Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning 1

Table of Contents

Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning

The focus of the Final Project is to choose nine developmentally appropriate activities for young children. Your capability to effectively plan these activities demonstrates your mastery of the course learning outcomes and your ability to use your knowledge to plan effective activities for young children. Early childhood educators play an important role in the future success of children, and your ability to create effective curriculum experiences is a fundamental part of that.

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To prepare for this assignment,

  • Please refer to the Week 5 Guidance for further tips and examples that will support your success with this discussion.
  • Review and download the ECE 203 Activity Template. 
    • There are nine required sections total: Science/Sensory, Language and Literacy, Creativity, Fine motor (please choose an indoor activity), Gross motor (please choose an outdoor activity), Self-Concept, Emotional Skills/ Regulation, Social Skills, and Math.
    • Read the required resources for this week and consider reviewing the recommended resources as well.

Remember that any applicable resource used throughout this course can support the requirement for four scholarly resources for this assignment.

  • If you did not begin the development of your ePortfolio in ECE 101, read Portfolium Student Guide to help you set up your ePortfolio.
    • Choose an area of focus:
      • Center-Based Preschool (3, 4, or 5 years old)
      • Center-Based Infant/Toddler (young infants, mobile infants, or toddlers)
      • Early Childhood (4–8 years old)
  • In your assignment, create a nine-page Word document that addresses the following:
    For the Center-Based Preschool Option
  • Complete each section of the ECE 203 Activity Template.
    • To complete the sections for a Center-Based Preschool:
      • Indicate the age group (3s, 4s or 5s).
      • List the intended goals.
      • List all of the materials that will be needed for each activity.
      • Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity.
      • Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

For the Center-Based Infant/Toddler Option

Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning
  • Complete each section of the Activity Template.
    • To complete the sections for a Center-Based Infant/Toddler:
      • Indicate the age group (3s, 4s or 5s). Of the nine activities, three should be appropriate for young infants, three for mobile infants and three for toddlers.
      • List the intended goals.
      • List all of the materials that will be needed for each activity.
      • Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity.
      • Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

For the Early Childhood (4–8 Years Old) Option

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  • Complete each section of the Activity Template
    • To complete the sections for Early Childhood:
      • Indicate the age group (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
      • List the intended goals.
      • List all of the materials that will be needed for each activity.
      • Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity.
      • Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

For this assignment, you must submit

  • A link to your electronic portfolio in Portfolium. To do this you will copy and paste the Web address into the comments feature in Waypoint.
  • A Word document including your completed assignment, as well as the link to your ePortfolio.
  • Click on the Assignment Submission button. The Waypoint “Student Dashboard” will appear.
  • Browse for your assignment.
  • Click Upload.
  • Confirm that your assignment was successfully submitted by viewing the appropriate week’s assignment tab in Waypoint, or clicking on Check Assignment Status within the Meet Your Instructor unit in the left navigation panel.

The Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning project:

Weekly Learning Outcomes

1. Create a plan for a literacy backpack.

2. Choose developmentally appropriate activities for young children.

3. Analyze the developmental appropriateness of activities for young children.

Week 5 Overview

Congratulations and welcome to week five of ECE203!  This week we culminate our class with a few topics that seek to add to our knowledge gained in previous weeks and to further enhance your ability to plan effective activities for your students.  We will focus our attention on cognitive development through our choices of developmentally appropriate learning choices and literacy activities.  Just as in week four, this fifth and final week affords you the opportunity to put the information you have gained in ECE203 to practical use. 

The literacy backpack and the final project are both concrete activities that you can utilize at the culmination of this course to demonstrate your knowledge of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the early childhood classroom.  The time and effort you are putting into your learning now will benefit you throughout your career, so continue to take the time to learn and grow and be the very best educator you can possibly be.  Our nation’s children are worth it!

Starfish (an inspirational message for all teachers) (Links to an external site.)

Discussion 1: Literacy Backpacks

“Language is essential to society, forming the foundation for our perceptions, communications, and daily interactions with others” (Kostelnik et al., 2014, p. 243).  Oral language in early childhood is fostered through many things such as conversations with adults and peers, pretend play, singing, questioning, etc. Oral language is also fostered through the daily reading of different genres of literature.  Children who are lucky enough to have lots of experience with nursery rhymes for example, “will have more highly developed phonological awareness” (p. 245).  Phonological awareness is the ability to hear the similarities and differences in the sounds of words or parts of words.  Also, allowing children to have fun with words through poems, music, rhymes, “silly words (goopy, soupy, boopy) and even nonsense words (anana, tabana, fanan)” will lay the strong foundation they need to connect language to literacy (p. 245).

Utilizing different genres and creating language and literacy activities that are engaging, interactive, and fun is an important part of the early childhood classroom. The concept of a thematic literacy bag, sometimes called a story sack, or backpack, has been used within the classroom, as well as an at home activity to support positive literacy experiences. These thematic bags include several language and literacy activities that support children’s learning. Literacy backpacks are often used to introduce literacy at home. The home-school connection is important, and having children share literacy that they are reading at school with their families is a great way to form this connection.  How to Make Awesomely Effective Literacy Bags (Links to an external site.) not only explains in detail what a literacy bag is, but provides useful tips on what should be placed in a literacy backpack before it is sent home. Below are two useful videos that demonstrate the benefit of literacy backpacks. 

Hug That Book — A Literacy Programme Ups the Ante (Links to an external site.)

Do Your Ears Hang Low, Story Sack (Links to an external site.)

Initial Post: For your initial post:

· Create a plan for a literacy backpack that can be used within the center, classroom or at home. Your post must include:

· A visual of what your bag might look like. You can use whichever graphics program you choose to create the visual (e.g., the drawing tools in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint). Be sure to attach your visual to your initial post.

· Instructor Tip: Your visual should be something that attracts your age group but also promotes literacy. Could you spell out each child’s name on their literacy bag or add a design that signifies their reading level? How can you make your literacy backpacks unique?

· Instructor Tip: To display you image you can take a screen shot of this image and upload it. Please visit How to Take a Screen Shot of What’s on Your Computer (Links to an external site.) for details.

· A description of the theme of your bag and introduction to the bag (e.g., Back to School, Seasons of the Year, Animals, Apples, Feelings and Emotions).

· Instructor Tip: When choosing your theme, choose theme topics that cover a wide variety of things. For example, if you choose the season of Fall, you have limited your book choices, and the children in your classroom may have no interest in Fall. By choosing a wider topic such as Seasons, you have allowed for a wider literacy selection that may be appealing to more students.

· An explanation of the developmental level/age that you would use the activities with.

· Instructor Tip: What age would best suit your theme and literacy choices? Keeping in mind everything that we learned about DAP, what do you feel makes your activities appropriate for your age group?

· Three developmentally appropriate literature selections that could be read to the child, including the title and author.

· Instructor Tip: Checking out your local book store or websites such as Barnes and Noble (Links to an external site.)Scholastic (Links to an external site.), and Amazon (Links to an external site.) will help you choose from a wide variety of children’s books. Use this information as a resource when selecting literature.

· Three open-ended questions that the child could discuss after reading the stories.

· Instructor Tip: Open-ended questions are questions that leave room for interpretation. An example of an open-ended question would be, “What did you think about the two characters in the story who were crying?” This question allows you to engage your student in further discussion. A close-ended question is a question with a definitive answer. An example of a close-ended question would be, “Did you like the story?” This response will not allow you to have further discussion with your student. Be sure to ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer.

· Three activities which reflect reading/writing for the developmental level.

· Instructor Tip: This will depend on the age group you have chosen. Remember that DAP is based on what your age group is capable of. Refer to your text to review developmental milestones. Once you have reviewed the milestones, match your activities with each milestone. This will help you ensure that your three activities are age appropriate.

· Three language activities that could be done with the child.

· Instructor Tip: How can you raise phonological awareness? Can you add songs, use poems, or chant while marching? How can you increase language in your classroom?

· Three manipulatives or additional items that could be added to the bag, with a rationale of why they are important. For example, you may wish to include a puzzle or a stuffed animal that is related to the theme.

· Instructor Tip: This is a chance to create that home school connection. What could be added to your literacy backpack that is meaningful to not only learning, but also enhances the home school connection? Could you add a note to the families explaining the book choices for the week? Could you provide a sticker chart that can be added to each time the child reads a story? What can you add that serves as a tool both at school and at home?

 Guided Response: Review several of your peers’ posts. Respond to two peers, offering a reflection of the bag from the perspective of a family member who used it with their child. Describe what the strengths are about their bag for addressing the concept of literacy development. Is there anything you would do differently? Constructively provide that feedback for your peer as well. For example, you might say, “The questions were well written and help extend the content in the story,” or, “The story was engaging, however it was rather difficult and long to read. I might recommend a story that fits the developmental level more appropriately.”  Additionally, suggest one way that the peer can supplement their bag by including an activity for a non-English speaking child and family.

· Instructor Tip: As you engage with your peers, take some time to reflect on their ideas. Was there anything you felt was missing? Could you think of anything to add to their literacy backpack? By providing suggestions and thoughts you are helping your peers grow as learners.

Final Project: Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning

This entire course has been devoted to understanding the individual components of curriculum, instruction and assessment, as well as how each is interconnected.  We have discussed how to assess our students, how to create a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and how to individualize our instruction.  We have even practiced creating individual content lessons.  Now, for the culmination of this course you are asked to plan in a more in-depth manner.  

The Developmentally Appropriate Activity Plan is designed to provide you with the opportunity to display the knowledge you have gained these last five weeks. As you plan nine developmentally appropriate activities, utilize what you have learned about DAP, learning environments, and lesson planning. While planning each activity it is important that you keep in mind the materials that you may need. The Preschool Materials Guide (Links to an external site.) provides a list of materials that should be placed in each learning environment. The following video provides some DAP activity examples that can help you when creating your activities.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (Links to an external site.)

Be sure that you include each one of the requirements listed below.  To assist you with completing each component, an example of the activity sheet has been provided below.  Before beginning the activity think about your age group. Utilize the Center for Disease Control’s Developmental Milestones (Links to an external site.). This will help remind you of what your chosen age group is capable of. Then think about your goal. What is it you want the children to achieve? Your goal can be something simple. For example, if the milestone is a gross motor one, you goal will be for the child to improve his gross motor skills (see example below). Then you will write about the activity that will help the child achieve the goal you have set. This means that you will write a gross motor activity, for this section. When writing this activity, remember to keep in mind all the materials you will need to complete it (see example below). You will do the same for each section.  Remember, it is important in your final assignment that you show a complete understanding of each area of development. So, review the material you have learned these past five weeks and get creative!

