Questions Regarding Emergent Curriculum


This week, I presented Growing Their Curriculum: The Emergent, Interest-Driven Curriculum (How It’s Done in a Real Classroom) at the Young Child Expo and Conference. We had a lively discussion near the end and we missed a few of the questions posted by attendees.  Below are some of the questions.

How do you incorporate an emergent curriculum when using a prescribed curriculum?

One of the ways to work within this predefined structure is to set aside short sections of your day to study the children’s interests.  Although it is lovely to devote your entire day to child-led research, it is not always possible.  If 15 minutes a day or two periods per week are all you can manage with a hectic schedule, it will still be more than never acknowledging your students’ desires to delve further into their own questions.

How to explain an emergent curriculum to parents?

Parents want their children to grow and succeed.  They need to know that their child will do so in your classroom.  When explaining the use of an emergent curriculum to teachers, I adamantly suggest the requirement of fully knowing your students learning goals be they benchmarks, standards or developmental milestones.  When you know what your children need to learn next, you will know how to support them as they grow.  Once you are comfortable with this knowledge, explaining to parents how you will sheppard  their child along the process is more manageable.  Be ready to explain how their child will practice, experiment and grow in all domains.

The most powerful evidence of the learning possible in an emergent curriculum comes from the children’s own work and voices. Share these with parents and include explanations of the learning happening.  Use documentation boards, blogs, tweets, letters home or any other communication method that works for you to present the parents with examples of their child’s growth.

Is it still Reggio? Do you consider yourself “Reggio-Inspired?”

My teaching is Reggio Emilia inspired. Although a class cannot become “Reggio”, many of the truths at the heart of the Reggio Emilia Schools can be applied within our classrooms.  I believe that each child comes to my class full of curiosity and as a capable, experienced scientist.  My job is to help them explore their interests while providing them with the environment and tools they need to grow in all domains.  An Every Day Story gives a wonderful description of Reggio-inspired teaching.

How do you create art projects based on a family or gardening unit?

First, let me say that there are practically no “craft” projects completed in our classroom.  When we are researching a topic, we often draw, sculpt, paint and invent representations that go along with our studies.  Many times, the creation of a finished product is not nearly as important as the process that goes along with it.  The children’s work is can be seen through photos, their journals, portfolios and their drawings lovingly taped to anything that is not painted.  (We wouldn’t want to damage the walls, so we tape onto everything else.)  I let go of “art projects” when I realized that a beautiful finished product was not the point of using materials.  In our room the following are important:

  • experimentation with materials
  • explorations of a material’s properties
  • discovering limits and boundaries to our plans (gravity, space, time, other friends in our class)
  • investigating options when met by these limits
  • adjusting and moving forward

In a family study, we have drawn and painted our families.  We have sculpted our mothers and built our homes out of boxes.

A garden study might make us curious about how to create a vegetable garden using water colors.  Maybe we’d even make masking-tape vegetables.  There is no denying the joy of unhindered access to masking-tape.

What is the longest time you have worked on a unit?

Just to get this off my chest, I don’t actually refer to our studies as units.  I’m not actually sure why. I think a unit reminds me of a set in stone group of activities that were devised by the teacher to meet the teacher’s goals.  A unit also sounds like a measurement, something with a definite beginning and ending.

I usually refer to our learning as studying topics or conducting research.  Many years ago, I had the pleasure of studying with Erin Kenny of Cedarsong Nature School.  Erin referred to her take on emergent curriculum as “flow learning.”  Erin’s program wa completely outdoors and naturally (pun intended) connected to the daily ebb and flow of questions offered by the environment.  It makes sense that a topic of study might last for weeks or minutes.  I’ve brought a bit of this flexibility to our classroom.

A topic might be investigated for weeks at a time.  This year, I’m fairly certain we could have continued studying pandas until the children grew beards.  Even though we sensed a shift in their interest and have since moved on, pandas still play a huge role in the children’s play each day.

At other times, an engaging topic springs up so quickly that you daren’t miss the opportunity to learn more.  Our very short (one Morning Meeting) molecule study is a great example.

Then, there are of course, the flops. Sometimes, you notice a string of interest only to watch it fizzle as the children begin to explore it.  No worries.  Emerge yourself onward, my friend.  If we are not learning alongside our students, what is the point?

