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-aged children). Upon request, parent-teacher conferences can be 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.
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.