arts; Music; Drama); Language (Oral; Written); Math; Science; Physical Play; Science and Technology; and Personal and Social Development.

The Benefits of Emergent Curriculum

Emergent-inspired curriculum is currently embedded in each of the infant, toddler, and preschool programs offered at the ELC. As such, numerous advantages to this approach have been noted for children of all ages. Specifically, emergent curriculum has been especially useful in ensuring that:

  • Children’s interests serve as the basis for program development;
  • Expression of individual strengths is ensured;
  • Unique learning needs are supported;
  • Curriculum content is an extension of home/family life;
  • Increased parental involvement is encouraged and;
  • Diversity is celebrated in its fullest form.

The ELC also offers two program models for Kindergarten-aged children. In each of these models, the practice of emergent curriculum has served to:

  • Bridge the gap that currently exists between the Ministry of Education’s revised Kindergarten expectations and current understandings of child development;
  • Ensure the maintenance of play-based experiences across all curriculum areas;
  • Allow for greater variance in individual ability (therefore supporting children with special needs);
  • Provide opportunities for in-depth exploration delivered in the form of classroom ‘projects’ and;
  • Inspire ongoing community outings/field trips.

Emergent Curriculum in the Classroom

In order to appreciate the full impact that emergent curriculum has on supporting the development of all children across the curriculum, it is useful to consider an example of this philosophy at work in the classroom. One year, teachers noted that Chinese New Year dominated the conversations and play themes of the children in our full day Kindergarten program. Inspired by children’s questions and observations made by our Kindergarten team, cross-curricular learning experiences were planned and implemented in order to deepen initial understandings of this yearly event. The culmination of weeks of exploration led to an array of opportunities to discover a range of components integral to Chinese New Year and the Chinese culture. While core literacy skills were supported through the reading and writing of stories about dragons and Chinese zodiac animals, learning outcomes in math were addressed through the preparation of vegetable dumplings. Visual art experiences that reflected this interest included the creation of lanterns and painting with chop sticks while physical activity was supported through various music and movement opportunities that incorporated traditional Chinese music and Chinese-inspired attire. Block play was enriched through the addition of various materials that encouraged children to recreate the Great Wall of China and various props were added to the room’s dramatic centre so that children could re-enact favourite Chinese folktales. The following photographs serve as documentation of some of the learning that took place during that time:

Oral language skills were supported as these Kindergarten children presented their Chinese-inspired costumes during a “Show-and-Share” experience. Music and movement experiences that incorporated traditional Chinese music provided opportunities for these children to refine numerous physical skills, including balance, agility, and coordination.
Written language was eventually incorporated into this life-size recreation of the Great Wall of China, which was featured in a favourite children’s book. During a visual art experience, these children fashioned a 3-dimensional representation of a Chinese dragon using recycled materials.