“Learning occurs when children are engaged in collaborative activity about something that deeply interests them … the teacher’s role is to collaborate with the children in their exploration so her knowledge can scaffold (build upon) their understanding.” (Lewin-Benham, NAEYC Beyond the Journal, March 2006)
The belief of many early childhood professionals that children learn as they play, both alone and with other children and their teachers, comes from a social constructivist theory (the role of social activity in learning and the contributions of learners to their own development), which is the basis of emergent curriculum.
We can try to understand the concept of emergent curriculum by breaking down and defining the two words. Emergent means coming from the experiences and daily lives of young children.
This definition helps us remember spontaneity always has a place in settings where young children learn and play, and thoughts and ideas for rich curriculum become apparent when they are given the freedom to follow their own paths while playing.
It is the role of the teacher to thoughtfully listen to children as they play, determine their deep interests and then offer to them a plan, the curriculum, that will enable them to choose the next direction their learning will take.
The curriculum (tools, ideas, materials) that teachers bring to children helps them to scaffold their learning. That is, they are able to build one concept upon another, upon another, upon another with each block of the building process teaching them a little more and a little more.
When we talk about teachers “bringing” curriculum to children, we think of it not as a process of “first we do this, then we do this, then your end product should look like this,” but rather more of a coordination of the environment, materials and tools to which children have access.
What we see effective teachers doing is setting up the environment with opportunities for children to touch, listen, see, experiment, discuss and role play the many aspects of an idea. The teacher documents this work on panels posted in the classroom.
These panels might include pictures of children, questions they ask and answer, drawings they make, pictures of block structures they create, books they have read; every aspect of the work children do when they are processing an idea and how it emerges and grows until it comes to a natural end.
In the article One Teacher, 20 Preschoolers, and a Goldfish: Environmental Awareness, Emergent Curriculum and Documentation by Ann Lewin-Benham (NAEYC Beyond the Journal, March 2006), the author describes how by placing a single goldfish in a bowl in a preschool classroom and by listening to the children’s questions and ideas, the teacher was able to guide their learning.
By the end of the year, the children’s evolving interests led to questions about what’s in water and how evaporation works; reading fish food labels, which prompted a big project on food sources; carefully watching the ceaseless swimming of the fish, which led to a project on energy; discussing how pollutants get into the air and water we breath; and studying the labels on cleansers, which resulted in a search for environmentally-friendly cleaning product for the classroom.
Emergent curriculum is not something that is rigid. It is playful, flexible and open-ended and continues to grow as children and teachers live and work it. Emergent curriculum gives adults the opportunity to explore, expand and bring real meaning to the questions of a child.
Just as a butterfly emerges from his cocoon and becomes a strong, free member of our natural world, so curriculum for young children should be viewed.
When we really listen to children and nurture and encourage their play we are helping to create strong, confident, creative members and future leaders of our community.
Jan Richards is a child care specialist with Easter Seals of N.H. Child Care Resource and Referral. She can be reached at 603-355-4327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.