Titles and Topics: Emergent Curriculum Projects and Inquiries

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have written before about coming to terms to terms and I find myself still grappling with all the buzzwords popping up in my news feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. As another semester approaches and once again I find myself supporting early childhood education degree students in their field practicum I am searching for ways to explain, support and encourage. I anticipate being asked the same questions that early learning professionals often ask:

  • What is emergent curriculum?
  • What is pedagogy?
  • Are projects the same as inquiries?
  • How do you decide what to call your project or inquiry?

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, REACHING THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN: The Impact of Emergent Curriculum on the Practice and Self-Image of Early Childhood Educators I defined curriculum as a course of study and made a distinction between a transactional curriculum with a traditional scope and sequence approach with an emphasis on drill and practice of isolated, academic skills, and a transformational curriculum with an emergent focus. Since the creation of curriculum is a human endeavour, it involves cultural values, beliefs, assumptions and, theories and languages of its developers in its very construction. It also involves pedagogy.

What is Pedagogy What is Curriculum

The term emergent curriculum is used to refer to an approach that emerges from the interests of the learner and is socially constructed (Jones & Nimmo,1994). However, the process of emergent curriculum assumes a higher level of effectiveness when it goes beyond interests to focus on children’s thinking, creativity and curiosities. It then assumes a transformational curriculum position. Emergent curriculum defies a narrow focus. If it is based solely on a judgement call by the educator about children’s interests and ends up being a fact-finding mission of academics it really is just a long-term theme. It becomes a linear process rather than the spiral described by Susan Stacey. In the professional development module called Understanding Emergent Curriculum in Practice five key features of emergent curriculum are listed:

  1. Emergent curriculum is not a linear process.
  2. Emergent curriculum is cyclical.
  3. Emergent curriculum is flexible and responsive.
  4. Emergent curriculum is collaborative.
  5. Emergent curriculum makes children’s learning and teacher’s thinking visible.

Emergent curriculum happens when you support inquiry based learning in your classroom. One form of inquiry based learning is project work which involves children investigating a question or problem over a period of time. Inquiry and projects require that the learner is active. Experiential or active learning is learning that involves active manipulation by the learner and is environmentally based. To learn something new, children must become aware, explore, inquire, use, and apply. The Progressive Education movement and the writings of John Dewey (1910) support this position of learner as active. “Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at hand, seeking and finding his own solution (not in isolation but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) does one learn” (p. 182). So while some may think that these ideas are new they have a long-standing tradition.

Dewey quote

Under the assumption that children learn best when their interest is fully engaged and centred, the project method was used in Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. In more recent times, project work was a central part of infant and primary education during the Plowden Years in England of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the corresponding North American open education years of the same era (Katz & Chard, 2000). A highly creative variation of the project method exists in the pre-primary schools of Reggio Emilia (Edwards et al., 1994). The Project Approach, “refers to a way of teaching and learning as well as to the content of what is taught and learned” (Katz & Chard, 1989, p. 3). It is a set of teaching strategies which enable teachers to guide children through in-depth studies of real world topics (Katz & Chard, 2000). As suggested by Katz and Chard, projects are intended to be emergent as they develop from the ongoing interests of the children. Projects therefore are an example of emergent curriculum. In contrast, themes are not considered emergent as they are often prescribed by the teacher. Topics for projects need to emerge from both the learners and the teachers so it is with careful consideration that a teacher decides the topic and the title. Is the topic different from the title? Do you need a title? Can the title be a learning question? A project topic should be worthy of investigation. To be worthy children should be engaged in critical thinking, problem solving and not just gathering facts. An inquiry inspired by a trip to the beach and a fascination with driftwood becomes more than a project entitled “Wood” when posed as a learning question; “What can I do with driftwood?” I can imagine stories about the wood’s origin and the journey it has made in the water. I can create with driftwood, count and build with driftwood. I can make up stories about what I made all while wondering about the science of driftwood. Avoid the noun and focus on a verb. The noun tends to lead us down the academic path, while the verb helps us recognize the intellectual outcomes for children. Lillian Katz discusses the differences between academic and intellectual goals in this wonderful video.

As an adult, when I have experiences with nature, I have many wonders. I am particularly fascinated with rocks and sticks. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. The theory suggests that children have an innate, genetically predisposed tendency to explore and bond with the natural world known as biophilia. Evidence of biophilia has been observed in children even younger than two. For children’s natural inclination of biophilia to develop they can be invited to have experiences with the natural world, to learn in and with nature. As I move down the path of emergent curriculum, I continue to wonder if the natural place for emergent curriculum to emerge is from nature. In testing out this theory, I look to a design for programming that Beverlie Dietze and I created for our recently published textbook. We came up with the POPPING Program Design to incorporate the concept of trial balloons. We combined the metaphor of balloons together with bubbles to conceptualize something playful that can trigger, prompt, provoke or expand curiosity. When a trial balloon is launched either by children or adults, if the idea becomes of interest to children, it has the potential to plant seeds, to germinate ideas, fertilize children’s thinking and actions and nurture new experiences or dimensions for exploration that children have not necessarily encountered before. This new programming perspective positions early learning professionals to support and promote exploratory, experiential learning, dialogue, and reflection that could lead to new knowledge creation. I thought I would play around with the concepts and used the POPPING framework to continue thinking about my interest in wood, this time in the form of sticks as a possible trial balloon that would support nature-based emergent curriculum.


PINGThere are so many possibilities with materials such as rocks, driftwood and sticks. These loose parts when intentionally chosen and used in natural environments have the potential of supporting emergent curriculum that is inquiry based and ecologically sustainable.

