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Emergent Curriculum

Our program philosophy is implemented through an approach termed “Emergent Curriculum.” Emergent curriculum is an approach that permits learning activities to arise out of each child’s interests, actions or serendipitous events.The framework for this style of curriculum planning involves the following premises:

  1. Curriculum is what actually happens in an educational environment, not what is planned to happen.

  2. Everything in the world is curriculum for young children.

  3. Young children invent and organize their own curriculum all the time. They are actively motivated learners, studying the world through their play (hence the phrase, “children learn through play”).

  4. Creative energy comes from intrinsic motivation, from doing what one wants to do when one wants to do it.

  5. Young children are active learners. Curriculum planning should focus on action, not lessons to be taught.

  6. Freedom to act upon their own interests in their own way is a critical factor in the successful development of children’s self esteem

  7. All curriculum plans are tentative, and children modify them by their response. Like the universe, curriculum is always expanding. To carry out this approach teachers engage in an ongoing process of planning, analyzing, observing, and evaluating the children’s activities, ideas, needs and interest. (Jones, 1989)

All classrooms and other activity areas at the co-op are set up with these premises in mind. In each classroom, there are clearly defined interest areas (more areas as children get older) where children can engage in activities of their own choosing. These areas may include spaces for: art, alone-quiet time, reading and relaxing, block building, dramatic play, sensory/water activities, science, music, manipulatives, gross motor activities, computers, writing and drawing. These spaces are created based on a child’s eye view, are adapted to meet the current interests and play needs, and are rearranged occasionally to renew interest in a particular area. Teachers suggest play possibilities through the arrangement of materials and having related props available. Open-ended use and transformation of materials is encouraged with the focus being on process rather than product.


A description of Emergent Curriculum

from the March 2002 Newsletter “Star Room Update”


Has your child re-told the story of the “Spooky Old Tree” yet? Or sung the songs we have been singing as we gather as a group in the hallway before lunch each day? The ability many of the Star Roomers are gaining in terms of retaining & retelling detailed information learned via story or song is growing by leaps and bounds right now! As we focused as a classroom teaching staff on our emergent curriculum approach during our staff development day, the theme of retelling stories captured our attention.

Webbing is one tool we use with an emergent curriculum approach to create a tentative plan. The web hanging on the white board outside the star room shows how we explored the possibilities for incorporating the children’s interest in the book “The Spooky Old Tree”.

When we web an interest, material or idea we are able to gauge if it is worth pursuing, if it is developmentally appropriate and what ways we might want to enrich the activity by being prepared with other materials or answers to questions that might arise. As we brainstormed the “Spooky Old Tree” we came up with several field trip ideas and materials we would like in the classroom (see our wish list) that may very well enhance and extend play based on the story as well as map out potential activities inside the co-op environment.

During our recent parent conferences many parents in the classroom expressed interest in how an emergent curriculum actually works and is implemented. In Early Childhood Education (birth to age 8), curriculum shouldn’t be the primary focus, the children should be the focus. Curriculum is what happens in the educational environment – not what is rationally planned to happen, but what actually takes place.

Each day we set out pre-planned activities in the art area (table and easel), sensory table, and fine motor/writing center table. We choose activities that are interesting, inviting, age and developmentally appropriate, open-ended and process oriented. If a particular activity is popular we may choose to repeat it often (with slight variations) until the intense interest passes.

There are no adult made models to follow, no particular way to use the materials available and (within reason) the children are able to easily modify or add to the materials to suit their own interests and needs. This freedom to act upon their own interests in their own way is a critical factor in the successful development of children’s self esteem. This is why the Co-op follows an emergent, play based curriculum based on forever emerging and changing open-ended activities and events rather than a pre-prescribed (same every year, monthly themes never change), *canned* (fits some children but not all—not meant to be changed by the teacher or children) curriculum.

When we consider what activities to set out and how to arrange the classroom’s physical space we keep in mind that the main goals & opportunities in the star room are:

  • To be aware of one’s feelings, needs and abilities;

  • To learn how to express one's own feelings, needs, and abilities constructively with words and actions;

  • To hear and respect the feelings, needs, and abilities of others;

  • To experience new things safely with one’s peers;

  • To explore one’s own interests;

  • To learn to make appropriate choices based on experience and cause and effect.