Below is an example of one of the completed activities might look (be sure you do not copy this example):     

In your assignment, create a 9 – 11-page word document that addresses the following:

· For the Center-Based Preschool Option

· Complete each section of the Activity Template

· To complete the sections for a Center-Based Preschool:

· Indicate the age group (3s, 4s or 5s)

· List the intended goals

· List all the materials that will be needed for each activity

· Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity

· Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

· Instructor Tip: Preschoolers are mostly verbal and able to follow directionality. Keep in mind however, that there may be a wide range of developmental skill.  How will your activities be developmentally appropriate for everyone in your class?

· For the Center-Based Infant/Toddler Option

· Complete each section of the Activity Template

· To complete the sections for a Center-Based Infant/Toddler:

· Indicate the age group (3s, 4s or 5s) – Of the nine activities, three should be appropriate for young infants, three for mobile infants and three for toddlers.

· List the intended goals

· List all the materials that will be needed for each activity

· Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity

· Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

· Instructor Tip: Infants and Toddlers can range widely in their developmental abilities. Some children may have more language and have progressed further in their gross motor development than others. Keep this in mind when planning for this age group. With such a wide range, how will you adjust activities so they are developmentally appropriate for everyone?

· For the Early Childhood (4 – 8 years old) Option

· Complete each section of the Activity Template

· To complete the sections for Early Childhood:

· Indicate the age group (4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

· List the intended goals

· List all the materials that will be needed for each activity

· Explain in detail the process/teaching strategies that will be used for each activity

· Specify how each activity is developmentally appropriate for that age group.

· Instructor Tip: To keep their attention, older children will need hands on activities that engage their interests. How will your activities engage the students in your classroom?

For this assignment, you must submit

· A link to your electronic portfolio in Portfolium. To do this you will copy and paste the web address into the comments feature in Waypoint.

· A Word document including your completed assignment, as well as the link to your ePortfolio.

· Instructor Tip: If you need assistance in your writing please reach out to the Ashford Writing Center. It has many resources to assist you and is there to help!“Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions-opening doors for them in places they just could not imagine”- Yawar BaigReferencesAll images used under license from istockBerk, (2013). Child development (9th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.Eliason, C. & Jenkins, L. (2012). A practical guide to early childhood curriculum (9th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.Required ResourcesRequired TextJaruszewicz, C. (2019).  Curriculum and methods for early childhood educators  [Electronic version]. Retrieved from· Chapter 11: Language, Literacy, and Language ArtsWeb PagesMissy Gardiner Weeks. (n.d.). Literacy bags (Links to an external site.). Retrieved from· This web page offers several visual examples of literacy bags for the preschool and elementary classroom. This resource will be useful for completing the Literacy Backpacks discussion. Accessibility Statement does not exist. Privacy Policy (Links to an external site.) Pre-K Pages. (n.d.). Take home backpacks (Links to an external site.). Retrieved from· This web page showcases several ideas for Buddy Bags that can be implemented in preschool literacy programs. This resource will be useful for completing the Literacy Backpacks discussion. Accessibility Statement does not exist Privacy Policy (Links to an external site.) Recommended ResourcesSupplemental MaterialZaur, J., & Bodamer, K. (n.d.).  Early childhood and child development: Lesson plan handbook . Retrieved from· This supplement is a Constellation course digital materials (CDM) title. This handbook provides students with information about how to create an effective lesson plan and may assist in the Developmentally Appropriate Activity Planning project. Accessibility Statement does not exist. Privacy Policy does not exist.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe factors that affect the planning context.
  • Describe important considerations for planning the environment.
  • Explain the types of resources available to teachers for planning.
  • Describe a continuum of approaches to planning and how they are similar and different.


Now that you have met your children and their families, collected information, and considered many ways to connect with them in the context of your community, its time to begin planning curriculum activities and how you will set up the environment to support them. Remember from Chapter 2 that you have the printed material accompanying the comprehensive curriculum used in your school and the supplementary literacy program that specifically targets at-risk learners. You also have your administrators assurance that you will have a good bit of freedom to make your own decisions as long as they are consistent with the curriculums goals.

Your teaching space has some nice featuresnotably access to a lavatory for the children inside the room, plenty of natural light from windows along one wall, a door to the adjacent playground, a classroom sink with counter space, a variety of child-sized furniture and movable storage units, and a storage closet. It also presents challenges that will affect how you will arrange your space, including where some of the above features are located, a limited number of electrical outlets, and permanently installed carpeting in one part of the room. With all of this in mind, how might you begin making decisions about how to arrange the classroom?

In addition to thinking about how to organize the physical environment, you might ask yourself several additional questions as you begin to plan your curriculum activities. What approach will you take to organize your ideas? How will you plan curriculum activities in ways that are developmentally appropriate and flexible? How will you make sure you are addressing learning standards? This chapter focuses on practical strategies for effective planning.

From the Field

Preschool teachers Jennifer and Elise discuss the importance of communication between teaching colleagues.

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. How do you feel about working with another teacher or assistant teacher?
  2. What will you do to begin establishing an effective, professional relationship?

6.1Contextual Factors That Affect Planning

Regardless of where you teach, your circumstances (or context) will impact your planning. Among the most important factors that affect planning are the curriculum, the children, their families, your teaching colleagues, and the physical settingthe building and learning spaces.

The Planning Context

Whether you are given a curriculum to implement or expected to select or design curriculum yourself, planning should be a responsive process. You will need to balance planned activities with what you observe about the needs, interests, and characteristics of children. (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Gestwicki, 2011).

To varying degrees, the type of early childhood setting in which you work will influence how planning occurs. Home-care providers are typically independent and care for the widest age range of children in the same setting. They have to plan and implement care and activities for infants and toddlers as well as preschoolers and school-age children. Early childhood educators in child-care centers or preschools may have considerable flexibility or be expected to implement a particular curriculum. In primary classrooms, especially in the public schools, planning will likely be closely correlated with prescribed curriculum, state learning standards, and designated assessment procedures.

Context can also influence the planning tools you use and your accountability for them. Some teachers may be given or expected to use a planning book or specific forms on which to write their plans. You might be required to turn in plans weekly, monthly, or on some other schedule for review by a supervisor. Most state child-care licensing regulations also require that current/ongoing activity plans be prominently displayed and shared with parents. For example, the Pennsylvania Regulationreads as follows:

3270.111 Daily activities.

(a) A written plan of daily activities and routines, including a time for free play shall be established for each group. The plan shall be flexible to accommodate the needs of individual children and the dynamics of the group.

(b) The written plan shall be posted in the group space.

More From the Field

Program director Rita Palet explains the importance of professional preparation, chemistry, and give-and-take in teaching relationships.

Critical Thinking Question

  1. What would you do if you were paired with a teacher whose views about learning and curriculum differ significantly from yours?

Even if you are wholly in charge of your class or group of children, you may have a coteacher or assistant, or you may be part of a bigger teaching team, which means that other individuals will influence or perhaps have some control over your planning. Teachers in a center or school, for example, often plan collaboratively, as a group, by grade or age level. Further, the extent to which your ideas are incorporated into plans may be influenced by the group dynamics or competing points of view. For example, if you plan with a team of two lead teachers and two assistants, one of those individuals may tend to dominate conversation or another may be reluctant to consider trying new strategies. These are issues that would have to be worked out as you developed a collaborative approach to sharing ideas.

Finally, the physical setting within which learning takes place will impact your planning. You will have to consider what space you have, how the classroom will be arranged, what space you must share with other classes, and so on. Your planning for both the physical environment and activities will certainly have to consider how to reflect the diversity and cultural characteristics, experiences, and interests of the children and families in your group.

Integrating Developmental Principles and Beliefs

In considering our opening vignette, you may have wondered how an open-ended, comprehensive play-based curriculum could be compatible with planning and scheduling for a teacher-directed supplemental literacy program. Curricular activities may be conceptually organized by developmental domains or by academic content areas, but the planning process for any curriculum should prioritize and integrate developmentally appropriate principles and strategies.

For example, you can plan a literacy activity that focuses on identifying beginning word sounds as small-group or one-on-one interactions at the beginning or end of a large block of free-choice time rather than as a whole-group lesson. This way, childrens play is not interrupted; you maximize opportunities for interpersonal interactions and control the time and frequency of these activities for the capabilities of each individual child. Likewise, a curriculum or program that requires a whole-group “circle time” for 3-year-olds should challenge you to plan a format for such a time that is interactive, enjoyable, meaningful, and no longer than the children can reasonably be expected to manage.

As the teacher, your thoughtful approach to planning will be based on your observations, record keeping, and interactions with the children, ensuring that:

  • Themes and topics of study support program goals and curriculum objectives but curriculum is not “one-size fits all,” so that children have ongoing opportunities for activities and experiences that support their individual interests and developmental characteristics
  • Teacher-directed and child-initiated activities are balanced
  • The curriculum is flexible and adaptable to accommodate learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly
  • Children can offer questions and ideas that are incorporated in planning of future activities
  • The environment and curriculum reflect and honor the real lives of the children and their families
  • Planning balances active and quiet times and individual, small-group, and whole-group interactions
  • Exploratory play is supported as an important mode of learning

Effective planning integrates the key themes of this book: (1) understanding the theoretical and/or philosophical foundation of the curriculum; (2) knowledge of human growth and development; (3) coordinating integration of the roles you, as the teacher, families, and communities assume as curriculum informants; (4) identification of curriculum content that supports childrens needs and interests; and (5) choosing and enacting developmentally appropriate teaching and assessment strategies.

Table 2.7 in Chapter 2 provides a simple format for organizing your essential ideas and beliefs so that you can compare them with ideas represented in various curricula you may be interested in or asked to use. In planning, you apply these ideas as an action plan (Nilsen, 2010). For example, Mary, a kindergarten teacher in South Carolina, knows that one of the physical science standards relates to exploring matter, “Standard K.P.4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the observable properties of matter.” The indicator for this standard (K.P.4A.1) reads: “Analyze and interpret data to compare the qualitative properties of objects (such as size, shape, color, texture, weight, flexibility, attraction to magnets, or ability to sink or float) and classify objects based on similar properties” (South Carolina Department of Education, 2014, p. 10). She knows that this standard can be addressed through explicit teaching about the concept, but her constructivist belief that children learn science concepts through exploration of the environment and materials leads to intentional planning for that learning to occur naturally.

Table 6.1 represents what her broad plan for a given week might include to support open-ended inquiry about the observable properties of water. Shell build the activities around the use of a water table.