Schemas in Play

Have you ever wondered why your young child couldn’t get enough of hanging upside down or why as toddlers they continually dropped their favorite toys from their high chair? As frustrating as it might be at the time, your little one is actually supplementing their urge to learn new information (AKA schemas in play). If you’d like to learn more about schemas in our children’s play, check out this fabulous article that discusses the variously types of schemas and how we can facilitate this natural love of exploration!

If You’re Good, I’ll Buy You a Toy

I came across this fabulous article that discusses reward systems and thought it may help anyone who is currently implementing one at home. It discusses how reward systems can be used to reinforce positive behavior and will hopefully diminish specific negative behaviors. The article also gives several suggestions for those who have tried to implement a reward system that did not work.

Happy reading!

Writing Naturally


This is how learning happens.  It begins with an idea and flows naturally into purposeful  practice.  The meaningful context makes the learning “sticky”.  Connections are made between emotions, previous experiences, practical applications,   The development of relationships between ideas in the brain foster even stronger connections.  We hold the strongest, most well trafficked connections for years, sometimes for  the rest of our lives.

The boy on the left decided that too many people wanted a turn with the stuffed alligator at rest time.  We understood his concern but were unsure if there really was a demand.  We suggested he take a poll.  He proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes engaged in sounding-out* each of the words for his question and polling the entire class.  He then analyzed the results and found that most of the children did, indeed, want a turn with the alligator.

Last year we had a similar problem with a stuffed dog.  This child remembered the solution from last year and decided to replicate it. (In fact it might have been his idea last year!)  He gathered all of the students’ names and created a list.  Each day, the next person on the list will have an opportunity to rest with the alligator.

The example above begins as learning frequently does, with a problem.  The child considered the problem and compared it with his previous experiences.  He recalled a strategy to “fix” the problem.  To solve his dilemma, he had to access memory of:

  • surveys
  • letter-sounds
  • print directions
  • letter-shapes
  • concepts of word (what constitutes a word? how can I stretch it out?)
  • who have I already asked and who is still waiting?
  • tally marks
  • some sight words (yes, no)
  • what do lists look like?
  • how to fit many items on a page
  • titles (his list has one)
  • counting concepts
  • motor skills required for writing
  • experiences from last school year

Each of these islands of skills and knowledge have been practiced many times and connected to multiple experiences.  Using them again for this project more firmly cements them into his collection of information about writing and problem solving.

finding relationships=strong connections=longer memory

*sounding-out : to slowly stretch out a word orally into it’s individual phonemes or sounds; used to discover the letter sounds within words; used to writing down “the sounds you hear” when you are beginning to read and write

I’d love to hear what you think.

The article I’ve linked to here, Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education, piques my interest.  This is a question I have struggled with as a parent and teacher for many years.  To be honest, I’ve been much more likely to cut out the screens in my classroom than in my home life.  For any of you parents out there who are curious (or feeling guilty like me), I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article.

You’re not my friend anymore!

Ah, Spring. The time of new growth, warmer weather, and storms…lots of storms. Swirly wet, angry storms surge all around us this time of year, but not outside.  Inside the classroom, a little crock-pot-like enclosure, friendships have been growing, pulling and mixing all year.  We are no longer a bunch of strangers, getting used to one another. Instead we are a family.  Where once the children held back their frustration, anger, and tears, they comfortably let loose.  We’ve all become their siblings.  This is wonderful in that they realize how much all of us care for them.  They also know that they can depend on each other and the adults.  On the other hand, they are also more apt to react to each other unkindly.

Many things can go wrong in a pre-kindergartener’s day.  Your best friends may want to play farm, but you want to be a dinosaur.  The person next to you might think your noodles look yucky.  The blue scissors that you really wanted are in another person’s hands.  A very common reaction to all of these perceived insults is to say, “Well, if you are going to do that, you’re not going to be my friend ever again!”


Pre-K children are very “here and now”.  They are literal people who generally aren’t good at seeing a statement said in anger as just a passing emotion.  If another child tells them that they will never play with them again, they believe it to be so.  It is also hard for young children to consciously take time to choose words before they speak.  Thus, although I wish it would work, simply telling them to stop saying mean things and be nice won’t help very much.

So what do we do? We help them practice.  We are there when they make a mistake, when they tell their friend that they will never invite them to their birthday party.  We talk with them about what they are feeling, why they are talking in this way.  Our job is to help them recognize the emotion they are feeling and put it into words.  We explain that it is o.k. to say, “I’m mad at you,” and is preferable to, “I’m never playing with you again.”  It is not always easy to express our feelings truly.  Instead the reaction usually come first, before we’ve really got a hold on the situation.  This is why it is our job to help them practice.  You feel an emotion. You express it. If something needs to be done about it, you do it.  We usually skip the first part and move right into the “do it” section, later feeling regret that we acted rashly.

