Our Marvelous Mycologists!

Anyone who is lucky enough to 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 preschooler’s day, from snack to circle time, and investigations 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, currently both our PreK 3 and PreK 4 students have been immersed in separate studies of fungi, each sparked by student interest. At the PreK 3 level, this was an exciting development as it marked a transition from our youngest students simply being comfortable outdoors together to beginning to notice the world around them. As Sarah Notaro, our PreK 3 teacher, explains, “At the beginning of the year, we would walk by so many mushrooms outdoors, and the kids were oblivious, because honestly just hiking in the woods was a challenge for them. But eventually, as they got used to our routines and being together, the children started to engage more with nature. Around that time, we had a really hard rain, and some really interesting and colorful mushrooms popped out. The kids noticed and were suddenly really interested! Our walks evolved into “mushroom hunts”, and we would take lots of pictures. At that point, it was clear to me that my job as a teacher was to figure out where we should take this.”
Sarah noticed that her PreK 3’s really liked to identify and categorize the mushrooms, giving them names like “Pretty Purple” and “Bright Red”. Based on this, she decided to allow the students to start collecting samples in jars for identification. Together, the class defined what makes a “specimen” and discussed what real scientists do when they are studying something. They created an observation space in the classroom for their specimen jars and looked at identification books to start making guesses based on the color, shape, and size of the fungi. Sarah invited Parker parent and botanist Jesse Hoffman in to teach her class about spore printing and share how researchers identify mushrooms. The children were thrilled to learn that many of their identification guesses were correct! Finally, the PreK 3s created their own mushrooms out of air-dry clay and moss, taking free rein with creativity to make them as colorful and interesting as the mushrooms that initially sparked their interest.
Meanwhile, right next door, our PreK 4 has also been immersed in their own, independent study of mushrooms, with unique experiences that reflect the cognitive and social growth happening amongst 4-year-olds. Michele Ridgeway, our PreK 4 teacher, explains, “We noticed early in the fall that the 4’s were curious about investigating the ground. Specifically, they were fascinated by the various nuts they were finding, so we began to name and research them in our classroom. As fall wore on, their curiosity about the ground shifted, and they also began pointing out mushrooms. We started to talk about fungi, and it turned out that one student had a very intense interest in mushrooms. He named himself as the “expert”, and because 4-year-olds are so intensely social, this little spark ignited a passion for the whole class.”
Over the past month, the PreK 4 has followed their tried and true method for classroom investigation. The class started by first asking themselves, “What do we know about this topic?” Following that, the class then moved to asking “What do we wonder?” Some of the questions that our 4-year-olds asked were, “Do animals eat mushrooms? Are mushrooms actually edible? Where do they come from? How do they grow?” Those questions then led our PreK 4 teacher, Michele, in determining “Where are we going with this?”
Ultimately, where they were going was into the woods, beginning with many hikes to gather and talk about fungi. They then used specimens collected to create a classroom terrarium. Their science table also featured hand-gathered mushrooms to study and manipulate, along with Audubon guide books which were used for identification. Together, the class read many stories about fungi. Each student also created artistic representations of mushrooms using recyclables and employing their problem-solving skills to use raw materials to replicate their chosen mushroom. As a class, they also created a large, scientifically accurate replica of a mushroom for their class play. Ultimately, the group culminated their studies with a classroom performance of “Mushrooms in the Rain”, which enabled the children to exercise their ever-growing imaginations, social and presentation skills to share their passion with a wider audience.
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 then become vehicles for skill acquisition, meeting milestones, and following New York State early learning guidelines. As Sarah 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 adds, “We’re not looking for expertise in the topics we study. It’s more about exploring and engaging their curiosity. My job as a teacher is to help them to see that they can have the initial thought, and their ideas can then steer what they want to learn about. It’s teaching them that they can “find something out” on their own that is important. Their interests sparks what we study, and they really engage with and own their classroom.”
*Please click on the image below to watch our PreK 4 performance of “Mushroom in the Rain”!

Go to our PreK page to learn more!