July 29, 2021

Putting Children’s Interests First: An Introduction to the Emergent Curriculum

By Jessica Allison, Director, Education and Training

When I was a Center Director, my favorite moments were when children in each room were individually engaged in a variety of projects that meant something to them. There’s a certain magic you feel as an early childhood educator when children are discovering new things about their world. This magic comes when students are genuinely interested in the lesson.

So, when I started building curriculum for my center, I knew emergent curriculum was the right fit for my teachers and children. Put simply, Emergent curriculum is an approach to teaching that puts children’s interests at the center of meaningful learning experiences. When young learners are more engaged in lessons, they’re more likely to form a deep understanding of the material.

How Emergent Curriculum Works

This style of teaching gives children a say in what is being taught while still providing some structure and guidance. Emergent curriculum requires educators to be in tune with their children’s interests and aware of their skill level. Through observation, educators can scaffold activities that the children would naturally be interested in to help build on their developmental skills and academics.

Here are some examples:

Observation: While walking outside, a group of children notice a ladybug crawling on the ground. They become very focused on watching it move and wanting to know where it is going. In emergent curriculum, the teacher would use this opportunity to build a lesson.

Activity Ideas:

  • Plan to go on another walk but this time provide the children with magnifying glasses so they can spot bugs more easily. Ask the children to describe the different bugs they find, are they like the ladybug or different and how?
  • To work on math skills, include images of bugs for the children to count or sort. Include a variety of different bugs, some that they may have seen and some that they have never seen before that might live in a different part of the world.
  • Turn the dramatic play areas into a forest by creating trees out of paper, bringing in sticks and small logs from outside, and then hide pretend bugs in the area. Let the children search for the bugs or create their own imaginative play about them.
  • Provide the group with a few pictures of different types of bugs. Ask them to look at each picture and then find which things are similar and which are different in each of the pictures.

Observation: A child comes in on a Monday talking about how they went outside at night and saw the stars. The other children become interested and start asking questions about the stars.

Activity Ideas:

  • Discuss constellations with the group and show them pictures of what different constellations look like. Then, on a black piece of paper, have them create their own constellation by dotting white paint on the paper.
  • Create a night sky sensory bin by filling a bin with black beans and then adding glow in the dark stars that are different sizes. Children can practice filling and dumping the beans in containers or work on their fine motor skills by using tweezers to remove all the stars from the bin.
  • For a math activity, place glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. Turn the lights off and have the children count how many they see. Children can then practice writing the number on a whiteboard.

How It Helps Teachers

Emergent curriculum benefits teachers because it uses observation to help guide and plan what they should be teaching in the classroom. By using what children are already showing us they are interested in or capable of doing, teachers can easily provide activities that are engaging and at the right skill level for the children. Teachers put a lot of time and effort into creating lesson plans and activities; by incorporating the philosophy of emergent curriculum you are ensuring that the children will participate and be challenged by the activities.