Our curricula emerge from the children’s voices, ideas, and passions. You heard me say this on your Admissions Tour, and many of you heard your classroom teachers expand on this idea last night at Parent Night. “Emergent curriculum” can be an amorphous topic to explain and explore, so I want to offer some materials to support what our teachers spoke about last night. Hopefully this Note will align with questions you may have left last night with – and we should all be asking questions! None of our work in the school is simple or linear; it is all designed to beget questions and inquiries. There are two links at the end for further reading on the topic as well.
A few years ago, I facilitated a panel of parents with children at different Reggio schools in Manhattan, for an audience of Reggio educators. The goal was for us as educators to hear from you as parents what your experience was like in Reggio schools. In that panel, one of our parent participants offered what I still find to be the most succinct and telling description of a Reggio-inspired “emergent curriculum.” He used the metaphor of a roaring river: children are the water, teachers are the banks of the river, and the curriculum is the flowing of the river.
The children provide the motivation, the essence, the vitality; the teachers provide direction and coherence. You will hear your teachers refer to this in Daily Reflections as the “co-construction” of curricular topics in the classroom. We do not simply “follow” the children, nor do we “tell them” where to go. We gauge where their interests and passions are through careful observation of play and interpretation of their voices and actions. Those observations and interpretations lead to planning for future class sessions – What materials will support this work? What questions should we be asking our children? What groupings of students are productive in this topic? What areas of the classroom should we be spending more time in?
Our answers to these questions are informed by our observations of the children at play, and through this cyclical process (observe-reflect-plan-execute…repeat) curriculum emerges – the river coheres.
We are now engaged in the muddy, messy process of bringing disparate elements of each class community into one harmonious curriculum (picture a river flooding the banks while engineers work desperately to lay sandbags, to stay in the metaphor). This takes time, involves false starts, wrong turns, and unresolved explorations. But eventually, as the year progresses, we see that one spark – one moment of wonder – leads to a strong, flowing river.
Metaphors aside, why do we do this? Why not just prepare a curriculum guide and teach the children?
Three reasons. Values, social learning, and intrinsic motivation.
First, when we only strive to match best practices and hit standard benchmarks in education, we often lose sight of our values. We are so focused on the discrete components we are teaching and the milestones we want our children to hit that we prioritize them over our values. Employing an emergent curriculum ensures that throughout their learning experiences with us, your children are steeped in a values-oriented environment. By listening to children, and co-constructing a curriculum with them, we are able to hold tight to our Jewish values such as wonder, responsibility, individuality, and community (these values were in your Admissions Tour folder way back, live on our website here, and are currently on a bulletin board in the Common Space as well). We are able to include our own values in our children’s learning environment rather than focus only on academic learning goals.
Second, we believe that social learning is the primary goal of a child’s nursery years. The ability to negotiate, manage frustration, develop a theory of mind (the idea that your thoughts are different than mine), compromise, cooperate, and build relationships – all of these are paramount in an emergent curriculum. If those skills and abilities are not tended to now, we know that children do not have the foundation needed for later academic learning. “Kindergarten readiness” is not only numbers and letters; it is the ability to get along in a social classroom on your own.
Third, children bring themselves deeply and meaningfully to projects that spring from within – that matter to themselves and their peers. Children are intrinsically motivated (something I touched on in a recent Note) when their environment reflects their ideas and experiences. We know – as parents and educators – that simply demanding a child preform a task usually ends in frustration (on both sides!). Yet when we curate an environment in which children co-construct their learning, we see children eager to play and learn, eager to explore and teach (I wrote about the connection between emergent curriculum and intrinsic motivation in a Note last year).
While social learning remains our priority at all ages in the nursery school, we know that intrinsic motivation allows our teachers to embed academic learning as well throughout their play. Emergent curricula such as hospitals, trains, restaurants, and buildings bring with them rich opportunities for early academics – in ways that are appealing and meaningful to children. Writing (and scribbling) menus, x-rays, tickets, blueprints; counting pretend money, silverware, seats on the train car: in a Reggio-inspired classroom, these become not only modules for early academics but also meaningful components of larger collaborative projects. We are not writing tickets because we need to learn our ABCs; we are writing them because we are playing train. We are not placing silverware at each seat because we need to learn patterning; we are placing them because we are playing restaurant. By giving authentic relevancy to these learning moments, by placing them with a curriculum which has emerged from the child’s voice, we see children who instead of resisting these academic tasks are eager to accomplish them (I often refer to this as “activity before skill”, a topic I covered in an older Note).
As you might imagine, there is a lot to say and think about emergent curriculum! Please join me in this conversation throughout the year. I would love to hear feedback and questions from your Parent Night and this Note, as well as other thoughts inspired by reading your Daily Reflections.
For a deep dive into the philosophy and praxis of Reggio-inspired emergent curriculum, take a look at this NAEYC article (National Association for the Education of Young Children); read here for a much shorter and lighter overview of how learning takes place in a Reggio-inspired classroom.