Emergent curriculum describes curriculum that develops from exploring what is "socially relevant, intellectually engaging, and personally meaningful to children..." (Jones and Nimmo, 1994). It responds to children's immediate interests, and can span as long a time as necessary (see ‘Chipmunk’ below) or as short a time (see ‘Hammocks’ below). It can also branch out to other topics beyond the original idea. After an idea emerges from the group of children, the units of study that are then prepared, organized, coordinated, and facilitated by the teachers.
An example from our 3’s class:
In preparation for Thanksgiving, we filled the classroom with decorative corn. “What should we do with all this corn?” asked the children when they returned to school after the holiday. A learning opportunity opened...
“Should we eat it?” suggested one child.
“Icky. It’s too hard,” declared another.
“Yes, this is not the corn we eat during the summer months. This corn was dried into hardness. Our bodies couldn’t digest it,” said the teacher.
“Maybe animals want to eat it.”
The teacher facilitated this exploration by helping the children search on the computer for which animals might eat the corn. They were thrilled to discover that chipmunks might like it. They learned that chipmunks’ diet consists of seeds, nuts and fruits, and that they mostly forage on the ground (rather than climb trees) for food.
“We can help feed chipmunks! Many chipmunks live near our school. If we put it outside, they can eat it and they will be so happy. And we will be taking care of them!”
The children collected the corn and put it on the ground right outside their classroom window. They kept watch all day to see if anything would happen. When the first chipmunk appeared and actually ate from the corn, the children were ecstatic! They took a video clip to show it to their parents and fellow schoolmates.
They learned about the cheeks of chipmunks: how they are pouches that help them carry lots of food. They learned about the nests that chipmunks build and how they stockpile the food to eat through the cold winter. They learned about the beautiful stripe designs in the fur, and how the fur keeps it warm through winter.
They made a classroom book of facts, deciding what to include and illustrating it themselves. They shared this book with the other classes in the school, and with their families.
“Chipmunks live in a nest but let’s make our chipmunk a house!” said our fantastic 3-year olds. They left it notes and treats on a regular basis. The chipmunk kept returning…
Then, a few weeks later, the chipmunk stopped coming. The children were puzzled. “Why doesn’t he come anymore?” they asked. This was a perfect and natural opportunity for the teacher to introduce the concept of hibernation. Winter was approaching and the chipmunk was going to rest for the long, cold months ahead. The concept of hibernation was now real and relevant to these children, not decontextualized and hollow.
When the chipmunk reappeared some months later, the children knew that winter was over and a new season had arrived.
When the children graduated to their Pre-K classroom, they were still interested in the welfare of ‘their’ chipmunk. They continued to document his comings and goings, and taking care of him in their own way...
The Hammocks – A Journey into Proper Behavior
An example from our 4’s class:
Three lovely hammocks hang in the hallway outside our PreK classroom. It is a very popular perch for children to read. At pickup, the parents enjoy hanging out there, too, and some of the children took to swinging. When a child hit his head, we used that as an opportunity to generate a behavior plan. We wanted it to be generated by the children. We began by recalling the behavior.
“We were climbing like monkeys.”
“Monkeys have bodies made for climbing.”
“They climb in the jungle, in the trees.”
“We climb in the playground.
“We have woodchip so if we fall, we won’t get hurt.”
We reflected on what the consequences of this behavior.
“I bump my head on the pole.”
We examined photos of people relaxing in a hammock.
“She’s lying down and rocking.”
“She’s being gentle swinging.”
“Hmm, he might be sleeping.”
“Maybe he’s awake but he’s dreaming in his mind.”
“I think he is dreaming in his mind about the clouds in the sky.”
“They’re not bumping their heads! They’re happy.”
We discussed safe ways to use our hammocks too. To help us remember, we composed a rule.
“No climbing!” “No spinning!” “Use them for swinging!” were some original suggestions.
The children didn’t want “bossy” words so they agreed on: “Hammocks are for relaxing, swinging gently, and dreaming in our minds. Please behave in a safe way.”
We drew pictures to illustrate the new rule. Children suggested that we circulate this by mailing post cards to our families. But it was ultimately decided that, “We need it near the hammocks to help us remember!”
The children repeatedly referred to the lesson of the hammocks by pointing out situations in which they are faced with a choice, and our inclination to follow a silly choice. By acknowledging our power to rise higher and choose to behave, the children become masters of their own lives!