When I first began teaching I kept hearing about teaching by using themes. Different teachers did this in different ways. Some teachers prefer to do weekly themes while others do monthly themes. It all varies. As I thought about what I wanted my kids to learn and the type of growth I wanted to see, I didn’t see how themes would fit into my classroom. I am not saying that teachers that use themes are wrong, but if you are like me and have the same questions then I would love to talk to you about it. The reason themes did not seem to work for me is because it seemed trivial. Why do kids have to learn about snow and only snow for this particular week and extended period of time. Did the teachers who do this really want them to learn about snow and if so why? What was so important about snow? Or was this just a time filler. Something to do so that adults can feel like kids are learning? What is the significance? What do kids need to be learning in this time and what can we do to facilitate that’? These are the types of questions I wondered and after careful pondering I realized what would work for me.
What I am about to say is not new. Many teachers that use the Reggio Emilia approach already use a similar approach, but it was out of the norm for me. No one in my environment did things this way, and I had to sort of tread into new territory and experiment. I realized what I really wanted kids to learn were intellectual skills. I wanted them to develop their problem solving skills, creativity, logic, etc. Having these skills would help them in their future endeavors as they had to learn more academic skills, but it really did not matter if 3-5 year olds new about the butterfly life cycle or about snow as some other teachers seemed kids had to do. The way they really worked the little kids made me think they thought this was really important and I tried to understand why it would be, but it never seemed important to me. So I decided to watch the kids and to let them tell me what they wanted to learn about. So while I never chose a set of themes for us to discuss we did actually learn about quite a few things which was theme like. The kids were interested in kites, dinosaurs, trains, cooking, seasons, worms, and bears this year. I never chose these themes and I never chose for how long we would explore these ideas. I simply followed what the kids were doing. For example, the kids pursued their learning of kites the entire school year. I saw their problem solving skills and fine motor skills develop throughout the year as they continued to make kites. It was interesting to see a child that had learned the previous day that the wind could make the hole rip and therefore make the kite unusable the following day punch a bunch of holes so that if that were to happen he could simply tie his string around another hole on his kite. I watched children come up with all sorts of back up plans for all the scenarios they saw occur during their play time with the kites.
A similar thing occurred when we learned about worms. Spring was approaching and with it came a lot of rain. The students became intrigued with the worms and began to play with them during recess. Of course they asked if we could take them inside, but I did not know anything about worms and neither did they so we decided we needed to first figure out how to take care of the worms before we could bring them inside. The kids came in after recess and we researched how to take care of worms together. The following day the kids helped with acquiring the things we needed to make a worm farm. During this process, the kids worked on their research skills and on their ability to ask questions. I could have never planned any activity that would require such learning as these activities did. Because it was what the children were interested in, they continued to practice and to try again as they would fail because they really wanted to fly a kite or because they really wanted to hold a worm. In a natural setting, the kids learned about nature and being kind to all living things. Prior to them engaging with the worms the kids had not cared about squishing all sorts of bugs, but once we had our own bugs in the classroom I heard the children all on their own expressing their want to be kind to the bugs and to not step on them.
If you have not tried this way of teaching yet in your preschool classroom, I deeply recommend it. You don’t have to go all in. Everyone has their own measures of comfort, but I can assure you that when you do you will never want to go back. These types of learning experiences can simply not be planned, but we can learn to be flexible enough to let them naturally occur and unfold when they do happen.
May 29 2016