Are you a mom of a preschool aged child (or younger) and wondering what the best curriculum is out there that you can use with your child to help them learn? There are a lot of step-by-step, day-by-day guides out there you could follow, and some are pretty good but when it comes to our children we want what’s best. I have studied Early Childhood Education and work with children, and I believe I know exactly what the best curriculum is for children, and that’s the emergent curriculum.
I remember when I was in primary school and year after year the class themes were very predictable. September will be fall leaves, October pumpkins and Halloween stuff, November poppies (for Remembrance Day), and December snow and Christmas stuff. Continuing on through the year the themes remained predictable, usually centering around the season and holidays. It’s almost as if the teacher had sat down over a decade ago and planned all the activities for the year?
Well, maybe they did.
Have you had a similar experience? Or seen programs running this same way? Maybe it’s even how you like to plan your activities at home with your young one.
Some may say this is a great way to teach children.
Well, I’m not buying it.
Just because it’s fall and the leaves are changing colours doesn’t mean that’s what children are going to be excited about. Sure, they might be, but it’s not a guarantee. But maybe they recently visited a fair and saw some rabbits, or went to the dentist, or read a book about fire trucks, and now their interests are centered on one of those topics! An interest has emerged and they’re super excited about it, but now they have to trace leaves?
Again, I’m not buying it.
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Let me tell you about the emergent curriculum.
You might already have an idea what this is from any experience with the Montessori philosophy to child learning, or better yet Reggio Emilia (my personal fave), or you might be familiar with this concept already but not know the name of it.
Let me put it simply – the emergent curriculum is a child centered approach to learning where the child’s interest emerges, which is observed and documented by the teacher and then learning experiences are planned based on that interest.
Let me give you an example from a personal experience I had in a kindergarten classroom as an educator. It was close to Thanksgiving and the teacher hoped to be making handprint turkey crafts, but the children weren’t talking about Thanksgiving, they weren’t interested in it at all. But what they were interested in was ROBOTS. In the class, it seemed like everyone was talking about robots. Maybe some in the class had watched a cartoon with robots, or read a book with robots, but either way, robots was the talk of the classroom.
So instead of focusing on Thanksgiving because of the season, we looked into robots because it was their current interest. Where could this topic go? The possibilities were truly endless and we followed the interests of the children.
This interest created a big project – a class wide project to build a robot! We supplied the cardboard boxes and other craft material and the children planned out their robot together and got to work.
During this project the children learnt…
- Teamwork, planning and taking turns
- New vocabulary
- Fine motor skills
- Real life information about mechanics and how things work
Some of the things (such as the vocabulary) was learnt through our interaction with them, and they were fresh and ready to learn because they were interested in what we were talking about.
For the children, they were playing and enjoying an activity centered on their interests. We provided the opportunity for them but kept it educational at the same time. Their passion for robots made the learning experience a natural process. We did not have to convince them it would be fun, or force them to learn. Their interest emerged, we observed this interest and planned activities for them based around this interest.
That’s the emergent curriculum.
Related: The Benefits of Child Led Learning
So why should you be interested in the emergent curriculum?
It’s probably already clear that following children’s interest is a good way to go. When they’re interested in the topic they will learn.
The #1 reason for you to consider using the emergent curriculum is that engaged, passionate children will have a richer learning experience. So go with what they’re engaged in!
Reason #2 – it encourages children to research and learn about what they’re interested in. It encourages a sense of wonder, curiosity, and study. It is very rewarding to be interested in something and then learn all about it! Let them enjoy their “research.”
Reason #3 – it’s fulfilling as an educator or parent. Doing the same thing year after year is honestly mind numbing, and this goes for educators and parents. If you’re just finding a quick holiday activity off of Pinterest and then going for it I would encourage think more about your child’s interests instead and take learning in the direction they are naturally going to. This goes for stay at home moms rocking the early learning at home, as well as the working moms. Whenever you are planning an activity for your child plan it based on their interest. It will be very exciting for you to watch your child’s excitement and learning process when you use the emergent curriculum style.
These are some of the reasons that I truly believe the emergent curriculum is the best curriculum style you could use, but it may require you to think about your child’s learning a little bit differently.
So how can you implement the emergent curriculum at home with your young ones?
#1. Observe and Document
As your children are going about their day take note of what they are talking about and doing. Observing is much different than supervising. Even as stay at home moms who feel like we are with our child 24/7 might not be noticing their interests.
What I want you to do is to get a notebook (or a note on your phone) and start making little observations throughout the day about your child so you can start keeping track of their interests. What are they talking about? What sort of toys are they gravitating towards? What sort of books are they interested in? Some things may seem insignificant when you write them down but later on, you might start to notice a pattern. Your notes don’t have to be super simple, they might look something like this:
Johnny in playing with the blocks.
J says he is building a tower
J says the tower is a restaurant
J is putting people and food around the tower
J is reading a book about breakfast
J asked me where bread is made
J is pretending to cook a soup
J offers you some soup
Those notes are very simple of course, and in the moment it might look like Johnny is just doing normal little boy stuff (which he is) but you might now notice that he is really interested in food and cooking.
So after this step you should have identified at least one current interest.
#2. Plan a child centered activity or project
Now with their interest in mind, it’s time to plan. There are a lot of different ways to do this, and one common way is through webbing. You start with the interest in the middle and build a web of other possible directions the interest can turn into it. Not every topic may be covered but these are just the possibilities. It prepares you.