Remember, though, we are talking about 4 and 5-year-olds.  (O.k., maybe 38-year-olds should be included, as well.) We are not expecting them to master this skill this year.  Metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking”, is hard.  My well-adjusted 92-year-old grandmother hasn’t yet mastered the ability to completely control her emotions 100% of the time.  Practice is the key word.  We will practice identifying the emotion that preceded an unkind comment.  Practice stating what our feelings are.  Practice finding a solution to assuage those feelings without harming others.

Mrs. Pless and I have been working with the class this week on this very skill.  We (and all of the other Pre-Kindergarten teachers on the planet) are trying to help the children understand that it is alright to tell your friends your feelings, but it is not acceptable to threaten them in any way.  This includes threats of lost friendship, exclusion, and bodily harm.  Most of the anger exhibited in our class stems from misunderstandings.  When the children practice recognizing that they are angry, sad, frustrated, they can develop a more appropriate response.  We are practicing saying, “I’m angry because….”

With Building Blocks, Educators Going Back to Basics –

An article to share – more of why I love my blocks….

Huddled together on the reading rug of a prekindergarten classroom on the Upper West Side, three budding builders assembled a multilayered church with a Gothic arch. Nearby, another block artist created a castle with a connecting courtyard. Meanwhile, a fifth toiled earnestly on a shaky tower, eliciting oohs and aahs from across the room when it came tumbling down.

via With Building Blocks, Educators Going Back to Basics –

Social Blunders

Pre-K classes, as a whole, sometimes have a difficult time communicating in kind ways.  Many of the interactions start out as one child attempting to make another child laugh.  Humor can be a bit elusive when you are 4 and 5.  For instance, one child might be making silly rhymes and decides to begin using other friends names to rhyme with.  Sometimes, the other children find this hilarious, other times they are deeply offended.

Generally in Pre-K, this behavior begins innocently enough.  Young children are innate social scientists and are trying a variety of actions and communicative options to find the ones that best define them and help them find their place in their cohort of peers. Some of these experiments work out (friends laugh and want to play with you) and some fail (friends get mad at you or yell or cry). As humans, we take these experiments and store their outcomes for future reference.  Our job as adults is to recognize these attempts and help the children navigate their way through both the successes and the failures.

Children often have a very hard time dealing with the botched attempts at communicating their thoughts and might become sullen, angry, or even react in what appears to be a mean way.  The adults can assist by helping the child recognize that everyone makes social mistakes.  It is o.k. to tell a joke that nobody gets.  However, we need to be aware of the feelings of those around us.  If our attempt at humor has hurt someone’s feelings, it is our job to apologize and let them know that we were not trying to hurt them.

If you imagine this behavior as a way of “saving face”, it might help you understand what the children are going through when they make a social blunder.  When Bill tells Cindy that her picture looks like a pumpkin head eating a popsicle and Cindy gets mad and starts to cry, Bill may have no idea what to do next.  He is now also confused and hurt because he thought what he was saying was funny.  Making a mean comment in response to Cindy’s tears can be his way of dealing with this confusion.  As adults, we know that this response is not acceptable, so we need to help Bill learn what to do in the face of his mistake.

First, he needs permission to be able to say, “Whoops!  That was the wrong thing to say.”  We usually just jump right to, “Wow, you are being really mean, Bill.”  I do not deny that children can be mean, but many times the behaviors I see in my classroom are more often social interactions gone wrong.  Bill needs to know that although his words were not appreciated, he has the power to recognize the mistake and move on.

Second, Bill must be shown how he can revise his statement.  If he truly isn’t angry at Cindy and really was just trying to be friendly, a chance to make amends is very important.  In our class we practice saying, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  I was trying to be silly.”  If more of an apology of action is necessary, he should be supported as he goes through this process.  The point is not punishment, but learning.  We are practicing “What to do when you mess up: 101”.

The acceptance that we all make social mistakes and have the power to attempt reconciliation is important throughout our lives. Practice at the early childhood stage will support their growth in this area as they reach their very awkward teen years. Most adults that I know could certainly use a little permission to not be perfect, but to simply do their best.