Table 6.1: Water Table Activities
Prompts and Facilitation StrategiesMaterials
MondayGenerate and record ideas about why objects sink or float in water; examine a variety of materials for experimentation; chart childrens predictionsPaper clips; marbles; recycled styrofoam packing peanuts trays and soda/water bottles; paper plates; bottle caps; wood scraps; aluminum foil; paper cups; play dough; small rocks and sticks; string; rubber bands; tooth picks; plastic straws
TuesdayDiscuss ideas about how children could make a boat that will float in water; construct and test in the water table; record observations; photograph or videotape the water table as a work in progress
FridayConstruct a diagram (sink/float/both) with the children to organize observations made over the week; compare with their original predictions; begin a book with images or drawings of the boats and transcription of childrens tentative answers to the question of why a boat floats; generate new questions about sinking and floating to continue inquiry

6.2Creating a Physical Environment for Your Curriculum

A young boy stands at a water table and transfers water from one container to another.

Susan Woog-Wagner / Getty Images

Children use a variety of materials to explore concepts about water, including different-sized containers (in which they can pour the water back and forth) and objects that sink and float.

The physical environment is a powerful messenger, and “every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who use the space and the activities that take place there . . . each environment also influences the people who use it in subtle or dramatic ways” (Carter & Carter, 2003, p. 13).

Thinking and making decisions about how to design and arrange classroom spaces has been influenced by many individuals. Friedrich Froebel introduced the idea of materials specifically created to support the way young children learn. Maria Montessori pioneered the use of child-sized furniture and the careful organization of materials. Rudolph Steiner promoted the use of natural materials and a homelike environment. Elizabeth Jones and Elizabeth Prescotts work in the 1970s also emphasized the importance of a homelike environment and the idea that teachers should look to the environment as a source for solving problems (Prescott, 2004). For example, if you observed that children in an activity area were not sharing, a comparison of the number of things to do with the number of children using the center might suggest that additional materials need to be added (Prescott, 2004, p. 35).

Diane Trister-Dodge and David Weikert applied all of these ideas to the Creative Curriculum and High Scope classrooms. Finally, the Reggio Emilia programs demonstrate how planning an environment is driven by respect for the rights of the child to a beautiful, welcoming space that promotes relationships and attention to detail.

This section of the chapter will address how your curriculum influences the indoor physical environment, principles of good design, and aesthetics. Considerations for planning the outdoor environment are addressed in Chapter 8.

Does Your Curriculum Dictate or Provide Direction?

Given the innumerable different kinds of locations, classroom shapes, sizes, and building designs, it would be almost impossible for a curriculum to dictate exactly what a classroom or care space should look like. Curricula do, however, to varying degrees, implicitly or explicitly suggest and guide decisions about what equipment and materials are needed and how activity spaces should support childrens play, learning, and development.

For example, Montessori programs are expected to have at least a minimal set of designated materials arranged in a defined sequence and according to particular design principles. Creative Curriculum identifies ten distinct activity centers and gives teachers guidance about suggested materials for each. High Scope and Creative Curriculum teachers are also expected to label shelves and materials with pictures and/or words. The literacy curriculum mentioned in the opening vignette might come with a particular set of books, manipulative materials, and teacher resources with directions to store or display them in a prescribed sequence or order.

Other curriculum approaches set forth desired goals for what the environment should be designed to achieve as well as the particular elements it should include, but they assume that each classroom will also have its own unique character. For instance, the atelier or miniatelier feature of Reggio Emilia programs and classrooms (introduced in Chapter 2) is expected to include art and an array of interesting recycled materials arranged in an organized and aesthetically pleasing manner (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998).

In Waldorf education, according to teacher Sarah Baldwin (2012), “A Waldorf kindergarten is typically furnished to look much like a home, with silk curtains, wool rugs, a rocking chair, and wooden tables and chairs. Teachers consciously choose playthings for the classroom that will nourish a young childs senses and sheathe them in beauty. Toys found in the classroom are made from natural fiber and materials.”

Regardless of a curriculums specifics, the teacher will plan the environment according to generally accepted ideas about good design for developmentally appropriate spaces to be used by young children.

What General Principles Should Guide Environmental Planning?

More From the Field

Director Lucia Garay describes the elements of planning that result in an effective learning environment.

Critical Thinking Question

  1. Lucia says, “the environment becomes the curriculum.” What does she mean by that?

Early childhood space planning is guided by general principles adapted to the specific needs of children and curricular priorities at different ages. All early childhood classrooms need a balance of functional, formal, and informal spaces (Shalaway, 2012; Swim, 2012). The classroom or care space should include functional areas for greeting and departure, storage of childrens personal belongings, feeding/dining, and toileting; it should be clean and organized. Furniture and activity areas should be arranged to provide for visual supervision at all times. Early childhood spaces must include equipment appropriate to the size of the children, with visual materials posted or displayed at the childs eye level.

Variations by Age

In an infant classroom, you would expect to see furniture and designated areas for diapering, feeding, sleeping, and playing with babies. A mobile might be suspended over a crib or floor mat in the childs line of sight, as infants spend some of their time lying on their backs looking up. Furniture will include rocking chairs for feeding, holding, and soothing and floor items and soft toys that encourage crawling, grasping, and exploring.

Toddler spaces need access to a bathroom as well as diapering, and also equipment designed for children who are now vertical and active much of the time, with designated areas for exploring their emerging interest in gross motor activities, dramatic play, books, and sensory activities. Children may now be napping on cushioned mats or cots that can be stored until needed. Small tables and chairs are appropriate for feeding times but may have to include high-chair seating as well as small chairs. Pictures and mirrors can be mounted where children can see them on the walls, and selected materials may be arranged on low shelves where toddlers can reach them.

Preschool furniture will be slightly larger than that for toddlers, with additional areas and materials that support a wide variety of curricular activities, a longer attention span, more refined fine-motor skills, a growing interest in reading, writing, and collaborative play. Children at this age can tend to many of their personal needs independently, and their expanded field of vision allows for additional possibilities for visual displays.

Safety First

All decisions about how a classroom space is arranged should be made with safety in mind. Water-absorbing washable mats can be purchased that limit the risk of slipping or falling. Electrical cords or outlets should not be left exposed, taped to the floor, or used near water. Materials should always be approved for the age of children using them. We mentioned in Chapter 4 the use of a choke tube for infants and toddlers; this device alerts the teacher or caregiver to materials that are not safe for use.

Children with asthma or allergies may be especially vulnerable to things like powdered paints, chalk, or sprays. Every teacher should have a working knowledge of applicable child-care regulations and current access to consumer product safety announcements and recalls.

Controlled Movement

Well-thought-out spaces for young children are designed for controlled movement; they provide secure work/play spaces and reduce opportunities for conflict (Carter & Carter, 2003; Shalaway, 2005). Furniture and equipment are arranged to provide visible boundaries so that children know where different types of activities are expected to occur (Deviney, Duncan, Harris, Roday, & Rosenberry, 2010; Swim, 2012). Teachers use furniture, equipment, and floor coverings such as area rugs to define spaces. Because young children are not yet abstract thinkers, they must be able to see where one space ends and another begins.

The classroom is also designed to provide logical “traffic patterns” that promote efficient movement from one place to another and dont cause interference with normal activities. Imagine how upset a child setting up wooden train tracks would be if other children came charging through the space and ruined her work!

Early childhood furniture is child-sized, so that an adult scanning the room can see everything, while from the childs perspective, there are “walls,” pathways, and “rooms.” Look at the two room plans shown in Figure 6.1. Which one would encourage running or confuse children about where to play? Which one provides clear dividing lines between activity areas? Which space encourages whole-group activities vs. small-group or individual interactions?

Figure 6.1: Floor Plans

These two spaces represent contrasting approaches to design, one which encourages running indoors (Room A) and the other (Room B) with distinct pathways to direct children’s movements.

Figure: Two floor plans. Room A, on the left, is a very open space with tables, shelves and easels lined up against walls to create a large open space in the middle of the room. Room B, on the right, uses shelves to define distinct spaces and limit the amount of open space to confined areas.

Sensitivity to Physical Features

Teachers should be aware of the major permanent features of the physical space and use common sense to arrange furniture and equipment accordingly. These features include the location of electrical outlets, doors, natural and artificial light and windows, access to water, and built-in storage spaces.

Potentially messy activity areas such as art, science, and sand/water stations should be located as close to the water source as possible and on a floor surface that can be mopped or cleaned easily. If there is no access to water in the classroom, then those areas should be close to the nearest exit to where water is located. Activities that require electrical power, such as a listening center with a plug-in tape recording/headphone station, should be adjacent to an outlet, limiting the need for extension cords.

Furniture or learning center placement should complement usage, such as storage cubbies for childrens personal belongings/outerwear adjacent to the classroom entrance, open shelving for blocks, and individual containers or small trays for implements such as crayons, glue sticks, or scissors.

Designated Activity Areas and Capacity Limits

The number and size of learning centers depends on curriculum priorities as well as classroom and group size. We want to maximize childrens opportunities to make choices and work/play independently but also minimize conflicts over materials and space (Gestwicki, 2011; Swim, 2012). Each learning center should be equipped and sized to accommodate a particular number of children, such as four in the art center, three in the manipulative area, two in the listening center, and so on. The number of children an area accommodates should also take into consideration the nature of the activity. For example, dramatic play and block building occur best with a small group of children, while a light table or sand/water table will be limited by the size and capacity of the equipment.

The total number of children accommodated by learning centers should at least equal the number of children in the group. Marking the center with a symbol/sign indicating the number of children per center helps children know if they may enter or need to make a different choice until space is available. You can also provide physical cues or signs (Figure 6.2), such as a small table with two sets of headphones and two chairs for a listening center, or a four-sided easel with one piece of paper and set of paints/brushes on each side.

Promoting Independence and Responsibility

Spaces for early learning are designed to encourage independence and maximize the amount of time you can devote to interacting or observing work/play in progress (Carter & Carter, 2003; Gestwicki, 2011). Carefully arranging sorted materials in open baskets or clear totes on accessible shelves helps children know where things belong and conveys our expectation that they will put them away properly when finished. Taping a picture or tracing of the material that belongs on each shelf or in each container promotes cognitive skills such as sorting and one-to-one correspondence as well as providing organizational guidance. Children can also learn to internalize procedures such as toothbrushing, handwashing, or self-serve snacks by posting a sequence of photo or prompts for each step in the process.

However obvious your system and organization might seem to you, children will still need direction and modeling to help them learn how it works. Early childhood teachers spend time orienting new children to the classroom, showing them how to select and use materials and activity areas and how to put things away when they are finished.

