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Emergent Learning: Antidote to the Push-Down Approach

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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The topic for my last Art, Music and Movement for Young Children class was Emergent Curriculum. I showed a video from Eastern Connecticut State University’s Center for Early Childhood Education showcasing a project on balls. You can watch it here. Emergent Curriculum is a way of teaching through student interests. Suppose a group of toddlers becomes enthralled with the worms on the playground. Teachers will observe the children, take notes, and document which child is especially interested in which aspect of the topic. Pulling books from their library about worms, giving the children magnifiers to spread out and invade the privacy of the playground worms, teachers provide materials and experiences that enable a deep study that accommodates individual learners. In the video’s ball project, the children dissected, compared, and created art with balls. Destroying and creating balls, they learned about physical and dynamic properties of their favorite toy. This project was emergent, because it emerged from a genuine interest from the children.

We also discussed thematic units. These are based on broad subjects, usually about traditional preschool themes such as seasons, community helpers, space, and the ocean. Very young children are often interested in these topics, but with a lock-step approach, teachers pay less attention to individuals who might not be as enamored. When I do a professional development presentation on engaging curriculum, I tell teachers that behavior is better when everyone is engaged. With thematic units, some children are engaged and others aren’t. (Perhaps that is why behavior guidance is such a popular topic on the professional development circuit!) Suppose the theme is farms. Teachers might read about farm animals to the whole group (with the anti-farm contingent touching their neighbors and looking out the window—“behavior problems”). They sing Old MacDonald, color pictures of the traditional 19th and early 20th century farms, and, if they’re lucky, take a field trip to an authentic farm dedicated to school field trips.

What provoked this newest screed of mine is an anecdote from one of my students. She said that her thematic unit is the earth, and that they have to teach the names of the continents. Can you imagine a two and a half year old child who has no abstract thinking, being taught about continents? My class of savvy students turned to ask this young woman: “How do you assess these children? Do they ‘get’ it?” “No, she answered, “but we take a picture of each child pointing to a globe, and send the picture to parents to show that they are learning about continents.” There was a collective groan from the class.

All of this trickery (“Can you say Asia?”) convinces parents that their children are on a fast track to Harvard. Child care has evolved into “school”, as in “What did you do in school today?” Calling child care school is part of the scam. Play, and emergent learning, in these programs, are secondary to elementary school style teaching and learning. As I’ve written before, children play with materials as well as ideas. Play is creative and a part of a child’s authentic learning and thinking. It blows my mind that, against all known best practice, a center is quizzing twos on geography.

Parents are just trying to juggle their responsibilities. Becoming an expert in early childhood education isn’t part of their job description. But if they don’t demand developmentally appropriate practice, they will continue to contribute to the wealth of the corporate childcare industry, which cares less about the healthy growth of their children, and more about their own bottom line.

Parents: A good child care center can be a place where your children can get “plenty of free play, plenty of opportunities to socialize and be part of a community, and plenty of exposure to new experiences”. It can build trust, self-esteem, intellectual curiosity, and creativity. This is what your child will need to grow and develop so they can succeed in life. Demand that your child’s curiosity is allowed to develop through a program that values authentic learning. And if they don’t change, find another center that can.

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Gail teaches Early Childhood Education as an Adjunct Associate Professor for Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community college systems in the country. She is a popular trainer in the DC area, leading workshops on such topics as Engaging, Arts-Based and Outdoor Learning, and Guiding Behavior. She is a member of the Virginia Community College Peer Group which collaborates with the Virginia Department of Social Services to train and license childcare professionals throughout the state. Her blog on BAM's EdWords is referenced in several arts websites, and is used in Early Childhood courses throughout Virginia. She is also a member of NAREA, the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. You can contact her for more information about Professional Development opportunities. 


Gail lives and works in Northern Virginia. Her special interests include arts-integration, play, Reggio Emilia, music and yoga. 

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Guest Tuesday, 16 October 2018