Emergent Curriculum


How do children learn best? Knight Hall School takes the view of Piaget that young children learn best through play. “To understand is to invent,” he wrote in 1973. “Young children learn the most important things, not by being told, but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children – and the way they do this is by playing” (Jones & Reynolds, 1992).

By actively observing children at play, Knight Hall teachers learn about the developmental progress of individual children and what skills and knowledge they are working on. They listen to children’s ideas and interests, and connect their curriculum goals with those of the children in responsive and creative ways (Cadwell & Fyfe, 1997). Planning emerges from the children’s interests and daily life in the program. This is our emergent curriculum.

At Knight Hall School teachers watch carefully for ways to extend each child’s thinking and learning within child-initiated activities. They pose problems, ask questions, make suggestions, add complexity to tasks, and provide information, materials and assistance, as needed, to enable each child to consolidate learning and move to the next level of functioning (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). It is called “curriculum” because teacher planning creates such effective early childhood settings, but “emergent” reminds us that spontaneity is always key where young children play and learn (Jones & Nimmo, 1994).

What is emergent curriculum?

Young children learn by doing, touching, experimenting, choosing, talking, and negotiating. Everything is potential curriculum for young children. Emergent curriculum is planning what happens in the classroom and the focus of learning through interaction between teachers and children, with both contributing ideas and reacting to them to build engaging and worthwhile units of study. Our curriculum approach builds on interests that emerge from our daily lives with the children. At Knight Hall School, the children provide the ideas that form a foundation for activities and units of study that are then prepared, organized, coordinated, and facilitated by the teachers.

Emergent curriculum describes curriculum that develops from exploring what is “socially relevant, intellectually engaging, and personally meaningful to children…. As caring adults, we make choices for children that reflect our values; at the same time we keep our plans open-ended and responsive to children” (Jones and Nimmo, 1994). Emergent curriculum arises naturally from adult-child and child-child interactions that create “teachable moments.” It connects learning with experience and prior learning. It responds to children’s immediate interests rather than focusing on a narrow, individual, or calendar driven topic. It is process rather than product driven. The curriculum is typically implemented after an idea emerges from the group of children.

Where does emergent curriculum come from?

Knight Hall teachers approach curriculum planning not as a series of recipes for activities, but rather as emerging, evolving opportunities for a variety of experiences to be offered to children to help them deepen their understanding of their world. Teachers plan according to the different interests and abilities of the children in the classroom. Listening to their cues is the starting point of curriculum planning. Often ideas emerge through conversations and open-ended questions. Children’s questions are what enliven and give direction to the curriculum. There is no preplanned workbook or planning binder for our curriculum. It emerges from the children and teachers working together, from teachers with the time and skills to actively listen to the children’s desires and act upon them. Teachers change and modify the curriculum easily in response to things that happen in the course of the day. An unexpected question often leads to an interesting discussion, development of a new center or activity, or an opportunity for a parent to share a special skill with the children. Our child-centered approach requires teachers look carefully at children and create an adaptable program that meets their needs. Teachers plan thoroughly, but implement plans flexibly.

Planning the curriculum in each classroom is based on:

  • Knowledge of child development;
  • Understanding of developmentally appropriate practices and the guidelines in The Connecticut Framework: Preschool Curricular Goals and Benchmarks;
  • Sensitivity to individual children’s personal experiences and interests; and
  • Knowing that children learn through first-hand observation, play, and direct experience.

Learning centers are set up in the classrooms so that small groups and individual children can choose to explore constantly varying materials related to the study of math, science, art, and language, while teachers observe and interact with the children and the materials. In most rooms centers include a sensory table for age-appropriate experimentation with sand, rice, seeds and beans, water or other materials, a block center for large motor exploration, an area for use of manipulatives such as legos and mobilos that encourage development of fine motor skills, a writing area and art center with a table, easels, and a changing selection of writing and drawing implements and molding materials to maintain attention, a drama/housekeeping center, and a quiet, comfortable book corner.

Topics of study are often carried outside to one of our three outdoor play areas. One of these areas is paved for riding pedal bikes or cars and push scooters and for bouncing balls. Another play area has a sandy floor and is supplied with shovels, construction equipment and a hose. In summer, the children often engage in large, group projects that last over many weeks of building rivers, exploring dams and ponds, and floating boats and other objects. The third and largest play area is split into two areas, one for older and one for younger children. This includes age-appropriate climbing equipment, room to run, and also space for quiet exploration.