Figure 6.2: Sign for Easel Painting Center

“Crowd control” can be facilitated by providing picture/symbol signs that indicate the capacity for each learning center. In this picture, three children may paint in the easel center at one time.

Sign reads, "Easel Painting" and shows three children at easels painting.

Young children dont have a well-developed sense of time; they also become deeply involved in activities and may resist being asked to stop when they are in the middle of working or playing. So it also makes sense to provide them with several minutes advance warning and a signal such as a small bell or flipping the light switch before cleanup times and a reasonable amount of time to finish cleaning up.

Activity Area Compatibility

Some curriculum activities are naturally compatible and others are not, so balancing environmental factors such as quiet/noisy or messy/dry is important (Conant, 2012; Swim, 2012). In a typical learning environment, noise and interaction levels will naturally vary depending on the type of activity. For example, it is not unusual for dramatic play and block centers to be noisy, and children may transport props (small figurines, vehicles, animals, play food, and so on) back and forth depending on the theme of play. Therefore, in most early childhood classrooms, these centers are typically located in adjacent areas or at least in very close proximity. Conversely, children listening to audiotapes or sitting on an adults lap listening to a story need quiet to hear and concentrate.

Separating noisy and quiet activities can be challenging, especially in smaller spaces. When possible, carpets or other acoustically absorbent materials can considerably cut down on noise levels and should be used in noisy areas, but they must also not impede activity. Thus, for example, a rug in the block center should be flat and have a very low pile so that block structures will be stable. Curtains, soft furniture, and pillows can also cut down noise in quiet areas while also providing a cozy, comfortable feeling.


Principles of design used to create aesthetically pleasing home or commercial environments can and should be applied to classroom or care spaces. Children and adults alike benefit from spaces that are soothing to the senses and inviting without being overwhelming or artificial (Deviney, Duncan, Harris, Roday & Rosenberry, 2010; Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1998). Early childhood commercial catalogs tend to feature plastic, brightly colored materials in primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) that are cheerful but do not necessarily promote the warmth and familiarity of a more homelike setting.

In their 2010 book Inspiring Spaces for Young Children, Jessica Deviney and her colleagues identify seven principles of good design to consider for establishing environments that are not only functional and efficient but also calming and inspiring to children and adults alike:

  • Use natural items to bring the outdoors in, reflect the local climate, and promote a sense of tranquility. Elements such as plants, rocks, seashells, twigs, and flowers provide pleasant sensory connections.
  • Color establishes mood and generates interest, but overdoing it creates “visual clutter.” A good rule of thumb is to focus on a neutral color scheme and use primary colors conservatively.
  • Use furniture positioned at 45- or 90-degree angles to define spaces and create cozy areas that remind children of home. Include authentic items such as lamps, pillows, upholstered furniture, and decorative/functional items that children recognize from the real world.
  • Texture adds depth and sensory stimulation. Items such as wall hangings, weavings, and mobiles made from natural materials provide visual interest. Natural or recycled materials such as pine cones, corks, bark, and stones can provide opportunities for observation and differentiating the physical properties of materials.
  • Displays, especially those that feature childrens collections and creations, personalize space. Items such as baskets, buckets, and interesting containers can be used for sorting, classification, and storage.
  • Lighting, scent, and sound dramatically influence the way the environment is experienced and perceived. Think about ways to minimize the “surgery” effects of fluorescent lights and balance low- and high-level lighting.
  • Focal points invite engagement and attract the childrens attention. It is very important from time to time to view the environment from their vantage point so you are aware of how they see the space.

Classroom on the left has no windows, the walls are covered with decorations, the shelves have brightly colored boxes, and the mat the children are sitting on is multi-colored. The classroom on the right has a large window, a more muted color scheme and there are plants.

Hutchings Richard / Getty Images (left); John Humble / Getty Images (right)

In these two photos of preschool classrooms, you can see that one is cluttered, crowded, and a kaleidoscope of colors; the other has natural light, natural elements such as plants, and a low-key color scheme. Which classroom better applies the principles described above?

6.3Identifying and Understanding Resources

Teachers and caregivers use many different kinds of resources and materials that help them select, organize, and evaluate activities to support curricular goals, objectives, and standards. Since early childhood curricular options (as discussed in Chapter 1) range from open-ended approaches to specific models, the types of materials teachers use to plan can vary widely as well. This section describes a variety of concrete tools and how you can use them in your planning.

Primary and Secondary Resources

Cover of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly journal.


Teachers must keep up with current research of all kinds but especially as it relates to the curricula they use.

Primary resources are works produced by the authors of a curriculum model or approach that describe the theoretical premises, philosophy, and tenets that guide the teacher to implement the curriculum with fidelity to its principles. For example, The Hundred Languages of Children, initially published in 1994 by Edwards, Gandini, and Forman (revised in 1998), and the writings of Loris Malaguzzi are considered essential resources for Reggio Emilia educators.

Secondary resources can also be very useful but do not originate from the founders or authors of a program. For example, secondary Reggio Emilia resources would include such things as books and articles published by authors outside of Reggio Emilia, and media such as blogs and program websites. These resources provide helpful insights into the ways in which teacher educators, program directors, and teachers interpret the Reggio Emilia approach for American schools and classrooms.

Waldorf educators rely on the writings of Rudolph Steiner to make sure that the classroom environment and activities they plan are consistent with the programs original vision and purpose. Similarly, officially sponsored training programs for Montessori teachers are based on and informed by the ideas expressed by Maria Montessori in the books she wrote over a span of many years.

Remember that planning for any curriculum includes keeping abreast of current studies (Chapter 2) and the ongoing development of the theories that support them. For example, in the second edition of their book, Bodrova and Leong (2006) described how Tools of the Mind was conceived from a Vygotskian perspective on social constructivism and continues to evolve. They have produced many subsequent publications and media presentations reporting on the achievement effects of implementation in various settings and how those results impact their ongoing conceptualization of the curriculum. Teachers using the Tools curriculum would certainly want to incorporate those evolving ideas as they plan activities.

The NAEYC publications describing developmentally appropriate principles and practices also serve as primary resources for early childhood educators (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Since DAP is not a specific curriculum but offers guidelines for how to think about curriculum, it provides the overarching frame of reference from which all planning decisions should be made.

Learning Standards

As explained in previous chapters, as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation, most states wrote developmental early learning standards and K-12 academic learning standards for each content area indicating what children are expected to know and be able to do by the end of each age or grade level. As of 2012, that initiative was expanded to adoption of uniform core standards for kindergarten through grade 12 math and language arts in all but five states (Virginia, Wisconsin, Alaska, Texas, and Nebraska).

Learning standards provide teachers with planning guidance, as standards are typically framed to describe (1) exit goals for high school graduates, (2) statements about what a child is expected to know or be able to do at incremental points in time between kindergarten and high school graduation, and (3) indicators or benchmarks that suggest what a teacher might observe that provides evidence a child is meeting standards. Table 6.2 displays information excerpted from the 2009 Colorado Social Studies Standards representing one example of how the standard for history is addressed from preschool through grade 1.

You can see that as this standard is worded, it does not specify what activities, themes, or lessons a teacher should plan or what books, resources, or materials to use, but it does provide direction about what should be accomplished. A standard does not dictate what to teach, when to teach it, how much time to spend on a topic, or even what teaching strategies or materials to use. Those are decisions and plans made by schools, programs, and teachers.

Early learning standards address what children in preschool should know and be able to do and are written in a format similar to K12 academic standards. The National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center provides extensive information about early learning standards for each state. Using standards to guide the planning and implementation of a curriculum is discussed in further detail in the last section of this chapter and in later chapters as they apply to different areas of curriculum.

Instructor Resources and Supplemental Materials

Published curriculum products may include multiple components that provide specific direction or guidance for planning, such as:

  • Teaching manuals that present essential information and guidance about curricular goals, activities, strategies, and assessments
  • Supplemental printed matter or masters for duplication (e.g., suggested unit or lesson plans, instructional support such as worksheets, picture charts, and so on)
  • Recording and reporting forms
  • On-line technical support
  • Materials and/or equipment specifically designed for use with children, such as books, toys, learning games, and math, science, music, or other items for learning centers
Table 6.2 Colorado History Standard for Preschool, Kindergarten, and Grade 1
Expectation for High School Graduates:
Develop an Understanding of How People View, Construct, and Interpret History
Grade LevelConcept(s) to be masteredBenchmarks
Grade 1Patterns and chronological order of events of the recent past

Students can:Identify similarities and differences between themselves and others.Discuss common and unique characteristics of different cultures using multiple sources of information.Identify famous Americans from the past who have shown courageous leadership.Identify and explain the meaning of American national symbols. Symbols to include but not limited to the American flag, bald eagle, Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, the Capitol, and the White House.
Family and cultural traditions in the United States in the past

Students can:Arrange life events in chronological order.Identify the components of a calendar. Among topics to include: days of the week, months, and notable events.Identify past events using a calendar.Use words related to time, sequence, and change.
KindergartenAsk questions, share information, and discuss ideas about the past.

Students can:Ask questions about the past using question starters. Questions to include but not limited to: What did? Where? When did? Which did? Who did? Why did? How did?Identify information from narrative stories that answer questions about the past and add to our collective memory and history.Use the word because correctly in the context of personal experience or stories of the past using words. Among words to include: past, present, future, change, first, next, last.
The first component in the concept of chronology is to place information in sequential order.

Students can:Order sequence information using words. Among words to include: past, present future, days, weeks, months, years, first, next, last, before, after.Explore differences and similarities in the lives of children and families of long ago and today.Explain why knowing the order of events is important
PreschoolChange and sequence over time.

Students can:Use words and phrases correctly related to chronology and time. Among words to include: past, present, future, before, now, later.Select examples from pictures that illustrate past, present, and future.Sequence a simple set of activities or events.Identify an example of change over time that may include examples from the child’s own growth.
Source: Adapted from Colorado Department of Education, 2009

These resource materials may be accompanied by opportunities for training and professional development designed to assist teachers in planning and implementing activities. Head Start teachers might, for example, engage in several days of regional in-service workshops conducted by Creative Curriculum or High Scope trainers prior to implementation of the curriculum in their programs.

Four apples, two red, two green, arranged in an alternating pattern.

iStockphoto / Thinkstock

Early childhood educators believe that the use of materials from the real world provides more meaningful learning than the use of worksheets.