Wilson quote

23 thoughts on “Titles and Topics: Emergent Curriculum Projects and Inquiries

  1. Not only was I drinking a coffee while reading this post, I had to pace around with it so I could try to digest the complexity of your thinking Diane (trajectory and transporting schemas soothed me so I could decode and wonder about your ideas and those now “popping” in my mind)!
    Throughout my career I have spent a lot of time “coming to terms with terms” as you so eloquently phrased it. Through discussions with you I have let go of the need to neatly define or categorize definitions in a this versus that format. Actually that has been a relief for me. The complexities of some things/theories will require forever thinking!
    “One form of inquiry-based learning is project work”. I’ll be playful…. one form of project work is inquiry lol!
    I hear the message loud and clear when you talk about focusing on the verb, not the noun in your example about driftwood. I think this will assist educators to be more intentional when figuring out meaningful curriculum directions. It is so tempting for many to walk down the trodden path of designing theme-based curriculum ensuring that the children learn the facts about the topic/focus/interest of driftwood (following your example).
    The Katz video clip is powerful, inviting us to think about academic and intellectual goals for children. I will definitely share it in my practice!
    I do enjoy your blog posts Diane, a provocateur at the top of your game …. always inviting me to continue to expand my thinking … doing what critical friends do. So glad we made it to this level. C


  2. Thankyou. Articulates my own thinking! When deciding ln a project to explore I name the focus as a “lens”This gives us the capacity to explore both the depth and breadth lf learning as it unfolds through the play and the vkice of ghe child

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello there, Diane,

    By some accidental touch of the k eyb oard, during a Reggio wander in cyber space,   you popped into view. That was a very happy moment. Y our posts have been coming my way for a very short time and I have enjoyed each and every o ne of them. I  dare say , almost every  post has been forwarded to a west coast  educator, w ho voiced a concern that you clarified beautifully. T hank you for your dedication and scholarship . I anxiously await your next  post.        Affectionately, Betty   


  4. Diane, your post helped me to understand why some of the inquiries we did last year simply stopped. I think we needed to work more on identifying interests and let children work in smaller groups based on their questions they were looking answers for. It will be interesting if they presents their answers and discoveries to he class. Thank you.


    • You are most welcome Elena! Emergent curriculum is a process of learning and teaching and is meant to be flexible. I hope you and the children share wonderful discoveries together!


  5. thank you for this. I wish I had read this earlier, as the uncertainties, complexities of joys of long term investigations was the topic of my thesis. I appreciate that you highlighted the non-linearity of the work, as I find that teachers give up too soon when there is a setback claiming that children are not interested. I would love to continue this discussion.


    • Thanks Elaine. I am always perplexed when. I hear teachers say children aren’t interested when there is some accountability for teachers to spark and maintain interest. If you want to delve more deeply into this discussion please don’t hesitate to contact me directly. I would love to hear more about your work!


  6. Diane, I read what you write with such eagerness as you always manage to connect so deep to thoughts I am thinking about. I work now with teachers and educators wanting to develop deeper learning with children. Some are inspired by the work of Reggio Emilia, others who may not have yet come to know of their work. But they are connected with an energy that enables them to see children as researchers of the world with capabilities that reach far beyond what set curriculum that focuses on academic skills can offer. I adore my work in working with such teachers and schools where we are together co-researching the research of the children.

    There is so much in this article that resonates so strongly with me, and so much that has made me stop and think again, and again, and again! What a joy it is to do this!

    I am so taken with the Wilson quote you have shared, particularly the phrase “knowing them well” in relation to humanity not being superior but rather that in that sense of ‘becoming to know well’ we understand more about what it is to be alive in a system of living and aliveness. It struck me that this was what a small group of 3 year old children were doing in a nursery school in Wolverhampton in the UK when they were ‘becoming to know’ what seeds were. They already knew that many seeds grew into things, that water and sun were important factors, as was soil… but what they were really interested in talking and thinking about was how the seeds grew, what their source of power/energy could be and how did they know when to grow and when to stop.

    It strikes me now that what they were thinking about was about life itself, the conditions for life and the energy of life that transforms things. I know you and many others will recognise these types of questions of children and will shudder when worksheets appear that encourages children to simply name the parts of a plant or identify the stages of germination.

    In becoming to know the seeds well, the children saw the world as a source of precious resources, many showing us how they were careful with apple pips, tending to plants in the garden, noticing when plants needed help or protection. It might of been that the children already exhibited this care, this gentle sense of being custodians of the world, but it took the process of noticing, listening, interpreting and re-lauching ideas for us adults to notice this in the children. I think it was there all along…


    • Debi, suddenly I am at a loss for words! To have someone whose work I respect and admire so much respond in this way to my work … all I can say at this point is thank you for the gift of your words. I will go back again and again to read them, to reflect and think … hopefully by then I will be able to formulate a more articulate response 🙂 !!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. This article really spoke to me, as I have been reflecting on past projects that, to me, haven’t seemed to go anywhere. It also made me reflect on projects that I have done in the more distant past that seemed very linear; even though there was a lot learned, most of the project direction was determined by me. Even though the learning was as hands-on as I could make it, it wasn’t based on the questions that drove the children.

    I have been reflecting a lot on a current project that we are trying to do and have been frustrated that it really hasn’t seemed to go anywhere. I love how you say that the noun tends to lead us down the academic path and the verb helps us focus on the intellectual outcomes for children. I love this!


  8. Pingback: Sparking Inquiry from Children’s Emerging Interests | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s