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It’s springtime! A welcome changing of the seasons brings some much-needed sunshine, warmth, and growth all around us. But, if you are an educator, you may be noticing some unwelcome changes in your classroom around this time of year – restlessness, dysregulation, children feeling “over it,” and teachers just trying to get through the day.
With the end of the school year getting that much closer and the weather getting nicer, it can be a challenge to get children to focus on curriculum and learning, especially if educators are also feeling burnt out. So, why not let children take the lead?
With emergent curriculum, children play an active role in what they are learning, and educators can use children’s interests to create activities that also weave in opportunities to develop important social-emotional, self-regulation, and problem-solving skills.
This blog breaks down what emergent curriculum is, why it is important, the benefits of using it in early childhood education, as well as techniques, tools, and tips to help you integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) into your everyday curriculum activities. Keep reading for some SEL-integrated activities to get you started for spring and guidelines for creating your very own emergent curriculum!
Emergent curriculum means planning activities and projects based on the specific needs, skills, and interests of a group of children. Curriculum activities and ideas can look different each year as every child has different needs, interests, ideas, and skills, and every group of children works together in different ways.
Emergent curriculum planning is done by observing the classroom during different parts of the day and using them to create meaningful learning opportunities based on children’s real-life experiences and interests.
Observations can include:
This goes beyond structured and planned activities. Incorporating children’s interests into the materials that go into each classroom center ensures that children are engaged throughout the day during choice time and free play.
This doesn’t have to break the bank, either! In fact, utilizing materials that you already have, including recycled materials, nature items, and loose parts can create an open-ended learning area that draws children in to build or create their own ideas, which can also inform your own ideas for curriculum planning.
Different curriculum models have their benefits, but emergent curriculum allows children to take the lead and have agency in the learning process, which makes them more likely to engage with and better understand new content. When you introduce children to learning this way from their earliest years, you foster a sense of ownership and responsibility in them when it comes to learning and trying new things, which will lead to increased independence and motivation.
Emergent curriculum means that the learning experiences grow and change as the children do. This flexibility means it can be responsive to current events and issues, allowing for relevant and meaningful learning experiences. Emergent curriculum also encourages creativity and critical thinking skills by allowing children to explore and pursue their own ideas with your guidance as needed.
As children learn, changing emotions are bound to emerge, just like their interests. Incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) within emergent curriculum activities helps children develop important life skills such as empathy, problem-solving, and self-regulation, while also fostering their natural curiosity and love of learning.
If you aren’t sure where to start when it comes to incorporating social-emotional learning or emotional, cognitive, and social early learning (ECSEL) skills into your curriculum, make them the star of the show! Children love to talk about their experiences and their feelings, especially when they are given ample opportunities to do so.
Planning emergent curriculum activities around themes like friendship, sharing, kindness, or learning about our many different feelings opens a world of possibilities for building these skills in engaging ways. Here are some examples of activities that fit under the umbrella topic of SEL and focus on different learning areas:
Community Building – With this hands-on engineering activity, part of the fun is for children to work together, share, take turns, and problem-solve to create their very own community. What will your children include in their community?
Friendship Silhouettes – Friendship cannot be measured in inches or feet. However, this fun measurement activity will bring children together in a collaborative environment where they can practice sharing, communicating with others, and listening all while practicing their critical thinking, numeracy, and fine motor skills.
Teamwork Alphabet – Let’s build the alphabet…with our bodies! This fun movement and literacy activity gives children opportunities to work together, communicate, and problem-solve to create the different letters of the alphabet using their bodies.
Planning activities intentionally around SEL isn’t the only way you can support children in developing SEL skills. No matter what activity you have planned, you can model, guide, and respond to children in ways that help them think critically about what they are doing, how it affects others, and what they are feeling.