In consideration of developmentally appropriate principles, teachers should evaluate and incorporate with discretion all materials supplied by any curriculum. The widespread use of worksheets, in particular, is very difficult to justify, as they often represent or contain content or images disconnected from or not representative of childrens real-world ideas and experiences and dont point to a single “right” answer (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

For instance, the worksheet in Figure 6.3 intended for a cut-and-paste activity to reinforce the concept of a simple “a/b/a/b/a” pattern sequence, could certainly provide a child with practice in developing the fine motor skills needed to cut out the paper squares or serve as a simple assessment to determine whether the child recognizes an a/b/a/b/a pattern sequence. However, from a developmentally appropriate perspective, these kinds of materials should be set aside in favor of those that give children opportunities to observe patterns in the natural world and to manipulate real objects to replicate and create patterns of different kinds. Apples, leaves, and small toys are all examples of real-world materials that are easily found in or around early childhood classrooms and that children could use to develop their sense of the a/b/a/b pattern sequence.

Scope and Sequence

A commercial curriculum may contain a scope and sequence, a graphic in chart form that represents how and when particular concepts and skills are developed over time when the curriculum is implemented as intended. For example, the website for the Success for All Curiosity Corner preschool curriculum includes an excerpt for the scope and sequence of the reading program for kindergarten.

Teachers may find a scope and sequence useful as a planning resource but must always keep in mind that the needs, characteristics, and interests of their students are the primary priorities in planning (Copple & Bredkamp, 2009). Knowledge and skills represented in a scope and sequence are developed from assumptions about children in general; they may or may not accurately reflect the actual children in your care.

Pacing Guides

Similarlyespecially in public schools, including kindergarten and primary classroomssome districts and programs are developing and implementing pacing guides. These documents, in effect, prescribe or schedule when and how state learning standards are to be addressed in planning for each academic content area over the course of a school year. Theoretically, when they are implemented in the strictest sense, a principal or administrator could expect to visit five first grade classrooms on a single day and see all the children in all the classes doing exactly the same thing at the same time.

Figure 6.3: Worksheets

Worksheets are most often used in elementary school classrooms, but they can be seen in preschools or child-care programs as well. They are not considered to be developmentally appropriate.

Figure: Worksheet titled "Little Red Riding Hood  Pattern Activity." The worksheet has two rows with five squares. The first row shows little red riding hood in the first and third squares, and a wolf in the second and fourth squares. The fifth square is empty. The second row shows a basket in the first and third squares and little red riding hood in the second and fourth squares. The fifth square is empty. There is a third row that has little red riding hood, the wolf, and the basket. Directions at the bottom of the worksheet read, "Teacher Directions: Have child point to pictures in each row from left to right, and say name: Red Riding Hood, wolf, Red Riding Hood, wolf...Ask the child what picture should come next. Have child cut out the three pictures in bottom row and paste correct picture to complete pattern in each row."

While the goal of pacing guides is to ensure that all children are experiencing the same curriculum, their use in the primary grades is widely discouraged by early childhood experts and professional organizations (Datnow & Castellano, 2000; David, 2008; David & Greene, 2007; Louis, Febey, & Schroeder, 2005; Sornson, 2016). From a practical perspective, however, a comprehensive pacing guide can be very helpful as a resource (Kauffman, Johnson, Kardos, Liu, & Peske, 2002). Pacing guides may include many ideas for activities, themes, and strategies that can be implemented in developmentally appropriate ways.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are simple charts, diagrams, or templates that represent multiple concepts and the connections between them (Figure 6.4). They are useful with young children to help them visualize ideas. You will see several examples of different kinds of graphic organizers in this and later chapters. There are literally hundreds of examples on websites; these often provide free downloadable examples that teachers can use for planning and organizing activities. At the end of this chapter is a short list of online resources for graphic organizers.

Figure 6.4: Venn Diagram

A graphic organizer provides a visual representation of ideas or information. One example of such a device is a Venn diagram, which illustrates where ideas or facts about two separate things overlap.

Figure: A yellow circle and a blue circle overlap, creating a green section between the two circles.

iStockphoto / Thinkstock

6.4Approaches to Planning

You probably already know what kind of planning style might suit you best. Think about how you might approach planning a road-trip vacation. Your goal is to see places you have not visited before and your objectives are what you want to accomplish each day of the trip; there is more than one way, however to plan this journey. You might be the kind of person who would predetermine the places you will visit; research information about sights, attractions, and restaurants; map out your route to determine how far you will drive each day; and make hotel reservations ahead of time.

Or maybe you would prefer to pack the car with plenty of provisionsfood, drinks, snacks, your bike and camping gearwith a general starting direction but no destination in mind, mapping out your trip as you go, and stopping at places you find interesting. Either way, you may have fellow travelers and encounter other people, developments, or events that challenge your plan or cause you to modify it as you go along. But you may also arrive home feeling entirely satisfied that the trip was worthwhile and lived up to or exceeded your initial expectations regardless of which plan was followed.

Teacher planning is in many ways analogous to the road tripwe have common goals for what we want or expect children to ultimately accomplish but different ways of getting there. The first approach described above represents one end of the planning continuum, a linear (or “top down”) sequential process that begins with identification of standards and objectives and determines how each step or stage of an activity or series of activities will be carried out. The second approach represents the other end of the continuum, a global (emergent or “bottom up”) process, with anticipation and preparation for a range of possibilities, developing direction through facilitation and negotiation of child-directed explorations and documenting how standards are being met over time.

A father and daughter pack the trunk of their car with suitcases.

Flying Colours Ltd / Thinkstock

Teacher planning is like preparing for a road trip. You can approach it in a variety of ways.

Many teachers approach to planning will fall somewhere in between. While the planning styles represent different approaches, teachers planning both kinds of experiences will keep in mind the principles of developmentally appropriate practice, so that learning is meaningful and provides a balance between child-directed and teacher-initiated activities.

All approaches to teacher planning in early childhood should place a high value on structuring the environment and activities to integrate, or connect, learning across all areas of the curriculum. Good planning also relies on teacher flexibility to make ongoing decisions based on the knowledge and observation of children, adapting the curriculum to maximize learning opportunities. In this section, we will follow two long-term studies with preschool and kindergarten children to illustrate the planning continuum. This type of learning can be planned as a thematic unit or emergentstudy.

Long-term investigations offer the opportunity to focus on a topic in depth, especially if the teacher maintains an open-ended time frame rather than a rigid schedule (Katz & Chard, 2000; Pearlman, 2006). Topics can come from the children, teachers, supplied curriculum materials, or ideas that emerge from studying state standards and objectives. Planning for either a thematic unit or emergent study represents a comprehensive investment of time; therefore it is very important that topics be relevant to the cultural contexts and experiences of the children. A study of the ocean and marine life makes a great deal of sense for children who live in coastal areas. It may not be as relevant to the daily lives of young children who live in landlocked states like New Mexico or Colorado. However, children are interested in many things they have no hands-on experience with (dinosaurs, space travel, and so forth) and are exposed to a great deal of information vicariously through media sources; therefore any topic that captures their interest should be open for discussion.

Thematic Unit: Ladybugs, Butterflies, and Bees

As described above, a thematic unit is a long-term investigation of a topic intended to capture and engage childrens interest and provide opportunities to develop skills and knowledge in multiple areas. Typically, planning for a thematic unit represents a top-down approach, with the teacher making most or all of the decisions about how to proceed according to a general decision-making sequence that includes the following:

  1. Identifying goals: learning standards and objectives to be addressed.
  2. Identifying important considerations about childrens developmental and cultural characteristics, interests, and needs.
  3. Selecting a topic or theme that provides opportunities to meet goals.
  4. Brainstorming ideas for activities that support and connect different areas of the curriculum.
  5. Creating and scheduling plans for lessons and activities.
  6. Planning for a balance of individual, small-group, and large-group activities.
  7. Planning for accommodations to address the needs of individual children.
  8. Deciding on how to evaluate childrens learning to determine the extent to which the unit objectives and learning standards are met.
  9. Preparing materials and resources.
  10. Arranging the environment.
  11. Making adaptations to the plan as the unit progresses based on observations about learning and interests.

Identifying goals: Learning standards and objectives to be addressed This unit was implemented by teachers of two groups of children between 3 (twelve children) and 4 years (fifteen children) of age at the time of the study. For this unit, one of the teachers (Phyllis) explained,

At this time of the year [late spring] I have been working on the early learning standards that support the childrens increasing interest in nonfiction books, beginning writing, and growing confidence as problem solvers. These kids are very good at patterns and we have been making graphs all year, so a couple of the math standards for 4s apply. Im building on their interest in friendships to create opportunities for them to work in groups. They also need practice with fine-motor skills to be ready for the increased emphasis on writing that they will be doing in their class next year.

Table 6.3 displays the state early learning standards that Phyllis has been working on.

Table 6.3 Early Learning Standards
Approaches to Learning
AL 2. Children show curiosity, eagerness, and satisfaction as learners.
AL 3. Children demonstrate initiative, engagement, and persistence in learning.
AL 5. Children extend their learning through the use of memory, reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

AL-3K-2.2 Demonstrate eagerness and interest as learners by responding to what they observe.
AL-3K-3.3 Show ability to focus attention on favorite activities for brief periods of time (5 to 10 minutes).
AL-3K-5.1 Talk about prior events and personal experiences.
AL-3K-5.2 Use prior knowledge to understand new experiences.
Social and Emotional Development
SE2. Children demonstrate self-control, respect, and responsibility.

SE-3K-2.2 Use classroom materials responsibly with modeling and guidance from adults.
Language and Literacy
LL 1. Understanding and using literary texts
LL2. Understanding and using informational texts
LL3. Learning to read
LL4. Developing written communication
LL5. Producing written communication in a variety of forms
LL6. Applying the skills of inquiry and oral communication

ELA-3K-1.1 Explore realistic books and materials in classroom centers.
ELA-3K-2.1 Explore realistic books and materials in classroom centers.
ELA-3K-3.1 Rehearse vocabulary by identifying familiar objects pictured in books.
ELA-3K-3.19 Begin connecting text read aloud with personal experiences.
ELA-3K-4.3 Tells a brief story (one or two ideas).
ELA-3K-4.8 Participate in small-group reflections on recent event.
ELA-3K-5-3 Identify and briefly describe important people, objects, and events in their world.
ELA-3K-6.1. Ask “why” questions about things in their world.
ELA-3K-6.3 Classify familiar objects by one or two observable attributes.
M1. Mathematics processes
M3. Algebra
M4. Geometry
M5. Measurement
M6. Data analysis and probability

M-3K-1.2 Begin to make predictions based on appearance and experience.
M-3K-1.5 Begin to see how similar items can be grouped together.
M-3K-1.7 Show an awareness of numbers in a personally meaningful context.
M-4K-3.2 Identify and copy a simple pattern.
M-3K-3.4 Recognize similar objects in the environment by color, shape. or size.
M-3K-4.1 Recognize simple shapes in the environment.
M-3K-4.2 Match shapes in the environment.
M-3K-4.3 Begin to show an understanding of the common positional words updownunderover, and in.
M-3K-5.2 Compare the size of objects.
M-3K-5.6 Begin to show awareness of time concepts.
M-4K-6.1 Organize and represent data with real objects.
Physical Growth and Health
PD 2. Fine motor control: Children use their fingers and hands in ways that develop hand-eye coordination, strength, control, and small-object manipulation.

