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The Power of Emergent Curriculum

–by Kyleigh Pharris and Callie Chavers– 

“Any curriculum is the outcome of someone’s choices among all the things in the world that are for children to learn. In an emergent curriculum, the choices are made by the children and by the adults who know them.”  —Jones & Reynolds, “The Play’s the Thing” 

The children of PreK 4 are scientific thinkers, problem solvers, investigators, and creative artists. Our children are continuously experimenting and using their prior experiences and conversations with others to create theories about the world in which they live. The children enjoy experimenting to create a deeper understanding of general topics that 4-year-olds tend to love; rainbows, space, dinosaurs, animals, and art.

The children have used paint in many settings and times, so it’s something that every child in our PreK 4 classrooms is familiar with. Considering our children’s love of investigating and their skill set as scientific thinkers, it’s no wonder that they began to test their theories and expand their general understanding of others and themselves through paint. The children would carefully dip a paintbrush into a jar of paint, brush the paintbrush on the side of the jar, and then stroke their skin—not paper. They painted both sides of their hands and up their arms, toward their elbows. As the children painted their skin, they were extremely focused and a sense of calm and ease came over them. This continued for quite some time, and body painting became the preferred activity in both classrooms. 

As PreK 4 teachers at RIS, we foster the Reggio Emilia approach to education: we believe that teachers learn alongside children and that through observation we can find the deeper meaning behind the children’s play. As we collaborated and discussed what the children were doing in our classrooms, we were surprised to learn that the children in both classrooms were exploring similar things with paint. Through the Emergent Curriculum framework and child-and-teacher questions, we began to document what the children were doing and learning, then we connected this to the Common Core Early Learning Standards. Through Emergent Curriculum, we were able to examine what was happening in our classrooms and collaborate to discover a course of action to propel the children’s common interest into an investigation to study. 

We brainstormed possible learning encounters that could take the investigation further, knowing that we needed to continue to observe the children carefully. As teachers, we watch how the children respond to different learning encounters, which then instructs us on how to respond further. With Emergent Curriculum, it is critical to follow and listen to the child’s voice. 

We introduced the children to the French artist Yves Klein. Klein’s artistic passion was driven by the color blue. His passion propelled him to create the most beautiful shade of blue, which is now known as the International Klein Blue (IKB). Klein used his blue to paint human and animal bodies in his different works of art. Our PreK 4 children studied Klein’s paintings and discussed what they noticed, questioned, and how the paintings made them feel. The children began to incorporate his techniques into their own body paintings and moved from painting their hands and arms to painting their feet and legs. The children were free to explore painting as they wished. We provided the learning space and the materials to clean their bodies when they were finished. 

Introducing Klein’s art transformed the investigation because it showed the children that another artist had also enjoyed painting bodies to create artistic representations to share with the world. This validated the children’s art techniques and expanded their understanding and explorations further. As they continued to study Klein, the children began asking questions about where art is placed after the paint is dry. Some of the children had prior experiences with their families attending art galleries or museums, and this led the investigation to explore where art goes after it is completed and dry. 

This guided us to take the PreK 4 children to the art shows on campus. The children attended two IB Art exhibits and one ES Art Show. They learned about the etiquette of attending an art show and began to notice similarities and differences between each gallery. This exposure to three art galleries and observing how the art is presented to others sparked the children’s curiosity to create their own art gallery so they could share their body paintings with other members of the community. This led to the creation of the PreK 4 Art Gallery.

When we take the time to listen to children we are able to learn more about who they are as learners and how to further expand their knowledge and understanding. When the PreK 4 children were painting their bodies, it would have been easy for us to redirect them to not paint their skin and to paint the paper instead. But rather than asking the children to stop, by choosing to watch their actions carefully, we were able to take a reoccurring exploration and expand it into a greater learning experience. It is clear now that the children were curious to learn more about artists and how they share their art with others. 

Through this process, we have learned to trust our children, to listen to their thinking, and to challenge ourselves to connect the curricular standards to their interests. When we embrace children’s natural curiosities and inquiries, they are more engaged in the learning process and they have ownership over their learning. We are telling the children that what they think, theorize, and question is important. We are empowering them to be the drivers of the content while using our professional lense to connect these ideas back to the standards to further their development. 

It can feel uncomfortable, at times, to give this much ownership to the children, but it is completely worth it! The PreK 4 children and teachers have learned alongside each other and have seen how the Emergent Curriculum truly creates a learning space that is inclusive of all learners. Without the children’s voice and the teachers’ willingness to listen and co-construct investigations with the children, the creation of the PreK 4 Art Gallery would not have been possible. Applying the Emergent Curriculum has formed a deeper learning community in our classrooms and has taught the children that all people are continuously learning. Through collaborating as a community, greater understanding is acquired.