You can do this by asking open-ended questions and guiding prompts throughout the activity experience. For example, you can model the connection between art and feelings while prompting emotional identification by saying:
|“Wow! You are using so many bright colors, and I can see you are moving the markers back and forth really fast. When I look at your art, it reminds me of feeling excited. What are you feeling right now? What does your art make you feel?”|
You can acknowledge any prickly emotions that may naturally arise during activities while guiding children to identify helpers and problem-solving strategies by saying:
|“Oh no, the structure fell over. I can see that is making you feel angry and disappointed. Is there anyone at the table who can help you build it up again? What pieces do we need to help fix it?”|
You can even directly tie in curriculum content to relate back to children’s own emotions and feelings:
|“The block is moving slower than the ball down the ramp because of friction. That means that when the block rubs against the ramp, the force in the opposite direction causes it to move slower. Sometimes, when I’m nervous about trying something new, it feels like I get stuck, and it takes me a little longer to get where I want to go – just like the block. Other times, I feel so excited to try new things that I can’t wait to get started, and there is nothing holding me back – just like the ball! Has anyone else ever felt that way before?”|
There are so many ways we can organically connect emotions to learning. As children play, explore, interact with others, and learn new things, they will have many different emotional experiences that can be acknowledged, validated, and worked through. After all, emotions are a big part of who we are!
In addition to activity content and questions, there are tools specifically created to help children (and adults!) learn to identify, understand, express, and regulate their emotions. We can use these tools to help us plan our activities and intentionally incorporate SEL into our emergent curriculum.
Our Emotions Cards is a tool you can use as emotions arise and change organically during children’s learning and exploration to help them identify and understand their own emotions and those of others. They include 15 different emotions and feelings and a mirror card so children can see their own emotional expressions.
You can use Our Emotions Cards as part of your emergent curriculum planning process, or to encourage conversations and reflection about children’s emotions as they participate in different activities.
As you are observing children’s interests and needs you can incorporate learning about those feelings into your activities.
For example, you may notice children feeling frustrated after trying to do something over and over without it working out. Introduce this feeling with Our Emotions Cards and plan an activity that intentionally focuses on repeating a process and checking in with children’s feelings each step of the way or finding solutions to help them feel less frustrated.
Do they feel sad after saying goodbye to their parents in the morning? Angry when they have to share something they don’t want to? Nervous to participate in circle time?
Write down these observations and incorporate Our Emotions Cards into a storytelling activity about a character that experiences each of those same emotions. 🖨️Download Emergent Curriculum Planning Template
Ask children if they have ever felt these feelings before to give them the opportunity to connect to the story in their own ways. This activity can branch off into children creating their own emotion stories, acting them out with friends, reading different books about emotions, and so much more!
Do you ever notice children feeling surprised or disappointed when they see the results of a science experiment? Do they feel excited to play a movement game with their friends? Or frustrated when their art project doesn’t look the way their friends’ project looks?
Don’t skip over these moments! They truly are incredible learning opportunities, and you can use Our Emotions Cards to help.
When these moments arise, use Our Emotions Cards to validate children’s emotions. You can then help give them the language to express these feelings when they happen in the future. For example:
|“I noticed that you crumpled your paper on the floor. It’s okay to feel frustrated! I feel that way sometimes, too. Can we find the card that matches your feeling? Yeah, that looks just like you right now. Let’s see if we can find a way to help you feel less frustrated. What can I do to help?”|
Whether you’re having a blast and the excitement gets too big, something unexpected happens that causes anger, sadness, or disappointment to arise, or kids just need a break, having regulation strategies that work for you and your children can help strengthen their emotional intelligence skills while keeping your activity from derailing. There are many different ways to support children’s regulation while also taking into account their interests and needs!
Some children may need sensory cues to help them begin to calm their bodies. To meet these children where they are, try dimming the lights, opening the windows, playing soothing music or sounds, or using a calm and quiet tone of voice to call attention to what you notice:
|“It’s a bit too loud in here and it’s hard for me to concentrate. Let’s take a few minutes to close our eyes and listen to the music before we continue the activity.”|
If children are feeling overstimulated, your message and strategy will help them feel heard in their dysregulated experience.
Do you have a class that seems to get easily distracted or needs frequent movement breaks?
✋Pausing an activity to “shake sillies out” or to re-energize sleepy kids with some stretches can be a helpful way to regulate children’s bodies and help them refocus their attention. Try some yoga poses related to animals they are interested in, or lead a round of head-shoulders-knees-and toes at different speeds to help get some energy out and bring it back down before continuing your activity.
You can also plan an emergent curriculum activity focused on regulation all on its own as a fun way to teach new strategies children can use at any time!
One of the most effective ways to support children’s emotional regulation is to practice deep breathing, both in heightened emotional moments and regulated moments. When children are upset or emotionally dysregulated, they are unable to access the executive function skills necessary for them to focus, pay attention, and concentrate on learning. Deep breathing physiologically regulates us and makes it easier to talk about our feelings or refocus our attention. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and related to what children want to learn about!
