Emerging Learners

Anyone who is lucky enough to walk down our lower school hallway and peek into our preschool classrooms knows what a magical experience our youngest students are having. At the beginning of the year, these classrooms start off deliberately neutral, with the idea being that the classroom environment should evolve organically to reflect the community of children it is serving. However, by now, these classrooms are bursting testimonies to the energy, enthusiasm, and interests of their young inhabitants. This is just one foundational aspect of the emergent curriculum philosophy that guides our PreK educators.
Emergent curriculum is at the heart of what student-centered learning looks like in our earliest classrooms. Here at Parker, we believe that all children are capable individuals deserving of respect. Every aspect of a preschoolers day, from snack to circle time, and buddies to project work, is constructed with this principle in mind. Our teachers work hard to observe and document each child’s play, language, and interests, to get at the heart of what each child wants to know. Our teacher’s real work is then to manifest these observations into project work that brings the children’s collective curiosities to life.
So what does emergent curriculum look like currently in our preschool classrooms? Well, PreK 3 students have embarked on an animal tracks study inspired by student interest. As soon as the snow began to fall substantially in early March, PreK teacher Leigh Augustine noticed her students’ interest in all the new imprints on the ground. Their daily walks turned into investigations, with students noting the differences in sizes and shape of the prints. The class began to study pictures of tracks in their classroom, and tried to match identified tracks with the ones found in their own environment. Taking it one step further, Leigh engaged each student in making their own set of tracks so they could compare with each other. 
Meanwhile, PreK 3-4 students launched into an identity study. Spurred by their unit on shapes, PreK 3-4s decided to translate their knowledge of form into self-portraits. As a class, students took time to discuss their individual traits, along with examining what similarities they had in common. Children spent time over the next few weeks to create their own artwork, looking at themselves in the mirror and drawing from the shapes they recently learned to compose their own portrait. Each child added skin tones with crayon and, if they chose, watercolor to finish their pieces. Their final artwork, which can be viewed HERE, is beautiful and unique, just like each child. 
By PreK 4, many of our students are eager to dive into the fundamentals of academics, while still yearning for the autonomy of play-based learning. This unique period of development provides the perfect stage for a convergence of emergent curriculum and project-based learning. Currently, our PreK 4s are immersed in a “Fairy Tales” unit that illustrates this perfectly. 
As Michele Ridgeway, our PreK 4, explains, “This group of children have been absorbed in fairy tales since day one, so I thought it would be compelling for them to dive deep into telling stories and what it means. We’ve been studying all aspects of fairy tales for the past month, and the children are ALL IN. We are using gems to explore patterns. I have sourced books for them to examine building structures like castles. We are incorporating the patterns we see in castles and gems into our math. And, of course, there has been lots of hands-on exploration and building using our own unit blocks. Our culminating activity has been creating these character structures (the children insist they are not masks!), and then drawing a scene where their character lives and writing a story. All of their stories start with ‘Once upon a time’, and a lot of them are autobiographical, while others are very imaginative. They are super excited to have me read their stories aloud to the class and show their work.”
This is true emergent curriculum. It happens organically, and it makes learning meaningful. Children are actively involved in learning how to become learners. They are invested in their projects, and the projects them become vehicles for skill acquisition, meeting milestones, and following New York State early learning guidelines. As Sarah (PreK 3-4) says, ““What I love about emergent curriculum is that it gives children the opportunity to explore and experience a topic of study that they will not get anywhere else. Typical PreK thematic units like “Beach Week” or “Seasons” often reflect things that children have already experienced in some capacity at home. With emergent curriculum, they get to explore an interest that generates organically amongst their social group based on observations and interests. It’s never the same, and it’s rarely something that a typical preschool class would study.”Michele (PreK 4) adds, “When you engage a child in something that already matters to them, they are completely motivated. The productivity in our classroom is through the roof right now. Students are busy building structures, crafting their characters, stapling pages together and creating books. They are reaching towards what interests them and, in so doing, telling me what is important to them. They are making their own choices and sharing what matters to them with others. Self-discovery and identity are woven intimately into this process. Ultimately, whatever we study, my goal is for my students to come away with the sense that their voice matters. Their thoughts matter. They are important.”