PD-3K-2.2 Use hand-eye coordination to perform simple tasks.

Identifying important considerations about childrens developmental and cultural characteristics, interests, and needs Phyllis explained what she had observed and learned from evaluating and reflecting about recent activities with the children:

A young boy looks through a magnifying glass.

iStockphoto / Thinkstock

Children are often fascinated by magnifying glasses; one of their favorite pastimes is looking for insects.

This group of children gets along very well most of the time and can be frequently observed working intently together in pairs or groups of three on a common focus, such as a light-table construction, or making a road for the trucks on the playground. They spend a lot of time outside collecting and sorting small things like leaves and acorns. In circle discussions, some of the children are really beginning to understand how a question is different from a state ment or anecdote. When I was writing down their favorite family recipes for a cookbook, I also noticed narratives becoming less rambling and more focused and related to the topic. A couple of them have asked me to put out more books about nature. Some of them are really fascinated with “big words,” and the magnifying glasses in the Discovery Center are very popularlately.

Selection of a topic or theme that provides opportunities to meet objectives
Phyllis continued,

We just finished planting tomato and strawberry plants, bean seeds, and an amaryllis bulb. We learned about pollination and talked briefly about “good” insects. I noticed that a lot of the children were curious about the insects they might see in our garden, in particular ladybugs and butterflies, and they have been looking for both on the playground. They have been asking me to reread some of their favorite stories about bugs. The weather is getting very warm, so we can spend lots of time outside, and I think this might be a good time to pursue a study about insects, starting with a focus on ladybugs and butterflies.

Brainstorming ideas for activities that support and connect different areas of the curriculum As Stephanie and Phyllis began to plan the thematic unit, they brainstormed ideas and concepts that would support the standards they are working on and what they have observed about the children lately. They used the five categories of the standards listed in Table 6.3 to organize a concept map of ideas (Figure 6.5). When teachers brainstorm, they record any idea that might be relevant to the topic and appropriate to the developmental levels of the children; at this stage it is not necessary to have a specific plan for an activity or to make a commitment to enact every idea on the map. It is simply an efficient and effective strategy for generating and organizing possibilities that may or may not ultimately be feasible to include in the unit plan.

As they continued to brainstorm, listing ideas for particular activities and experiences that would support the concept map, they thought about the centers in their room and materials on hand or that could easily be procured or created (Figure 6.6).

Creating and scheduling plans for lessons and activities In this step of the planning process, the teachers took their ideas for activities and experiences and blocked out a week-at-a-glance schedule for three weeks, using the daily schedule as a framework:

  • Week one: Insects (focus on lifecycle)
  • Week two: Ladybugs
  • Week three: Butterflies
Figure 6.5: Insects Concept Map

A concept map is different from a plan for activities. It focuses on the goals or objectives of the unit. Specific activities are derived from the ideas represented.

As she continued to research resources for the topic, Phyllis was delighted to discover that she could order butterfly and ladybug larvae online. She decided that this would provide a great opportunity to link many of the activities together and give the children first-hand experience with observation of the life cycle of insects. She added to her plans a “release party” on the playground and recording the childrens daily observations of the metamorphosis process in a class log/chart, with the possibility of making a book to tell the story of what the children observed.

Planning for a balance of individual, small-group, and large-group activities As the teachers created week-to-week plans (Table 6.4), they made decisions about how activities and discussions would be best implemented as whole group, small group, or individual format. They also thought carefully about how to provide for a balance of child-directed exploratory play and teacher-directed learning experiences.

Figure 6.6: Brainstorming Ideas for Activities and Experiences

This organizer represents ideas for activities that will support the concepts map and indicates where they will take place.

Table 6.4: Week-at-a-Glance Plans for Insect Unit
Sunflower Week-at-a-Glance Planner
WeekApril 30 to May 4May 8 to May 11May 14 to May 18
Study topicButterflies/InsectsInsects: LadybugsInsects: Butterflies
Special center activitiesCaterpillars to study

Bugs, bug catchers, and sifters in the sensory table

Butterfly, ladybug, and other insect puzzles

Special snack: butterfly crackers

Make coffee-filter butterflies

Pretend to be butterflies

Felt board butterfly life cycle
Newly hatched ladybugs to study

Bugs, bug catchers, and sifters in the sensory table

Butterfly, ladybug, and other insect puzzles

Special snack: ladybugs made from English muffins with jam and chocolate chips or raisins

Paint ladybugs at easel

Pretend to be ladybugs and/or other insects with wing costumes, etc.

Magnetic ladybug story
Newly hatched ladybugs to study

Bugs, bug catchers, and sifters in the sensory table

Butterfly, ladybug, and other insect puzzles

Special snacks: butterfly pasta, drinking “nectar” from flower straws

Make symmetrical butterfly wings

Pretend to be butterflies

Felt board butterfly life cycle
Small Group
MondayButterfly matching/memory gameNo schoolButterfly shape graphing
TuesdayContinue butterfly matching/memory gameHow many spots on the ladybug? Craft and math activityContinue butterfly shape graphing
WednesdayYogaYoga, garden bug-hunt board gameYoga
ThursdayMake symmetrical butterfly wingsMake antennae for ladybug matching gameButterfly life-cycle sequencing
FridayFinish butterfly wingsContinue to make antennae; ladybug release in playground gardenFinish butterfly sequencing; butterfly release party
Large Group
Books of the weekButterflies, I am a Caterpillar, Waiting for Wings, Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ten Little Caterpillars, Butterfly Alphabet, The Butterfly Kiss, Over in the Garden, The Lamb and the Butterfly, Caterpillar to ButterflyLadybug on the Move, Lara Ladybug, Bubba and Trixie, Ladybug, Ladybug, Where are you Going? Five Little Ladybugs, and various ladybug information booksMonarch Butterfly, Waiting for Wings, Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ten Little Caterpillars, The Butterfly Kiss, Over in the Garden, The Lamb and the Butterfly, Caterpillar to Butterfly, Butterfly Counting Book, Butterflies, the Caterpillar and the Pollywog
Songs of the week“Gentle, Gentle Butterfly,”
“Mr. Caterpillar”
“I Wish I Were a Ladybug,”
“Five Little Ladybugs”
“Gentle, Gentle Butterfly,”
“Mr. Caterpillar”
Large-group activitiesLearning/discussing the stages of a butterflys life and pretending to be each stage

Vocabulary: chrysalis, proboscis, symmetry, metamorphosis
Learning/discussing the stages of a ladybugs life; characteristics of an insect

Vocabulary: larva, pupa, aphid, antennae, metamorphosis
Learning/discussing the stages of a butterflys life and pretending to be each stage

Vocabulary: chrysalis, proboscis, symmetry, metamorphosis

Planning for accommodations to address the needs of individual children There was one child in Phylliss class with a sensory processing disorder and language delay; this child was easily overwhelmed and Phyllis made notes about particular activities he might find soothing (sand table, sponge printing, easel painting). She also noted activities he might not enjoy (matching/memory games and puzzles, using the magnifying glasses, and dancing). She included in her planning looking for audiotapes at the public library for some of the stories they would be using to include in the listening center so that he could use the headphones to screen out classroom noise.

Deciding on how to evaluate childrens learning to determine the extent to which the unit objectives and learning standards are met Phyllis and Stephanie decided that the matching and memory games, observation log, felt board stories, and whole group discussions could also serve as assessments. As Phylliss children were a bit older, she devised an additional activity for cutting/pasting pictures to represent each stage of the life cycle on a timeline that she could do with each child in small group or individually (Figure 6.7).

Figure 6.7: Lifecycle Strip

Phyllis designs a simple task-based activity to use as an additional assessment activity, asking children to place pictures of the stages of the life cycle in proper order.

Preparing materials and resources With plans in hand, the teachers then took stock of available materials and supplies and made a list of those to add to the classroom centers and what was needed for teacher-directed small- and large-group activities (Table 6.5). In the book list, they noted with an asterisk those they would have to get from the public library. They also noted materials they would create/make for the unit with their classroom teaching assistants.

Arranging the environment Finally, Phyllis ordered the insect larvae kit online and made a “to-do” list. Stephanie made a trip to the public library and worked with her assistant to construct the teacher-made materials. They referred to the plan for week one to set out the items needed in centers for exploration and play and organized what would be needed for small- and large-group activities from day to day. In weekly newsletters, they announced the coming study and invited parents to send in any books or interesting insect-related materials they might want to share with the class. Figure 6.8 displays some of the materials and activities that were incorporated into the plan for this unit.

Making adaptations to the plan as the unit progresses based on observations about learning and interests As the unit progressed, both teachers made notations in their daily journals, jotting down anecdotes, observations, and questions as they conducted activities and guided exploratory experiences. They rearranged some of the materials and noticed in particular that the children were very excited and engaged in the progress of the ladybug and butterfly larvae. As anticipation built for their eventual release in the garden, Stephanie observed that the children framed the event as a birthday party. She explored this idea at circle time and in small-group discussions and decided to help the children make a birthday cake, decorations (ladybug hats and butterfly antennae), and invitations to the party (younger children in the adjacent classroom).

As the third week began, Phyllis observed that interest in insects had not waned but continued at a high level. Flowers had emerged on the strawberries and tomato plants by this time, questions about pollination continued, and the children began to ask questions about bees. In addition, they knew that unlike the innocuous ladybugs and butterflies, bees have stingers, and they wondered what they were for. Phyllis decided to continue the unit with her group of children for another week to focus on bees, adding to her concept and activity maps. Figure 6.8 displays the additional activities and materials she selected for learning about bees.

At the end of the fourth week, Phyllis was pleased that she had made the decision to extend the unit on insects, as she recorded the following statements/quotes the children offered during discussion about what they learned:

What We Have Learned about Bees
They have 2 plus 3 eyes: that equals 5
You can see out of their wings
Girl bees sting and boy bees dont
When the mommy or the eggs are in danger, the girl bee stings them
They make honey from nectar
They sprinkle pollen on the flowers to make them grow
Boy bees (drones) dont do much but girl bees (workers) do
The queen bee is the boss
There are lots of bees in the hive
They make honey in the honeycomb
The honeycomb is shaped like a hexagon
. . . and a hexagon has six sides

Figure 6.8: Week Four: Bees

Activities focusing on honey and bumblebees were added to the unit, some as extensions of activities already in place and others new.