Incorporate children’s interests, movements, and sounds into deep breathing.
For example, try taking “ocean breaths” by moving your arms in an upward wave motion as you inhale, and a downward wave motion as you exhale.
Or try “butterfly breaths” by moving your arms up like wings as you inhale, and down as you exhale.
Invite children to think of the next movement to turn this into its own regulation activity or take a moment here and there to breathe deeply whenever children need it.
If you’re still feeling stuck on where to start when it comes to your own emergent curriculum planning, you can use these guidelines to help you get started and stay on track!
✍️ What are children interested in learning about? Take note of children’s likes, dislikes, and what ideas and materials they are drawn to during the week.
👂 Listen actively to children’s conversations. What experiences and feelings do they talk about?
💬 Comment on what you notice as children play and explore. Do they like reading about anything in particular? Do they choose to draw during free play? Are they working together to build towers and structures? Bring children into the planning process by brainstorming ideas as a class!
❓ Ask what children would like to learn about.
For older children, use thinking maps to write down their ideas. Expand on these ideas by asking guiding questions.
For younger children, scaffold their thinking by giving an example of something you would like to learn about. Then ask for their ideas and reaffirm what you hear. Be sure to write these ideas down.
Planning & Implementation
When it comes to curriculum planning, we could all use a little help. It’s hard to constantly think of new ideas that align with children’s interests while also providing them with an enriching learning experience. The ECSEL Curriculum Library (ECL) is an amazing resource to help educators with just that.
Related: Try a free ECL lesson, now
When you visit the ECL, you will find hundreds of activities that cover different topics of interest, learning areas, and age groups. As a bonus, each and every activity in the ECL integrates emotional, cognitive, and social early learning (ECSEL), meaning no matter what activity you choose to do with children, there will be opportunities woven throughout to support their social and emotional development.
All you need to know is the topic that you would like to explore based on children’s interests, whether it be dinosaurs, community helpers, colors, farm animals, the ocean, or anything else. The ECL will show you activities within that topic that cover learning areas like STEAM, music, movement, dramatic play, literacy, and of course ECSEL.
Pick and choose the activities that you think will work best for your class, and you’re all set!
With the weather getting warmer and sunnier for springtime, children’s interests may naturally gear more toward the outdoors. Nature exploration is the perfect topic to begin incorporating children’s ideas and interests about bugs, trees, and plants as well as opportunities for SEL skill development, and the ECL has many activities that cover everything you need.
Based on what your classroom is interested in, you can find creative ways to teach children about caring for the planet, connecting with ourselves and the nature around us, learning about what plants and flowers need to grow and thrive, and so much more.
Take a look at some of our favorite nature-themed ECSEL-integrated activities for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, Pre-K students, and beyond. You can use these activities as they are or as inspiration for your own emergent curriculum planning!
Sensational Nature Exploration - Our youngest learners navigate the world around them through exploration. Bring them outdoors with this sensory science activity to observe and interact with what you see, bring the outdoors inside with you, and connect the experience to their emotions!
Nature Shadows Exploration - Explore technology in age-appropriate ways through the light of a projector! Find nature items and see the shadows the light creates! What do the different shapes and shadows make you feel?
Earth Feelings Book - Foster empathy and kindness in children while exploring the outdoors. Then, create a nature-themed classroom resource for identifying different emotions!
Planting Our Cozy Feelings - Learn about new cozy feelings - excitement, calmness, and pride - by guiding children to plant seeds representing each feeling. Water the cozy feelings and watch them grow!
Recycled Materials Sorting - Introduce the importance of recycling while sorting recyclable materials in your classroom!
Painting Our Emotions Through Nature - Collect nature items as utensils and materials to create paintings of our many different emotions.
From Seeds to Trees - Combine movement, regulation strategies, and nature together and you get this peaceful and informative activity. Keep this idea in your back pocket for any time children need a moment to stretch and refocus.
Mindfulness Nature Adventure - Practicing mindfulness can help us feel centered, more present, and more in touch with our feelings and emotions. What better way to feel more attuned with ourselves than by going out into nature? Guide children to channel their energy through their senses, express their feelings appropriately, and learn a regulation strategy with this calming mindfulness activity.
Nature Faces - Help children “branch” out with their emotional identification skills with this nature-themed activity!
Recycling Center - Design and create a recycling center in your classroom using recycled materials! Make labels and sort recyclable items into the correct bins. How many stations do you need?
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