We use an emergent curriculum model at CCS. That means that instead of planning curriculum around themes we pre-decide (for instance, “gratitude” in the last half of November, or “spring” in the first half of April), we build our curriculum around the emerging interests of the children. The idea is that you can work literacy and math and socio-emotional development and all the rest into literally any theme, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if the theme is one that the children are interested in.
Given that, we’re always on the lookout for what kids are interested in. For a while now the Oak Room teachers have noticed an interest in superheroes in the 3-day group. They pretend to be superheroes, they tell stories about superheroes at the lunch table, they draw superheroes at the art table.
We had been wary of diving into this interest for a few reasons. First off, we are deeply skeptical of any topic that comes from such a commercial source (in fact, we have a “no commercial” policy at school—no Disney lunch boxes, no Dora backpacks, etc.). We find that play that comes from commercial sources is often quite rigid and is tied to pre-existing scripts, stifling creativity instead of creating it. Secondly, superhero play has a tendency to get rough quickly, and both feelings and bodies can get easily hurt.
However, the group’s interest stayed strong for weeks, and we finally decided to start exploring it in our curriculum. We resolved to help children create new characters and narratives of their own as much as possible. We planned to use any rough play as an explicit opportunity to teach socio-emotional skills. We started making plans.
We made the curriculum web, above. (You can click it to see a larger version.) With “Superheroes” in the middle, we listed all the sub-themes we saw the children exploring in their play and talk. We came up with “Narratives and Characters,” “Costumes,” “Feeling Different,” “Powerful Movement,” “Power,” and “The Supernatural.” For each sub-theme, we came up with a handful of activities that would help the children explore the ideas more deeply. For instance, to explore “Powerful Movement” we thought about creating obstacle courses and practicing yoga; to explore “Narratives and Characters” we thought about reading Greek myths and fairy tales and acting out stories. Then, from that wide array of possible activities, we picked a handful to try out. If something caught the kids’ interest, we’d push into it more deeply. If something didn’t succeed, we’d have plenty of other plans ready to go.
Now that we’re a few weeks into this theme, we’ve done a number of the activities in one way or another, and each of the three teachers has found a kind of mini-project to work on with small groups over the course of a few weeks.
Alexis has been developing the children’s interest in superhero costumes. At Morning Meeting she talks with a small group about what superheroes look like, and helps them make plans for how they’d like to make their own costumes. Then during Centers Time she puts out a variety of materials and helps the children create the ideas they’ve come up with. As the children get more experience working on costumes, their ideas are gradually getting more elaborate; some are coming up with costumes that take more than a day of hard work to create, and they have to think ahead to finish a project. Some like to wear their costumes throughout the day. With the costume work, the children are developing their planning and attention skills; building their fine-motor and tool-use skills (important for learning to write!); and finding new ways to express their creativity.
Rachel’s been exploring the children’s interests in narratives, characters, and the supernatural by reading Greek myths with them. She’s brought several different books of myths from the library, and the children’s interest has been intense. They start reading together at Morning Meeting, and often continue right through Centers Time. Kids who finish with other projects frequently come over and plop down with the myth group. Rachel leads the children in long open-ended discussions about the characters and events in the stories, and they come up with their own interpretations. Recently they’ve started exploring movement with this theme as well (“How would Zeus throw that lightning bolt?” “Show us what it looks like when Poseidon makes an earthquake?”). As the children explore these myths, they’re building a wide variety of early literacy skills, as well as more general skills like critical thinking and curiosity.
Jarrod’s been helping the children explore their interest in narratives and characters by helping them create their own superhero stories. At Morning Meeting he sits down with a small group and guides them through telling a story together. (For example: “Once upon a time there was a superhero with an unusual name. What was her name? … That’s right, her name was Whistle Fagoo. And one day Whistle Fagoo was walking along when she saw something. What did she see? … Yes, she saw a dragon stepping on cars and knocking down buildings!” etc…) They record the story, and then at Centers time they listen to the recording. After listening to it, they act it out several times, retelling the story and changing it as they go. After that they discuss the interesting parts of the story, and then draw the parts they like best. As they explore these stories, the children build their cooperation and listening skills, and work on many components of early literacy.
Along with all these ongoing sub-projects and various superhero-related activities, the children have of course been playing lots of superhero games of their own. We’ve been pleased that, while commercial superhero characters have remained a part of their play, there’s been more creativity in terms of characters, powers, and storylines lately. For instance, Super Dust and Super Bubble are heroes that have gotten some play; and last week there was a huge group game where the superheroes were battling a magical horse. Also, somewhat surprisingly, as the teachers have embraced the superhero theme in our curriculum, it seems like rough play has actually DECREASED a little bit. Perhaps with the sanctioned outlet for their interests, they don’t feel the need for some of the more challenging parts of the games? In any event, there’ve been a number of productive conversations about the relationship between helping and hurting; about the different ways to be a “good guy”; about the things that might make “bad guys” feel less bad; and so on.
As the children’s interest in this topic continues to evolve, we’ll continue watching for how we can use the theme to support their developmental and learning needs. Ideally we’ll be able to help guide the superhero topic to some kind of unified, culminating project—but we’ll have to see where this goes. It’s part of what make emergent curriculum so continually engaging, challenging, and exciting!