Following my posts, Following Children’s Interests and What Happens When You Follow a Child’s Interest?, I wanted to clarify the ways in which following a child’s (or group of children’s) interest differs from learning about a given ‘theme.’
I consider there are two major differences
- Who takes the lead, and
- How the content is formulated.
Who Takes the Lead?
Traditionally, with a thematic teaching approach, the educator (and I use the word ‘educator’ to indicate the adult the child is learning alongside, this may be a teacher in a formal environment or a parent in a home environment) decides upon the theme to be studied.
With an Emergent Curriculum approach, the educator shares the driving seat with the child and the child’s words, actions, thoughts and play guide the learning curriculum. So, given the child’s current fascination with and questions about a topic, the focus of the learning and choice of activities evolves. Of course, the educator will balance this with knowledge of what skills s/he would like the child to be acquiring or practising, you can learn to count whether you are counting garbage trucks or daffodils.
How the Content is Formulated
Within a thematic curriculum planning approach, the educator chooses a range of resources, books and activities they feel would be interesting for the child/ren to engage with. This approach is typically pre-planned and follows the sequence of activities determined by the educator.
Within an emergent curriculum, the educator considers;
- What the child/ren already knows about the interest,
- How to deepen the child’s level of understanding, finding answers to their questions,
- Appropriate creative and communicative mediums that will allow the child/ren to communicate their developing understanding,
- What questions to ask of the child and research with the child to extend the interest, and
- How to use the child/ren’s fascination to reinforce skill development (reading, writing, mathematical concepts, etc).
And they continue to revisit these questions as the investigation of the interest continues.
An example from the classroom;
A group of three-four year olds had been drawing and talking about rainbows repeatedly, sharing their experiences of where they had seen rainbows and what they looked like. Their educator asked, “When do you see rainbows?”
Child 1 responded, “Up in the sky.”
Child 2 responded, “After it rains.”
Child 3 then added, “Yeah, when its all wet.”
Child 2 then added, “Yeah but then the sun comes out and dries up all the rain and it goes up into the sky until it rains again” (demonstrating with his hands).
Child 3 then added, “And the rainbow gets stuck in the trees,” (laughing).
Child 4 then entered the conversation with, “It gets stuck above the trees.”
The educator then asks, “But how does the rainbow get there?”
Child 5, “Someone puts it there.”
Child 1, “The rainbow guy makes them.”
The conversation continued with the children agreeing that they weren’t sure how rainbows were made; just that it had to be wet for them to get there.
This conversation provides the educator with lots of information about what the children know, or think they know, about rainbows and it provides a great starting point for the learning program.
- The educator may use the record of this conversation to plan further questions to get the children to express their ideas and understandings in more detail (thinking and reasoning and communicating skills).
- The educator can choose to encourage the children to represent what they ‘know’ creatively, maybe designing and then making “rainbow making machines” with sculpture materials like paper mache or box construction (thinking and reasoning, problem solving, 3D mathematical and creative skills).
- The educator could make a list of research questions with the children about what they would like to know about rainbows and then use the internet or a library visit to find the answers (thinking and reasoning and literacy skills).
This short example provides a snapshot of how an emergent curriculum approach is much more organic and based upon the child’s responses to the learning program, including learning from their misconceptions. The children will be developing lifelong learning skills in a manner that is fun, engaging and interesting to them.
Do you teach using interests or themes?
Read more of the Understanding Emergent Curriculum series;