How an emergent curriculum begins and grows throughout the year...

Jitterbug: An interest in horses has morphed into unicorns, super powers, sensory play which echoes the light study and travel via busses and planes

Dragonfly:  A restaurant came out of food play in the dramatic play area, letters and stories 

Sunshine: The class moved from exploring their own indentities to creating “mumplumps” and mysteries, where the children are the detectives.

Rainbow: Jobs/Roles, superheroes, identities and the Titanic, go figure!


The flow of a preschool changes from month to month, affected by many variables and changes throughout the year. This January, we returned from winter break, settled back into familiar routines and began new explorations. Each class has had its share of milestones achieved, running the gamut from potty training, to developing linguistic skills to express ideas and needs or, finally summoning the courage to try something new, like forming unfamiliar letters or constructing towers that defy gravity. Each time children attempt these new skills or activities, they are learning to trust the process of discovery.

We, the adults in their lives, can sometimes forget how daunting it is to attempt something for the first time, to venture into the unknown. Yet, children do this every day.  As teachers, we create the spaces or conditions that allow this bravery to exist. We celebrate authentic accomplishments. These are, not so much, tied to external variables over which they have no control, such as how adorable they may be.  They are connected, instead, to the process of learning, the trial and error. How much more wonderful is it to have mastered something challenging than something that came easily. Children know the difference.

In each room, explorations are deepening. The work of discovery is a universal thread and touches each class. The light study while originating in the atelier, has extended into each room in its own way, shining light upon the children’s individuality and collective exploration. Likewise, identity, a central theme of childhood, has also shown up in each of our rooms. Who am I and how do I share this “me” with the people in my community? How do I inhabit this body and space? What roles do I play? Each class has its own answers based upon the individuals and dynamics in those rooms. Sunshine has brought this theme to light through the mumlumps. Dragonfly ties identity to the emotions we share with the world.

Within the walls of the classroom or our own homes, we sometimes take this process for granted. When we look at our space and the children within from outside, we are amazed at the capabilities, the joy in inquiry and the bravery of the students.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when we see our children through the eyes of visitors.

We have just gone through our admissions season and had several visits from educators eager to learn about how an emergent curriculum can meet the needs of children as they move through pre-school and explore these foundational ideas. During each tour or visit from the DOE, the question was asked “How does this philosophy prepare children?”  or “How do they get what they need?” Our answers speak to the core of what we know about children and education. Children learn best through play. They are most attracted to their interests. 

The box study, which began in the Rainbow room during an exploration of packages and roles, moved into the school wide “boxed lights” and finally back into Rainbow to create the “Titanic.” It is not clear where this study will lead. In fact, that is the beauty of emergent curricula. It is the process of learning the language of expression, whichever medium it takes. Boxes are the vehicle for expression here. Where they lead the classroom is up to the curiosity of the children and the nimble minds of the teachers who facilitate these questions.

What is clear is that, during this exploration, children have learned many core content skills. They have touched upon physics concepts, testing the strength and resilience of the boxes, observing how light travels and how altering the inherent shapes changes the structures themselves. They have learned new vocabulary and linguistic facility as they speak about their process and ask questions. They have honed their social emotional competence by negotiating and sharing with their peers. All this growth is accomplished through play which stimulates their imagination because it is derived from their own ideas and questions.

When we view children’s interests as critical to reaching them, we realize these interests they can be the starting place for deeper learning. As we follow their ideas and support children’s exploration, we weave the basic concepts we want them to understand into the ideas and questions they bring us; for instance, that language and numeracy are symbolic representations, expressing ideas and information. We use these initial forays as the springboard for developing questions into projects. The process is the same and, yet, different each time. Teachers observe the play of children or the repetition of an activity that shows us they are engaged by an idea or curiosity. Teachers support this by reflecting what they see back through their own questions to the children and the “provocations” of additional materials to explore further.

At some point, the teachers may ask the children how they want to express what they have discovered. There is a constant cycle of observation, reflection, and reengagment. As these cycles unfold, the results or experiences are shaped by the variables in these equations: the children, the classroom dynamics, the shared cuture of the space and the adults who support them. In Draongfly, an interest in dramatic play and food has grown into a “restaurant” where the children will be feeding their families. A superhero exploration takes a myriad of shapes each time it emerges. Each is authentic to the individual group in which it occurs. In the Rainbow room, loose parts in the form of recycled silver insulating bags became the beginning of a transformation into superheroes and mythical creatures. Triangular shapes became wings or concentrated symbols of power and strength. In Jitterbug, the unicorns and pegasus characters that evolved from the horse study turned into a discussion of the powers they wanted to manifest. Both exlporations touch upon power, what it means to be powerful, who holds it and its possible uses. The children are learning that power can also reside in the choices they make, greater control over their bodies and mastery of skills which seemed impossible only months before. 

As we move through the halfway point in our year, we are reminded of the arc of their growth and the time we have left to explore together.  In the life of a child, this second half of the year is still a vast amount of time. By adult standards, it feels much shorter. In fact, because of the natural need to schedule the next step in a child’s life, we are all focussed upon the future of where your children will be next year or summer. There are a few things of which to be aware. Children at the preschool level do not have a strong understanding of temporality. A month means about as much as a year or tomorrow. Talking about the changes that may be coming may produce anxiety in children. Try to avoid speaking about the next stages, as this can bring anxiety in young children. If the subject arises, remind them, there is still much to do and experience. The changes in situation are a long way away!