Emergent curriculum is a philosophy of teaching in which the teachers devote time to careful observations of the children’s interests and the needs of the classroom and plan learning experiences aimed at fostering those interests and addressing those needs. In short, it is child-centered, child-initiated and child-directed learning. By harnessing children’s own interests, motivation and energy, emergent curriculum allows for and encourages children to determine their own learning direction, pace, focus and rewards. In our nursery classroom, we have embarked on many emergent studies over the past few years. One year, the children were very interested in the different ways they all came to school, so we decided to study maps and even created a map of the Early Learning Center hallways. Each year, the classes are extremely engaged with the changing of the seasons and this is a study we conduct repeatedly. However, each year the approach is different based on the interests of the group. Some years it is more science-based and other times it is more art-focused. Often an emergent curriculum comes into being because of a need in the classroom—and this piece is about a time when we felt our class needed to become a more peaceful place.
The Peace Corner came about a few years ago when the nursery teachers in the Blue and Lan se classrooms realized that they needed a new way to help the class resolve conflicts more independently. Young children make associations in certain situations that can be very difficult to break in an emotional state. For example, when a child is arguing over a block in the block area, he or she can associate the block area with the problem and not think clearly enough to move toward a solution when in that space.
The original thought behind the Peace Corner was to remove the association—to remove the children from the cause and environment in which the conflict began, and to create a “neutral zone.” Another key component was to break all problems down into three categories—small, medium and large—and to create signs that illustrated the differences:
- Small: children can solve themselves
- Large: body is badly hurt; need a nurse or MD to solve the problem
- Medium: children solve with adult support
Many problems feel overwhelming to young children. But when children are removed from the situation as well as given visual aids and concrete descriptions, it helps them realize that most classroom problems are actually small and they can resolve these conflicts themselves. Often, the act of walking over to the Peace Corner is enough to resolve the conflict, thus building their resilience for future conflicts. The Peace Corner was an immediate success and we have been using it ever since. It exists in both the English and Mandarin classrooms. In 2018, the teachers decided to take the Peace Corner to another level and created the Peace Curriculum.
With Emergent Curriculum, the first step is always to identify the need. Most times it is based solely on the children’s interests. It requires the teacher to carefully observe her class and look for patterns in the children’s activities. The pattern that we were seeing was that the teachers in the class were constantly the mediators in conflict resolution for the children. We repeated ourselves so many times throughout the day, “Tell ___ how that made you feel. How can you make him or her feel better?” It became clear at this point that there was both a need and an interest within our two groups to follow this course of study.
The next step in planning an emergent curriculum is coming up with an essential question. Teachers must ask themselves what it is they want to accomplish, and more importantly, what the children want to accomplish. Our essential question was “How can we make the classroom a more peaceful place?” The goals were:
- Independent problem solving.
- A place for conflict resolution.
- An understanding of how their words and actions can make other people feel.
- Self-regulation strategies and ways to find peace in themselves.
- An understanding of different types of problems and the various ways to solve them.
- Awareness of and appreciation for difference in our community and in the world.
Finally, it was time to build the curriculum. We looked at the goals and thought about discussions we could plan to engage the children in meaningful conversation surrounding the topic of peace. We did some research to find literature that would help them to understand this abstract concept. We began to incorporate meditation and yoga into our movement breaks. We planned art activities that would allow the children to express themselves throughout this process.
The children began a Kindness Chain. Many teachers document kindness in different ways. In our classrooms, we decided that each time a child does or receives a kind act, it would be written down and added to the chain. Our kindness chain allows the children to see how their kind acts grow. The chain links extended outward from the partner classrooms and the goal was to reach across the hallway from Blue to Lan se, thereby concretely connecting our partner classrooms through kindness.
The “Find Peace” activity on GoNoodle actually prompts the class to think about a place where they feel at peace. Following this activity, we asked the class where their peaceful place was. Here are some responses:
- On the beach
- With my grandpa
- In my bed under the covers
We also used yoga cards during our movement breaks in the classroom. Each child chooses a card, and the class does the pose together. We practiced breathing. This gives the class a chance to slow everything down for a few minutes in the middle of their busy day.
We gathered literature that highlights the importance of kindness and peace around the world. We had discussions about how to say peace in every language. We also talked about how to make the world a more peaceful place. One child said, “but we are just kids,” and that opened up a whole talk about what they can do as kids. They talked about how important it is to walk in line on the sidewalk to stay out of other people’s way, and that day when we walked from the Early Learning Center to the main school building, they were very conscious of others and remained in the straight line the whole way there. They also suggested cleaning up trash and saying “excuse me” when you bump into someone.
The children learned about symbols and how they are used. We looked at the symbols of peace and asked them what they notice. One group had a discussion about how the heart can be a symbol for love and for peace at the same time and how the two things are related. The children painted their own peace signs, which we displayed in the classroom for Earth Day.
Building a classroom community is at the heart of most preschool curriculums. For our final project in this study, we wanted to do a community project to highlight the individual feelings of each child, but also illustrate how we all work together and how each child brings something different to the group. Using large card stock squares and acrylic paint, the Whales and Peacocks each painted what peace feels like to them. Some children chose to paint a place, some painted an object and some just painted colors that make them feel calm and peaceful. Even the teachers added their own peace paintings to the quilt!
Over the course of the study, there were so many wonderful group discussions in which the children thought deeply about how they have the power to make peace. The outcome of all of this work was a group of 4-year-old students who were capable of understanding that their words and actions can have an affect on others; that if there is something they do not like they have the ability to use their words to change it; that if their body or mind feels out of control, they know what to do and where to go to calm down; and that if everyone is kind to each other that there can be peace everywhere.