From Themes to Play-based Emergent Curriculum – Where to Begin?

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. What is the point of entry for teachers who want to transform their practice, moving away from a theme-based approach to emergent curriculum, which builds on children’s authentic interests. After spending five days in the forest we have come to the realization that the outdoor environment is not just the third teacher, it is the ultimate teacher. We are committed to working towards encouraging others to embrace emergent curriculum within the great outdoors, in part because outside, children become more relaxed and confident. According to Waite (2011), who refers to Malaguzzi’s quote in Edwards, Forman and Gandini, children need time to “catch their breath” (p. 80) and this time is an intrinsic part of being outside, “where they become more relaxed and confident”. Children’s natural “synergy with the outdoors enables them to follow their ideas and interests in a different way” (p. 79).

how to capture bugs

Photo by Laurel Fynes

We have learned much of what we know about emergent curriculum from the great educators of Reggio Emilia; Malaguzzi, Rinaldi, Vecchi and of course Gandini whom we have had the joyful opportunity to meet with and spend time with on a number of occasions. We understand the principles of the Reggio Emilia approach and agree with the importance of starting with the image of the child as the place where teaching begins. The child is competent, capable, and curious with the capacity to be an intellectual theory builder.

Children have the capability of being interested in many things indoors and outdoors and a teacher must use their own capacity to build theories about teaching and learning to decide which interests will lead the direction of the curriculum. I have heard some express concern about following children’s interests and feel that it will be a “free for all” but this is not the intention of emergent curriculum. With a theme approach, and even with some project and inquiry focused practices, curriculum can be teacher directed. However, that does not mean that emergent curriculum is child centred or child directed rather “the curriculum is child originated and teacher framed” (Forman & Fyfe, 1998, p. 240).

The joy of the no mow zone

Photo by Laurel Fynes 

It is a negotiated curriculum and this is something that is not easy to accomplish. Intellectually, I understand this and have seen its application to practice but I have also continued to see great resistance to the approach that I theorize as a lack of knowing where to begin. How can these theories be applied in practice? I look to Frances and David Hawkins for a point of entry. I was first introduced to Hawkins in 2006 while reading Edwards, Forman and Gandini’s seminal work “The Hundred Languages of Children” (1998). David wrote the forward where he spoke of his meeting with Loris Malaguzzi and how Malaguzzi reminded him “of other stories that have been told, or could be told, from different times and places” (p. xix) about efforts to create new patterns of educational practice. Hawkins lamented that all these stories taken together “spin a golden thread though many decades of adult neglect and preoccupation with other matters” but “such a brilliant exception” is “the case of Reggio Emilia” (p. xix)

I would suggest that adults who have been preoccupied with themes contribute to these decades of adult neglect. In my own evolution as an adult educator, I had denounced themes many years ago and removed them from the courses that I taught. My expectation for my students in their field practicum was that they use a project or inquiry approach. After many years of reflecting on the work of my students I came to the realization that projects don’t necessarily translate into emergent curriculum. There is a risk in allowing a single entity such as a project or a theme to define practice. I have witnessed teachers and pre-service teachers who have tightly controlled a project and its directional thrust. I am concerned that projects have replaced themes as a content organizer and, as a result, the importance of truly revealing what is happening in the classroom remains lost. Hawkins (1998) describes project work as evolving “with great vitality, but the definition and duration of these projects” are “a dependent and restricted variable” (p. xxi). The projects that my students were able to implement were dependent on their willingness to accept the challenge of an evolving rather than a preset curriculum.

As an early childhood educator, I have always defined my practice as “in process” and I have been on a quest for what I have called “the perfect preschool curriculum”. My quest lead me to visit the Boulder, Journey School in 2008 and since that visit I have had the amazing good fortune of a professional relationship with Ellen Hall, the director and close friend to Frances and David Hawkins. At the Journey School, I was introduced to the theory Messing About and saw what is possible with a marriage of Reggio inspiration to Hawkins learning. At the Journey School the outdoor environment went well beyond anything I had seen in Reggio Emilia in 2006. I began to see my practice from a perspective of a dual allegiance – I was Reggio and Hawkins inspired.

Six years later, I am still learning from David and Frances. I believe the time is ripe for others and all my professional learning and teaching experiences are framed from the theoretical perspective of Reggio and Hawkins inspiration. As the support for a play-based inquiry approach widening it occurred to me that Play + Inquiry = Messing About.

