Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How We Went from the Farm to a Phone Booth.

My totally cool colleagues created a phone booth for the children. How did we get to a phone booth? By emergent curriculum and the Project Approach.

Curriculum that emerges out of the interests of children and teachers has been very important to Early Childhood Education, at least in the preschool years when standardized testing has yet to make an appearance. It is a concept carefully explained in a multitude of textbooks from which I teach, and you can find many resources by googling the term. I want to describe a process from my own center, so that its example can be examined by others. Everything that emerges doesn't necessarily have to be extended or studied, but sometimes they are, and they become a project. In this case, a metamorphosizing project.

So how did a dramatic play area be transformed from a farm to a grocery store and then to a grocery store with an old fashioned (British-style) phone booth in it? Was this whimsy? Well,...yes, but read on!

In October we went on our annual field trip to the Potomac Vegetable Farm.. The children enjoyed a hayride, a walk through plantings both common and uncommon (who would have thought Coltsfoot was grown in a vegetable farm, but it is commonly used in stews in England. My teaching partner, Sue, told the children about eating it in wonderful, aromatic stews as a child growing up in Australia. We also ate cherry tomatoes straight off of the vines. Yum!)

The children enjoyed the pigs and hens. One girl almost fell into the pig pen by leaning as far out as she could. She wanted to pet a pig!
We ended with a picnic, and buying vegetables for our afternoon snack table at the center.

The dramatic play area quickly became a farm. The children made vegetables for planting, and used masking tape for rows. No, we did not use plastic vegetables. They are very colorful and fun, but they cut out a step necessary to our approach: The children need to do whatever they can to contribute to the project. We don't magically do it for them. They have ownership, an important part of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Fine motor skills get their due, without artificial activities to practice them.
After a while the farm idea got old. The children didn't play in it anymore and at the same time they began showing an interest in cooking and recipe writing. So...
I put out flower, oatmeal, sugar, salt, spices and water. I told them they needed to "write" a recipe before they cooked. So they drew pictures and invented spelling of the ingredients they wanted in their cooking, and "followed" the recipe on trays. We even put some of the concoctions into little cups, and put them in the fridge to see how they would change. The children predicted results ranging from actual cookies to "mush!". They wanted to cook again and again I decided that they needed to actually do the real thing. With Thanksgiving approaching we decided to make applesauce and pumpkin pudding. Of course they wrote recipes, first! The amazing thing about an emergent curriculum is that writing practice is painless. Children are motivated to use the tools of emergent and developmental writing when they have something they dearly want to do! Each child participates at his or her own level.

Pretend Cooking
Pretend cooking and actual cooking easily introduced the idea of where the crops go from the farm. Children are very much aware of grocery stores and what they can (and sometimes can't) get from them! They began bringing in empty cartons and containers from home. Our amazing teacher, Carrie, made shelving, and they were stocked by the children. We hauled out the toy cash registers. Did we use play money? NO! The children were more than happy to produce money at an alarming rate, and much of it had numbers on it (Ah ha! There's that emergent math!). They learned through trial and error that the money needed to fit the cash register drawers so they began cutting it down. All the while they were shopping and checking people out, taking their food "home" to the library and the loft. Social skills were tested through negotiating who would be checkers and who would shop. I suggested creating a crew of "Night Stockers" but that was voted down by my colleagues. The children never see the night stockers. They aren't a part of their shopping experience.

Which brings us to the phone booth...

When I was little, every grocery store had some form of public phone either inside or out. In Australia, Sue says there are still red, British-style phone booths. Phone booths are a part of our childhood memories, not of our students'. But we described them, each in turn, to the children, emphasizing that, once upon a time, people didn't carry phones in their pockets! There were public phones and people actually stood in line to use them. The children were entranced.

So Carrie and Sue made one out of cardboard, plastic, paint and duct tape. And the children began lining up to use it. It was and is a delight for all of us.

So here it is, a documentation of a series of projects and activities that emerged through the day to day life of a multi-age classroom of three and four year olds. I didn't even mention the books we read as part of our work with the children, but there were many. There was probably more we could have done. But having done this much has been a joy for everyone. And the emergence of curriculum will doubtless continue.