The Parker PreK Experience

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 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 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 teachers 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?PreK 3 students embarked on a camera study inspired by student interest. As Michele Ridgeway, our PreK 3 teacher, explains, “We noticed that the 3’s were interested in cameras as they were taking our play cameras out of the dramatic play area and “using” them every day. In an effort to feed this interest, we now have a collection of used cameras in the classroom, and our work has evolved into exploring a camera and what it can do.”
PreK 3 students collectively made a slide show of their photos that was shared at a recent assembly. Each child has also taken photos outside and then surveyed their work, selecting one photo to print. Michele transcribed each child’s musings on their photograph, and these will be combined with their photographs to create a display of their work. This week, PreK 3 students also visited with our K-5 science teacher, Leiana, to learn about the camera obscura and experience what it might be like to be inside a camera (“It was dark!”). Ultimately, the PreK 3’s will be constructing cameras from recyclable materials such as small boxes, bottle caps, and lens shaped objects. In this way, the children can share their own knowledge about what they think a camera is made of and what it needs to work. All this work culminated in an art show to share with their loved ones on Special Friends Day.
Meanwhile, PreK 4 students launched into an Artifact Investigation spurred by their daily walks in the woods. During these walks, the children expressed persistent curiosity about the objects they continued to find in the undergrowth. One might call these objects junk. However, veteran PreK teacher Leigh Augustine instead recognized a learning opportunity: “Because most of us are only 4-years-old, we not only don’t know what this stuff is, we don’t even recognize that it may not naturally belong in the woods. I could tell them what I think these objects are, but I would rather they learn how to find the answers to their own questions. So now, my work becomes giving them the tools to figure out how to do that.”
Along these lines, the PreK 4 convened a panel of 2-3 experts to come to their classroom, survey their findings, and then give them hypotheses about what the objects may be. This multi-age learning gave preschoolers the opportunity to be researchers themselves, watching how the older kids problem solve and make educated guesses. It also gave them the opportunity to be investigators, as they enthusiastically questioned the 2-3’s about their findings.
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 Leigh says, “At the end of the day, it makes no difference what those artifacts are, but that they are trying to figure out what they are. It is the figuring out that is the important part.” 
“It doesn’t really matter what we study from year to year. The curriculum is always different. I never know in September what a group is going to be interested in, but what I do know in September are my goals for the class and what I want to teach through the projects. “ ~Leigh (PreK 4 Teacher)