Table 6.5: Materials List for Insect Unit
Books/MediaManipulatives and PropsFoodArt Supplies
I am a Caterpillar
Very Hungry Caterpillar
Ten Little Caterpillars Butterfly Alphabet
The Butterfly Kiss
*Over in the Garden
*The Lamb and the Butterfly
Caterpillar to Butterfly
Ladybug on the Move
Lara Ladybug
Bubba and Trixie
Ladybug, Ladybug Where are You Going?
Five Little Ladybugs
National Geographic
Magazines and photos from the Internet
4 Magnifying glasses
Insect specimen set
Caterpillar specimen set
Live insects/caterpillars from playground?
7 Puzzles: (2 ladybug, 3 butterflies, 1 bumblebee, 1 garden with insects)
Felt board set (life cycle)
Magnetic ladybugs and magnet board
4 colanders
4 sifters
4 bug catchers
4 pairs of tongs
Colored netting
Wing costumes
Paper sentence strips
Life cycle cutouts
Glow-in-the-dark insects for light table
Butterfly crackers
English muffins
Butterfly pasta
Pineapple juice
Coffee filters
Tempera paint (yellow, black, red, orange)
Construction paper
Colored tissue
Pipe cleaners
Wire hangers
Easel paper
Butterfly matching (lotto-style) game w/printed images from the Internet
Number/puzzle cards with foam butterfly and ladybug stickers
Bug-hunt board game
Vocabulary/picture cards: Chrysalis, proboscis, symmetry, metamorphosis, larva, pupa, aphid, antennae, symmetry
Cutouts for graphing (1-inch yellow triangles, circles, squares) and blank four-column graph
Table 6.5: Materials for Insect Unit

Emergent Project: Power, Force, and Motion

Planning for an emergent study represents the other end of the road-trip analogy, a “bottom-up” process. This type of planning focuses on identifying starting points for the exploration of an idea or topic, developing insightful observations via teacher-child interactions, documentation about what is happening, and expanding the plan accordingly. The teacher consistently asks:

  • What did I see?
  • What does it mean?
  • What does it tell me about the childrens needs, interests, knowledge, and skills?
  • What might happen next or how can I help children to further the inquiry/exploration? (Chaille, 2008; Gestwicki, 2011 Helm, 2007)

Planning for an emergent project generally proceeds as follows:

  1. Observe/identify an interest through exploratory activities, active listening, focused discussions, and representation of childrens initial ideas about their thinking.
  2. Choose a tentative topic.
  3. Provide materials and resources to support multiple possibilities for directions the inquiry might take.
  4. Document what happens.
  5. Organize and reflect on documentation.
  6. Adjust future planning to adapt to the direction of the inquiry.
  7. Account for learning standards as the project proceeds.

Observe/identify an interest or topic through exploratory activities, active listening, focused discussions, and representations of childrens initial ideas about their thinking This study was initiated by a team of two teachers (Mary and Jane) and their assistants, working with a group of twenty-eight 4- and 5-year-old children. It started with observations they made early in the school year about the childrens play and interest in superheroes, documented in the case study notes in Chapter 1. As time went on, the teachers continued to observe that this interest did not wane but continued to evolve, especially in the dramatic play area, where many scenarios and characters were developed and acted out. It also showed up during writing workshop time, where the childrens daily dictations and story writing contained similar characters and story lines, and in daily play outside.

Late in the spring, Mary worked with some of the children who asked the teachers to convert the dramatic play area to a woodland forest. They subsequently started requesting time several days in a row to present “plays” that featured fairies, transformers, and animals of different kinds. Always the theme of these stories involved the exercise of “special powers” to solve problems or explain phenomena the children did not understand. One of the stories developed by five children (three girls and two boys) was dictated to the teachers as follows:

Captured in a Woodland Forest

Once upon a time, on a spring night, a troop of fairies were visiting a woodland forest. Owls hooted and small animals were scurrying in the forest. The fireflies were dancing among the trees and the little fairies tried to catch them. When they got bored, they began to play tag. A hungry cat was stalking a mouse in the bushes when he got distracted by the darting fairies. He chased the fairies and when he caught one, he took it off to a cave to play. Meanwhile, the transformers were in their hideout testing their new supersecret spy equipment. They heard the fairies call for help. They grabbed their powers and flew to the aid of the fairies. They followed the trail of the cat and found him nibbling on the fairys leg. They used their powers to freeze the cat. Two of them returned the fairy to her troop. While the fairies were celebrating the return of their friend, the other transformers [used their powers again to] unfreeze the cat. Then they fed it some yummy cat food and took him back to his home.

Concurrently, the teachers were observing extended play in the block area and on the playground that focused on the building of ramps and catapults. They had also recorded childrens comments during the water-table activities described in Table 6.1 (sinking and floating). Among them were several comments about the amount of force it took to sink a boat and a loud argument about the power of water to move or control heavy objects.

Grayson: When I pressed on the boat, it went down.

Sami: When you push down, the boat always sinks.

Luke: Thats because your hand is heavy.

Zach: But boats can come back up.

Finn: Well, can water move things up?

Jon: No, that wont work because water wont go uphill.

Eli (shouting): Then how does it come out of the shower?

Finally, Mary and Jane realized that the children were very intrigued by a new feature of the physical environmenttwo large plastic barrels that had recently been installed on a platform on the playground for rainwater collection. The children intently observed what happened to the water after rain showers, asked many questions, and offered theories about how the barrels worked.

Choose a tentative topic As the teachers revisited their observation journals and looked back through the childrens writing journals, their insight was that the concepts of power, force, and motion were themes the children had already been exploring for months; but because the contexts for this exploration had seemed so disconnected, they had not recognized it before. With several weeks left in the school year, they decided to focus planning on an exploration of these three interrelated concepts.

They knew from what the children had done already that there would be many opportunities to address science, math, and literacy standards. In focused discussions with the children, they created an initial KWL chart (Table 6.6) with thema graphic organizer that organizes thinking into three categories: “what we know,” “what we want to know,” and “how we can find out.” The teachers transcribed the students exact words, which helped them make specific plans about how to begin the study.

Table 6.6: KWL Chart on Power, Force, and Motion
K: What We KnowW: What We Want to KnowL: How We Can Learn/Find Out
Water is strong.
Water has invisible powers.
Water cant go up.
Wind is strong.
Wind is invisible, like water, but you can feel it.
Sails make boats go if they dont have a motor.
Things go down by “theirselves,” but not up.
Superheroes have special powers that regular kids dont have.
Machines help us do work.
How does water move things?
How do you make water?
How can you make water go up?
Is power the same as magic?
What makes things go fast if they dont have a motor?
How come machines are stronger than people?
Make a waterfall.
Make more boats.
Ask the engineer how the barrels work.
See how fast we can make our cars go.
Make a lot of ramps.
Make cool “constraptions” to get things to go up.
Find some books about ramps.
Figure 6.9: Brainstorming for Exploring Power, Force, and Motion

This graphic organizer indicates Mary and Jane’s initial thinking about open-ended activities that would help direct the project.

Provide materials and resources to support multiple possibilities for directions the inquiry might take As with thematic unit planning, teachers use brainstorming to organize their ideas about potential activities and explorations. Mary and Janes brainstorming included the ideas represented in Figure 6.9 to investigate the questions and theories represented in the childrens KWL chart.

Since much of the KWL chart contained water-related questions and ideas, Mary and Jane decide to focus initial planning on how water moves from one place to another. Materials and equipment they had on hand included:

  • A water table
  • Flexible tubing and an electric pump
  • Large interlocking playground blocks with modular sections designed to channel water
  • Hoses and water source outside the classroom
  • Large tubs
  • Funnels, buckets, watering cans, squirt bottles, and other assorted implements that can be used with water
  • Several wading pools
  • A garden sprinkler
  • Ping-Pong balls, small cars, and many other small waterproof objects

The teachers planned two initial activities with water on the playground over the course of the week, combining the morning times when children are usually engaged in center-based activities and outside play. The framework for these activities is represented in Figure 6.10.

Figure 6.10: Week One Water Activities

During the first week, as Mary and Jane began predicting the direction of the long-term study, they focused on moving water.

Document what happens Mary and Jane review their notes and the drawings done by the children.

Figure 6.11: Designing a Water-Moving System

The challenge of designing water-moving systems was difficult, but the children were very invested in this part of the initial activities and every design presented was subsequently built and tested.

Among their observations, they note that:

  • The children are highly motivated to get water to move uphill but realize that without the pump, no matter how they adjust the block/channeling structure, it wont happen.
  • They are very interested in trying to manipulate the water channels to increase the speed of the moving water so that their balls and cars will go faster; they become focused on making steeper inclines but realize that the strength/power of the pump is limited and that, at some point, it wont work. They ask if there is a way to make the pump have more power.
  • Some children become highly engaged with dumping water out of the pools and onto the ground as they notice that the water spilling out of the pools runs downhill across the playground, moving the wood mulch ground cover and creating erosion channels that go in different directions. They experiment with Ping-Pong balls to see how they can make them move through the mud.
  • Some children express increased interest in the rain-barrel system as they observe the plumbing and realize that somehow water inside the barrels must be moving up and down without the aid of a pump.
  • Children working in the water table figure out that the spray bottles operate on the same principle as the water pump, and they begin taking them to different places on the playground to experiment with their ability to move leaves, wood mulch, rocks, sticks, etc. They ask if they can take them apart to see if they can figure out where their power comes from.

Organize and reflect on documentation After several days of water activities, in their subsequent discussions with the children, the KWL chart was revised to add:

K: Spray bottles are pumps (but we dont know why they work); some water can go up without a pump; we can make water go faster if we make it steeper; water can move dirt to make little rivers; some of our designs worked really good, but others not at all; does the water in the sink and bathtub have a pump?

W: How does a pump work? How can water go up without a pump? Do rivers only go downhill? What happens to the water in the rain barrels if they get full?

L: We need to ask the engineer to come over and explain how the rain barrels work; we can look on the Internet to find out more about pumps; maybe the engineer can tell us about pumps, too.