In the book Emergent Curriculum authors John Nimmo and Elizabeth Jones offer several sources of emergent curriculum. They are listed below with examples of how we include these sources in our classroom curriculum:


Children’s interests

Just to name a few – the list could go on and on and changes hourly and weekly. Some current interests we have been incorporating almost daily are playing chase and tag games (oh the adrenaline rush and excitement!), we often play games with these themes in the gym and hallway.  Animals are a huge interest. Plastic animals and dinosaurs are always available in the block area of the classroom. We go on lion, bear hunts during the day, we sometimes use flashlights in the dark part of the hallway during these hunts and risk being *scared* (another *interest* they want to explore is being scared or scary dreams. Being in the dark with a trusted grown up and a flashlight makes it safe to explore and discuss). Dragon and Knight are new themes that the children have been exploring; these are in their beginnings in terms of exploration. We included a book about a dragon to our library and the strips of paper at the writing center table recently became dragon food when cut up into small pieces. Riding trikes in the gym, ring around the rosy in the hallway, dancing to music in the gym and hallway–all these are interests are supported and expanded upon by the teachers (and parents). Star roomers love re-enacting a favorite story (gingerbread baby *cookie game*), play dough (small motor, pre-writing muscles are engaged during this activity), digging in the dirt and sand when outside. We go on walks (ratios permitting) around the block as well, which is often a child initiated activity.


Teacher’s interests

One teacher brought in Mardi gras beads from her trip to New Orleans which led to different activities with necklaces and discussions of vacations and airplane trips. It was instantly clear that the large pile of necklaces was a hit. Children wore the necklaces, sorted them by color and shape and still others used them in a trading/bartering game they invented.  Parents and teachers alike commonly introduce games from their childhood and life experiences into the classroom. When we bring in adult interests and experiences there is a fine line being walked. Teachers are perceived as powerful so an adult interest can often *take over* a child’s genuine interest and needs.  At our star room teacher meetings we discuss the activities occurring in the classroom, each individual child’s needs and interests and how this all intertwines in an effort to ensure our focus is the children.


Developmental tasks

At each developmental stage there are tasks to be mastered such as talking, pouring, running, throwing or bouncing a ball, pedaling a bike, digging, filling, grasping a pencil, cutting with scissors. Our curriculum provides many opportunities for children to choose activities providing spontaneous skill practice. Our curriculum is also responsive to the social-emotional issues which surface powerfully at different stages: Autonomy, power, strength and friendship among them.


Things in the physical environment

Children’s experience of place is unique to the place they are in. Both the man made things in the environment (blocks & trikes for instance) are typically standardized and result in predictable play outcomes. The natural things are unstandardized and unpredictable—each plant and animal are different—it is important that we get outside and experience nature often.  We get outside more frequently during the spring-fall months. Our outdoor time during winter is decreased by less daylight in the afternoon hours and cold/whining children when we spend more than a half hour at a time outside.


People in the social environment

The high level of involvement and daily/weekly presence of parents in the classroom naturally adds to the number of people in the lives of the star room children. The star roomers commonly know the name and child identified with each adult in the room (and sometimes in the other classrooms as well).  There is a rhythm that develops as each parent works parent hours, each parent is known for the game they play best or the area of the classroom/co-op they often hang out in during parent hours.


Curriculum resource materials

We have a rich resource library available to all co-op teachers and parents.  The Seattle Public library Bookmobile comes once a month to add to our classroom libraries. If there are any interests being shown by the children the librarians will have books on that subject ready for pick up when they arrive (all that is required is a quick phone call prior to their visit).  We are members of Child Care Resources and have access to their materials (books, videotapes, prop boxes) as well.


Serendipity/Unexpected events

When the unexpected happens in the classroom, community, the natural world, teachers can try to ignore it by just responding with reflective statements (such as in the star room after the events on 9/11) or respond by incorporating it into their plans, short or long term. When the road construction had 50th street blocked last summer we spend nearly every morning and afternoon engaged in both watching and discussing the construction and building roads in the sand box and sensory table.


Living together

Conflict resolution, caregiving, and routines

Caregiving and the resolution of interpersonal issues are not interruptions to the curriculum they are basic curriculum.  Potty learning and diapering take up a large amount of our daily routine. Mastery of the potty sometimes leads to accidents, which means opportunities to assist with self dressing.  Washing hands before meals and after diapering/toileting is an independent step as well as is pouring milk at breakfast and lunch. Helping to unpack and repack ones own lunch takes fine motor control and patience.  Putting lovies away in cubbies after nap time requires follow through and resisting the temptation to take belongings out of the cubbies of friends is time demands self control.  Learning the beginning steps to incorporating the ideas of a friend during play is a key ingredient to the more imaginative and sophisticated play that occurs with friends when Moon/Comet Room age (typically over 3 yrs old). Star roomers are constantly being given tools and experience on how to compromise or *share* when playing with a peer, using more than just the word “no” (ex. “I want to use that car” or “that hurts when you hit me”) when upset during play or when being hurt physically. The list of everyday life experiences that nurture the growth of the star room children could go on forever.


If you wish for more information about appropriate *curriculum* for young children please re-read the following brochures (included with your parent handbook upon enrollment): “Play is FUNdamental”, “A Good Preschool for your Child”, “A Caring Place for your Toddler”; pages 8-10 in the parent handbook discuss our approach to curriculum as well. Thanks for adding to our curriculum during your parent hours!

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