Emergent Curriculum

If you want young children to propel their own learning, start with what interests them and deepen their engagement. How do Lowell teachers do this? By observing children, drawing out their questions, and extending their interest with just the right provocation to learn more. In the process, teachers make sure children are acquiring the important social, emotional, and pre-academic skills they’ll need when they start Kindergarten—all this while keeping children’s curiosity peaked.
Take what happened this spring when one child in the Adventurers Room captured his classmates’ attention with the idea of building a “hero boat,” and children in the Voyagers Room began to excitedly imagine what it would be like to take a voyage in a submarine. Teachers seized the opportunity to build on children’s excitement. Where do boats and submarines go? The ocean. What a rich topic for extending learning!

RESPECTING CHILDREN’S WAYS OF LEARNING

By the time children reach the Adventurers and Voyagers Rooms, they can pursue an idea that interests them for weeks and even months at a time. When teachers follow the children’s interests and develop connected learning experiences over this amount of time, “it shows respect for children’s learning and helps children know that their teachers see their ideas as important,” says Director of Primary School Stefania Rubino. This, in turn, deepens children’s engagement and increases the opportunities for learning even further.
 
These are some of the ways children engaged in their study of the ocean:
  • In the art studio, the Voyagers began building their submarine, and the Adventurers began their boat with the help of Art Teacher Mario Argueta.
  • In science class with Stefania, children conducted sink or float experiments with salt and fresh water, as well as ocean current experiments that demonstrated what happens when bodies of warm and cold water meet. They studied the zones of the ocean and the creatures that live in each one.
  • Children moved like the turtles and dolphins they were studying with Dance Teacher Elly Porter.
Teachers Nuria Rodriguez and Drew Spriggs set up an ocean-themed story table in the Voyagers Room, and children used props on the table to tell stories about ocean voyages. Non-fiction books about ocean creatures became the most popular books in the basket—along with fiction favorite, Larry Gets Lost Under the Sea.

Hypothesizing, measuring, analyzing cause and effect, careful observation, communication, collaboration, storytelling, group decision-making—these are just a few of the skills that children developed during their investigation of the ocean. Puzzlement, confusion, wonder, and joy were also a part of the ocean explorations. When Stefania dropped a button into fresh water and it sank, and then dropped a button into salt water and it floated, one child exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, it’s almost like magic!” Not every child agreed. “What else could it be?” Stefania asked. “What is different?” Other ideas were considered. “Could it be the salt?” Maybe.
 

WHEN CHILDREN OWN THEIR LEARNING

Hands-on activities were central to extending children’s learning successfully. While children were making their jellyfish and other creatures of the ocean, they were conversing about the parts of their animals. They weren’t simply regurgitating something they had memorized: they were practicing new vocabulary and putting ideas together. They were trying to understand why some animals that live in the midnight zone have lights and others do not. They might not have found the answers right away, but the questions showed their critical thinking and led to new areas for investigation and discovery.

“When the ocean theme spread to different subjects, every child found a way to engage with the topic,” says Nuria. At the end of the year she was struck by “how much the kids were invested in their learning.” For example, she and Drew recreated the zones of the ocean on a wall in the classroom to reinforce what the children were learning in the Wonder Lab with Stefania. When the children finished making large paper sea animals with Mario in art, they couldn’t wait to get back to the classroom and display the animals in the zones where they live.

ONE VOYAGE ENDS AND ANOTHER BEGINS

Three months after the excitement began, the children ended their explorations of all things ocean-related—but only because school ended. “I could have gone another month with the Adventurers and Voyagers!” says Stefania.

She was so inspired by the children’s work that she planned an exhibit for children and their families to celebrate the learning. The Wonder Lab was transformed into nothing less than the ocean itself, with a coral reef, floating jellyfish, a re-creation of the midnight zone of the ocean with the animals that live there, the boat, the submarine, and displays of photos and explanations of the experiments students conducted.

But, the exhibit was not only a celebration–it was a final step in the learning process for the children. When they entered the exhibit, they saw what they had made, and the photos and words helped them recall their experiences and their learning. Perhaps most importantly, they could share their knowledge with loved ones. The celebration created for children a strong and positive emotional connection with their learning. “There has to be that joyous memory of the experience,” Stefania says. When children leave Pre-Primary School for Kindergarten, “we hope children will continue to ask questions, still feel awe, and be encouraged to explore more.”