Play + Inquiry

David Hawkins who along with his wife Frances, an early childhood educator, were “committed to the idea that in order to best serve children, teachers need to be dedicated learners as well (Lynch, Shaffer, & Hall, 2009, p. 54). Teachers like children need to mess about. David Hawkins was a famous scientist who devoted much of his life to helping adults see the value in messing about. In the words of David Hawkins …

There is a time, much greater in amount than commonly allowed, which should be devoted to free and unguided exploratory work (call it play if you wish, I call it work). Children are given materials and equipment – things- and are allowed to construct, test, probe, and experiment without superimposed questions or instructions (Hawkins, 2002. p. 68).

Phases of Messing About

There is so much to play with in outdoor natural environments. There is so much that encourages messing about from leaves, to sticks, twigs, rocks and logs. It is an opportunity to use existing resources as a starting point for learning experiences. This is where to begin with what Hawkins referred to as “Eolithism” a big idea that came to life during the magical Pond Study illustrated in the wonderful exhibit – Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child: The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins.

Eolithism 1 The Pond Study

Messing About as an adult to understand the properties and potential of the learning environment is something I was able to do in the forest for five days. When I bring children into the forest to continue in our quest to become a certified forest school practitioner, I will be doing what Frances and David did in the 1970’s at the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education. We will first involve children in observation and inquiry. We will play together. During the process the interests that will emerge will lead the direction of the focus for further experiences in the forest. This is how we will begin. We will build three-way relationships in the forest between the adult, child and compelling content. Another big idea from the Hawkins exhibit illustrated below in the shape of a triangle.

I Thou It

We invite our Reggio inspired professional learning community #ReggioPLC to join with us as we journey with Frances and David Hawkins towards authentic interests to define our curriculum that emerge from messing about.

7 thoughts on “From Themes to Play-based Emergent Curriculum – Where to Begin?

  1. I cannot believe I have stumbled across this amazing blog! Thank you so much for sharing all this wonderful information. Diane and Louise, both of you were two of my most favourite teachers at Seneca when I completed my ECE diploma back in 2004! I constantly use all of the many skills I learned from both of you, not only as a professional but also as a parent. Thank you!


  2. Another post I know I will revisit many times, and I can’t help but wonder what I’ll see in it after my journey into FDK has begun.
    I am honoured that you chose those photos to illustrate an idea so meaningful to me right now on my journey. So many aha’s about my teaching and student learning have come while outside. So many new relationships with the outdoors (for those students who started the year wary of insects and leery of dirt). Such depth of learning through the lens of “looking closely” and discovering a word for what we’d been doing all along with growing awareness of seasonal changes all around: #phenology.
    When embracing emergent curriculum and releasing themes as the driver in your classroom, I used to think the place to start was with loose parts. It happened that way for me, so it was the easiest way for me to relate to others how I began to see so much intelligence, curiosity and capability in my students when we co-created a loose parts “nature story centre”. I now see it was two-fold: the materials were open-ended and thus I was able to see potential in my students as they explored the potential in the materials. Second, though – the materials we collected were natural, all possessing interesting texture, smell, weight, size seriation and solidness. They were real. Like the ice sculptures we made after woods walks (I’ve been fascinated with ice for a very long time), the story centre had materials that we had chosen together, collected from our environment, and imbued with meaning.
    Thank you for helping us all make connections to what is important to us as learners.


  3. We are already in the process of packing our theme-based lessons, materials, ideas and programs to give way to a Reggio-inspired education to really inspire and enable children here in a preschool in Manila, Philippines to think, create and blossom! My research has lead me to this blog and I truly am amazed of how much things need to change in our school which has been in exixtence for 21 years!
    We have just been comfortable with what we have now and thought that the emergent curriculum exists in our curriculum, but yes, it is still definitely teacher-directed!
    Thank you for allowing other ‘converts’ to see the light and for guiding our way in this journey. We hope and pray that we here in our school, succeed in our transformation and create a real learning environment for our children.


  4. Pingback: From Themes to Play-based Emergent Curriculum &...

  5. Pingback: Emergent Curriculum: Taking Interests to the Next Realm – Cultivate rather than Follow | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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