At SEEC we believe that children who are encouraged and enabled to explore the things they are curious about will develop a lifelong love for learning. Children learn best when they are able to make meaningful connections, so SEEC fosters that natural “emerging” curiosity and desire for knowledge by giving the children every opportunity to ask questions, find answers, and have hands-on, object-based experiences. We know that all of these things together create meaningful experiences, which is at the heart of learning for young children.
SEEC uses an Emergent, Museum/Community-Based Curriculum model in each of our classrooms from infants through Kindergarten. The emergent model means that each classroom may pursue a different topic, as dictated by the interests or needs of the children in that class. The classroom educators use that topic as a platform to provide experiences and learning opportunities that naturally foster curiosity and a sense of wonder, two important elements of SEEC’s philosophy. Learning research shows that children are more fully engaged when they are interested and invested in the topic being taught, and an emergent curriculum takes full advantage of this research. A classroom may pursue a topic for as little as a week or as long as six or more weeks, depending on the interest level of the children. As the class explores the topic, new questions or interests may emerge that change the initial direction of exploration or bring in new elements. Teachers follow the path that the children’s questions and exploration leads them, planning experiences and activities that encourage growth in all developmental areas. The children in turn learn how to ask questions, probe deeper, and find answers they were not expecting. They are able to make connections that are more meaningful because they are interested and curious about what they are exploring.
Museum and Community Visits
With three centers located inside two of the Smithsonian’s museums, SEEC is uniquely placed to incorporate objects and exhibits from surrounding museums and community into our lesson plans and daily explorations. The rich resources of the Smithsonian and the community offer a wonderful microcosm of life and are one of the main avenues through which this curriculum teaches the relevancy of skills to real life. These resources come in many forms, from collections and exhibitions to museum professionals, and are utilized by all ages at SEEC. It may be a single object within a museum collection or the entire exhibit that is the focus. It may also be a local construction site, public garden, or restaurant depending on the unit of explorations. Connecting the museum and community experiences to the classroom curriculum and to ideas that children can grasp is key. It’s important to remember that the curator’s goals for an exhibit may be very different than those of an infant/toddler/preschooler audience. A visit to the Dinosaur Hall maybe about measurement or scale rather than about prehistoric life. Of course, learning about prehistoric animals might be the goal on another day’s visit to the Hall.
Museum/community visits typically take place between a pre-activity such as a circle or book and follow up experiences back in the classroom that help reinforce the museum/community activity. The visits themselves are planned in an interactive way often incorporating a hands-on element and/or a game, song or short activity that relates to the object/exhibit. Even the youngest children at SEEC begin to learn their “Museum Manners:” We keep our hands on our own bodies, we use inside voices, and we use walking feet.
Development and Growth
The other benefit of the emergent approach is that educators are able to maintain the children’s attention better because they are focusing on that which is interesting to them. The emergent approach allows educators to create lesson plans that target specific areas of development while maintaining a love for learning. For example, a child who needs a little extra support with her fine motor abilities may normally show disinterest in these types of activities. However, if she’s interested in flowers and plants, gluing small pieces of paper petals (or even real petals) may help engage her. Another child might struggle to enter into play with her peers and, as a result, avoids dramatic play with others. However, she’s shown an interest in space and rockets so her teachers decided to create a rocket themed dramatic play area. This gives her some extra encouragement to explore this kind of play and thus, she is able to work more on developing her social skills.
Utilizing the museums and surrounding community also offers an opportunity for introducing, developing, and tying together individual skills and development in a meaningful way. Each skill is presented as one of many ways to process information, rather than isolation. Skills are also related to the real world and situations that children might encounter. For example, the study of shapes is a typical preschool skill that is part of almost any early childhood classroom. Taught in isolation, it means little to a child. However, a unit on transportation or construction offers a wonderful opportunity to study not only shapes, but also visual sequence, patterns, color, and language classification. At the same time, it presents the skills in the real world and shows their importance.
Math and Literacy
The instruction of these skills begins with our youngest ages and changes to match the development and needs of the children as they grow.