Knowing what is developmentally appropriate for your child(ren) you can look at what you can add to your environment to enhance the exploration they already have on the topic. For instance, if their interest is in cooking you can add more food/cooking props to their dramatic play area. This will enhance the learning they are already doing. You can also plan to cook something together, choose a recipe that can work well for their age, and the food you choose may also be according to their interest. Is their interest in cooking centered around acting out a restaurant? You could set up area of your house to be the restaurant so whatever you cook together is then being served.
As you plan and brainstorm it is important to also include your child(ren) in the process. This makes the activity more meaningful for them and will give you a better idea of their interests. For instance, if you are planning to do a restaurant you can get them to help you plan the menu. They may have some ideas that are too complicated for them at that time, but you can plan together to settle on the best, age appropriate idea. Always remember, the emergent curriculum is child focused so it’s great to include them in your planning.
As you are planning, remember that you can incorporate certain learning goals for your child, like reading and mathematics into their interest based activity. During your planning, you can actually look at how to meet certain developmental goals with them through this interest.
Let’s look at the restaurant idea. As you plan this activity you can also consider your specific child’s needs.
- Reading? – Write the recipe down in simple words, include pictures if necessary. Also, create a menu.
- Mathematics? – There will be counting in the recipe.
- Fine motor skills? – Give them the chance to use the teaspoons to measure out the smaller ingredients.
- Taking turns? – Set up the activity so turns must be taken along the way.
That’s just a few ideas to show you that a lot can be jam packed into their interest based activity! Plan their learning around their interest.
Plan it out and be prepared to follow their interests as they evolve.
#3. Do the activity!
Yay, the fun part! The exciting part! Watching children learn naturally is so beautiful and wonderful! I have worked with children all over the world and it is truly such a wonder to see engaged children learning as they partake in an activity they are passionate about!
So once you have the activity planned I like to build some hype! If you know you’re going to do some cooking together on Friday, then start talking about it! Get your child excited and start talking about it and they will learn a lot through the conversation as well.
When it’s time to do the activity make sure you have everything prepared, and allow enough time for your child to enjoy the process and really take their time. Don’t get frustrated if they are going slowly, don’t rush them or take over but allow them to get the task done in their own time. If they make a mistake encourage them to figure out how to fix it, or if they make a mess get them to clean it up.
As they are enjoying the activity you can engage in meaningful conversation about the project. Ask them questions, or explain the process as you are going through it. Make sure to include them, even if they’re just watching for some of the more complicated parts that maybe you have to do. Say you have to take something out of the oven and your child isn’t old enough or strong enough to do it, you can still make sure they are watching and noticing what you are doing. You can narrate what you are doing, which is a great habit to get into to help your child’s language development.
Even once you have finished the activity you can continue to talk about it with your child. Ask them questions, tell them your thoughts and be sure to listen! Throughout this whole process continue to observe and document your child’s interest. Throughout the activity for this current interest you may find a new one emerging, which leads us to the next point…
#4. Be ready for the interest to evolve or dissolve
Some interests may grow and evolve and end up lasting months, other interests may run a very short course. Either way, it is up to you to follow the interests of your child whether they evolve or dissolve.
Planning out an activity for next month based on a current interest might not have the right effect because your children may be onto a new interest. Part of the planning process is also to respect the changing interests of the child.
Let’s say your child is interested in snowmen and you are doing some snowmen based activities and also decide to order a copy of “Sadie and the Snowman.” You anticipate that this book will be a quick favourite due to your child’s interest in snowmen. But then your order gets delayed and by the time the book arrives your child is more interested in dog sleds. I would still introduce the book, and because of their knowledge of snowmen already they might really like the book, or they might not be quite as engaged as they would have been had the book come sooner, but that’s ok. Don’t push it, and also don’t be too hard on yourself for not getting all the needed materials for that interest soon enough. You might find the interest comes up again, or the book (or any other extra material) can be used for a later interest unit. The important thing is that you can be flexible and not too caught up in their interest, allow them to move on to something new.
Continue with your observations and documentation whether your interest is evolving or dissolving. It will help you to track their interest and also to see if any new interests are emerging.
One thing you shouldn’t forget
Children learn through play, and that’s a fact!
Don’t be misled into thinking that every child must sit down at a desk for x number of hours a day and be drilled on all their academics. Using the emergent curriculum does not mean your child is going to miss out on the things they should be learning academically at that age. If you are worried that the emergent curriculum won’t ensure your child will be caught up with everyone else in their age group, then I would encourage you to get your hands on some documentation marking the developmental milestones for the age of your own child. That way you will know what goals they are working towards and you can access their development yourself.
Say your child should be able to cut independently with scissors by now, instead of forcing them to cut a bunch of paper until they can figure out, instead maybe for your restaurant you are going to make name cards for everyone and they can practice their cutting while still engaged in their interesting activity.
The more interested your child is in the task at hand the more learning will take place. Don’t feel that you need to come up with these elaborate Pinterest creations every day (we’re not all that kind of mom). Follow what they are interested in and learning will definitely happen. Let your child take the lead and incorporate specific learning goals along the way.
The emergent curriculum is the best curriculum out there, especially for children in the preschool age group. You are teaching them independence and value by respecting their interests.
When it comes to preschool homeschooling what do you struggle with the most? Is it the planning, or maybe the discipline? Let me know in the comments below. I hope you’ll try out the emergent curriculum approach and come to agree that it is the best curriculum style we can use with our young ones.