Teachers find creative ways to incorporate required subject matter into all these areas, starting with children’s interests and needs. Each day, in each room, we set out pre-planned activities in the centers. We choose activities that are interesting, inviting, age and developmentally appropriate, open-ended and process oriented. If a particular activity is popular, teachers may choose to repeat it often (with slight variations) until the intense interest passes. There are no adult-made models to follow, no particular way to use the materials available, and (within reason) the children are able to easily modify or add to the materials to suit their own interests and needs. This freedom to act upon their own interests, in their own ways contributes to the successful development of children’s self esteem.
In addition to children’s interests, teacher’s experience, and knowledge of the Connecticut Framework guidelines, there are several other sources of emergent curriculum (Jones & Nimmo). They are listed below with examples of how we include these sources in our classroom curriculum:

  • Developmental tasks: At each developmental stage there are tasks to be mastered such as talking, pouring, running, hopping, throwing or bouncing a ball, pedaling a bike, digging, filling, grasping a pencil, cutting with scissors. Knight Hall teachers pay special attention to offering many opportunities for children to choose activities that provide spontaneous skill practice. Our curriculum is also responsive to social-emotional issues that surface powerfully at different stages, such as autonomy, power, strength and friendship.
  • Things in the physical environment: Children’s experience is unique to the place they are in. Man-made things in the environment (for example, blocks, tricycles) are typically standardized and often result in predictable play. Natural things are not standardized and are less predictable. Each plant and animal is different. This is one reason that at Knight Hall we feel it is important children get outside and experience nature often. It extends the range of open-ended play opportunities.
  • People in the social environment: The presence of children of various ages visiting from other rooms, parents, floating staff, or enrichment instructors in the classroom naturally adds to children’s interactions. Children often know the name and child identified with each parent in the class (and sometimes in the other classrooms as well). They know Miss Jeanine brings musical instruments and songs, Miss Angela brings books and stories from the library, and a man drives a big truck into the parking lot to empty the dumpster on Tuesday mornings. Questions are asked and answered about these people and this adds to our curriculum.
  • Curriculum resource materials: We have a rich resource library available to all teachers and parents. In addition, the school uses West Hartford Public library resources for greater variety in our constantly changing classroom libraries, and to enrich resources that meet changing class interests. Teachers are given time to find books that explore topics or themes that have captured the children’s interest or by particular authors the children are enjoying.
  • Serendipity/unexpected events: When the unexpected happens in the classroom, surrounding community, or in the natural world, teachers respond by incorporating it into their plans, short or long term, to give children enough space and opportunity to consider and explore them at their own pace. When the big blue digger and utility trucks parked outside our front playground last fall, many children spent nearly every morning watching the work and afternoons engaged in both discussing the construction and building roads in the sand box and sensory table. In many classes the libraries included nonfiction books with pictures of the equipment, and a lot of yellow paint was put out for art activities.
  • Living together: Conflict resolution, caregiving, and routines: Caregiving and the resolution of interpersonal issues are not interruptions to the curriculum. They are the most important and basic curriculum. Washing hands before meals and after diapering/toileting is an independent step, as is pouring water or milk at snack times and lunch. Helping to unpack and repack one’s own lunch takes fine motor control and patience. Putting things away in cubbies after playtime requires follow through, and resisting the temptation to take belongings out of the cubbies of friends demands self control. Mastery of the potty sometimes leads to accidents, which means opportunities to assist with self-dressing. Starting with the emergence of speech in the red room, children are consistently given tools (phrases to use, and communication and listening skills) and experiences that foster learning to compromise and share when playing with peers. As vocabularies grow, children at Knight Hall learn to use more than just the word no, for example. They learn to ask when can I have a turn to use that car or to say that hurts when you hit me. The list of everyday life experiences that nurture the growth of children at Knight Hall School goes on and on.

At Knight Hall, we view curriculum as everything that happens during our time with the children. We believe that each moment offers opportunities to explore relationships and to create a community that nurtures children, teachers, and families. Each moment holds a range of feelings and interests. There are always questions to pursue, hypotheses to investigate, and discoveries to celebrate. Curriculum happens all day, in every routine, action, interaction, and rearrangement of the room.

Key Principles of Emergent Curriculum

  • Our understanding of children guides our decision-making. We view children as competent, full of wonder, willing to investigate, critique, reflect, and collaborate. This understanding shapes our decisions about how to arrange our classroom environment, schedule our days, and plan our curriculum.
  • Teachers pay careful attention to the use of space and time. The classroom environment sets the tone, inviting children to explore, collaborate, reflect, and communicate using a range of media. The schedule each day allows for long stretches of open-ended time during which children can pursue their questions, passions, and developmental themes.
  • Curriculum planning is based on observation. Teachers observe children as they play, paying close attention to recurring themes, developmental issues, and underlying questions. Observations guide curriculum planning, as we create opportunities for children to deepen their thinking, represent their understandings, and encounter new perspectives.
  • Teachers consider relationships to be central. Teachers emphasize relationship building and cooperation among children, and between teachers and children. Teachers actively seek out collaboration with other teachers and with families, asking and encouraging questions about children’s play, and sharing their observations. When we ask families to share their perspectives and invite them to help us make decisions about classroom life and curriculum, we enrich our understanding and include families in the life children live at school.

The Knight Hall School Staff