Adjust future planning to adapt to the direction of the inquiry To proceed with the inquiry, Mary and Jane decided to focus on three things based on the interests represented in the childrens observations and questions: (1) how the water harvesting system works, (2) how pumps work, and (3) how vertical drop affects the descent speed of objects. Their next stage of planning included:

  • Consulting with the environmental science graduate students who installed the rain-barrel water collection system. The students suggest painting a mural on the wall behind the rain barrels to diagram how the system works and collaborating with the children on a book about water harvesting.
  • Identifying resources providing information about how pumps work. They printed off images and diagrams of different kinds of simple pumps to add to the classroom library and share in group discussions.
  • Bringing in the bicycle pump that they use to blow up playground balls and let the children use it.
  • Bringing in several different common items with simple hand-pumping (nonpressurized for safety purposes) mechanisms including toothpaste, hand lotion, insect repellent, sunscreen, and a variety of squirt guns, including a supersoaker.
  • Adding flexible plastic track to the block center that the children can build elevated systems for their small cars.
  • Adding wood panels on the playground to be used with the large interlocking playground blocks for constructing larger ramps.
  • Continuing with waterfall exploration by building a water wall, providing recycled bottles and funnels, tubing, and a flexible dryer duct that the children could attach in different ways to a wood panel to channel water.
  • Encouraging children to use paper and markers to make large diagrams of the systems they are constructing to show how they work.

Account for learning standards as the project proceeds As this project moved forward, Mary and Jane repeated this cycle of steps several times as they continued to plan. The project continued for more than a month. They used a checklist to indicate which of the South Carolina learning standards were being addressed. Like Phyllis and Stephanies thematic unit, this work enabled them to make progress on meeting many of the standards for which they are accountable. Their visual and written documentation of the childrens work provided ample evidence that the standards were being met.

Chapter Summary

  • Planning is a comprehensive process that includes making decisions about how to address curriculum, respond to the needs and interests of children and their families, work with colleagues, and arrange the physical setting.
  • Planning also includes considering all the decisions you make within the context of developmentally appropriate practices and your belief system.
  • The decisions you make about how to structure the physical environment of the classroom will be affected by the curriculum you use, specific principles of good design, and aesthetics.
  • Principles of design that are considered when planning the environment include a vision for the kind of environment you want to create and attention to safety, movement, permanent features of the classroom, and planning space and materials for the kinds of behaviors and activities you want to promote.
  • Teachers use primary resources from the authors of curricula, research about development and learning, and spokespersons for the field of early childhood education in planning.
  • Learning standards serve as a guide, not a substitute for curriculum. Purchased curricula include many different kinds of resources such as scope/sequence or pacing guides that can be helpful.
  • Approaches to planning can be considered as a continuum of thought. A top-down process begins with standards and objectives as the teacher makes subsequent decisions about materials, activity plans, adaptations, and timing.
  • An emergent approach to curriculum represents a bottom-up process driven by the interests of children. The teacher plans initial activities and the plan unfolds over time, as the teacher documents learning and standards, reflects, and adapts to pursue the direction it takes.
Discussion Questions
  1. As you think about planning a classroom environment, what is your vision of the way it might look and feel? How will you personalize it?
  2. Find the kindergarten learning standards online at the state department of education for the state in which you live or work. Choose a content (subject) or developmental area. Look at the standards and the indicators or benchmarks for it. Brainstorm some ideas about topics and activities that might support learning about the standard.
  3. Think about the planning styles described in this chapter; which do you think best represents your natural inclinations about how to organize and plan activities? Why?
Key Terms

Click on each key term to see the definition.


A special area in a Reggio Emilia school that is set up like an art studio and serves as a dedicated space for working on projects


A statement in learning standards about when expected progress should occur


Generating ideas about possibilities without necessarily committing to them as a plan

Concept map

Ideas about concepts that can be learned in a study organized to show how they relate to different areas of the curriculum

Emergent study

A long-term investigation about a topic that evolves over time rather than being entirely preplanned


A statement in standards about a typical behavior or action showing that a child is meeting the standard

KWL chart

A graphic organizer that categorizes brainstorming ideas into “what we know, what we want to know, and how we might learn”

Pacing guide

A tool that provides sequencing information about when different aspects of a curriculum should be addressed

Primary resources

Those resources that come directly from an author or developer of a curriculum

Scope and sequence

Tool provided with some curricula that indicates when and how different skills and concepts are addressed

Secondary resources

Information and resources about a curriculum that are developed by people other than the original authors

Thematic unit

A long-term study that is generally planned in advance

Online Resources for Using Graphic Organizers

Birbili, M. (2006). Mapping knowledge: Concept maps in early childhood education. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 8(2). Retrieved from This article explains how a particular graphic organizer, a concept map, can be used to help children organize and process their thinking.

EduPlace: An online site sponsored by Houghton-Mifflin that provides different kinds of templates; many are designed for elementary school and focus on English and language arts but might be adapted for use with preschoolers or as teacher planning tools.

EdHelper: Illustrated examples of graphic organizers with links to templates for many different kinds. Many are designed for elementary-aged children and are not appropriate for preschoolers.;


Baldwin, S. (April 15, 2012). Waldorf Education in a Nutshell. Retrieved from Moon Child:

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. (2006). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Carter, D., & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for living and learning: Transforming early childhood environments. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Chaille, C. (2008). Constructivism across the curriculum in early childhood classrooms: Big ideas as inspiration. Boston: Pearson.

Colorado Department of Education (2009). Social studies standards. Retrieved from:

Conant, B. (April 4, 2012). Room arrangement: The basics. Retrieved from

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (Eds.) (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Datnow, A., & Castellano, M. (2000). Teachers responses to success for all: How beliefs, experience, and adaptations shape implementation.American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 775799.

David, J. L., & Greene, D. (2007).Improving mathematics instruction in Los Angeles high schools: An evaluation of the PRISMA pilot program.Palo Alto, CA: Bay Area Research Group.

David, J. L. (October 2008). Pacing guides. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 8788.

Deviney, J., Duncan, S., Harris, S., Roday, M., & Rosenberry, L. (2010). Inspiring spaces for young children. Silver Spring, MD: Gryphon Press.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (Eds.) (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach advanced reflections (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Gestwicki, C. (2011). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early childhood education (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Helm, J. (2007). Windows on learning: Documenting young childrens work (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Katz, L., & Chard, S. (2000). Engaging childrens minds. New York: Praeger.

Kauffman, D., Johnson, S. M., Kardos, S. M., Liu, E., & Peske, H. G. (2002). “Lost at sea”: New teachers experiences with curriculum and assessment.Teachers College Record, 104(2), 273300.

Louis, K. S., Febey, K., & Schroeder, R. (2005). State-mandated accountability in high schools: Teachers interpretations of a new era.Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(20), 177204.

Nilsen, B. (2010). Week by Week: Plans for documenting childrens development (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Pearlman, B. (2006). New skills for a new century: Students thrive on collaboration and problem-solving. Retrieved from Edutopia:

Prescott, E. (March/April 2004). The physical environment: A powerful regulator of experience. Child Care Information Exchange, 3437.

Shalaway, L. (2005) Learning to teach. . . . not just for beginners: The essential guide for all teachers (3rd ed.). New York: Scholastic.

Sornson, B. (2016, September/October). The journey to mastery: How competency-based learning creates personalized pathways to success for young learners [PDF file]. Principal, 96(1), 16–19. Retrieved from

South Carolina Department of Education. (2014). South Carolina academic standards and performance indicators for science [PDF file]. Retrieved from

State of Pennsylvania (2018, April 28). Pennsylvania code. Retrieved from Chapter 3270:

Swim, J. (April 4, 2012). Basic premises of classroom design: The teachers perspective. Retrieved from Early Childhood News:


The Concept of Early Childhood Curriculum

A woman holds a stack of papers while sitting in a classroom.

Fancy Collection / SuperStock

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe what curriculum is and what it includes.
  • Explain historical influences on modern curricula.
  • Describe what “developmentally appropriate practice” means.
  • Describe contextual factors that affect early childhood professionals’ work with curricula.
  • Discuss active reflection as an important teacher activity.


Imagine yourself interviewing for your first early childhood teaching position. You know you will need to dress professionally and to have a resume that highlights your strengths and experiences. You can assume that interviewers will ask questions about your education and experience with children and what kind of teacher you hope to be. But what else might you share with this prospective employer to establish confidence in your knowledge and ability to plan and implement curriculum effectively?

As an early childhood educator, you will be expected to make many decisions about curriculum that demonstrate your awareness of how children develop and learn, and you will need to select materials and apply these resources to meet the needs of a diverse group of children. Therefore an important theme of this text is decision making. Each of the six modules is guided by an important question that relates to a dimension of your role as a curriculum decision maker.

In this chapter, we explore the basics that will allow you to develop a full understanding of curriculum: what curriculum is, how it reflects a long history of thinking about children, how developmentally appropriate practice provides a framework for curriculum, and how to think about your work as an early childhood educator.

From the Field

One of the best ways to learn about early childhood education is to hear from experts in the field. Many video clips throughout this text will provide a “window” into the ways early childhood professionals think about and describe their work with young children. Our series of video clips begins with advice from program director Lucia Garay about what new teachers need to know and be able to do as early childhood educators.

Critical Thinking Question

  1. As you begin your journey to become an early childhood professional, what do you see as your strengths? Think about the expectations the director in the video described and identify one or two goals that might be a priority for you as well.

1.1 What Is Curriculum?

In the broadest sense, curriculum is a structured framework for teaching. As a student, you already have personal experience with curriculum, and you probably know that as an early childhood teacher, you will have to work within a curriculum as you teach your students. But, what does a curriculum include? What kinds of decisions does a teacher make about curriculum? This section addresses these questions.

What Does Curriculum Include?

In practice, curriculum is much more than a structured framework (National Association for the Education of Young Children [NAEYC], 2003). Especially in early childhood education, curriculum is understood to include (Figure 1.1):

  • The physical classroom space, or environment
  • All the materials the teachers use to instruct students
  • All the materials that children use
  • The methods and strategies teachers use to implement and assess the effectiveness of activities and lessons
  • Everything the children learn, intended or not (see Feature Box 1.1 on Hidden Curriculum)
Figure 1.1: Components of Curriculum

The concept of curriculum includes much more than just the materials used in the classroom. This Venn diagram illustrates the interrelated nature of curriculum elements.

Early childhood curriculum can be as open ended as a set of general guidelines, in which case the teacher will make many of the decisions about what and how to teach. Conversely, the curriculum can be structured to the point that its “what, when, and how” elements are carefully spelled out for the teacher (Frede & Ackerman, 2007). In any event, the curriculum is important because it governs much of what the teacher does in the classroom to help students learn what they are supposed to learn.

The Role of the Teacher

As the “coordinator in chief,” the early childhood educator has substantial responsibilities, including setting up and maintaining the environment, arranging equipment and materials, planning, implementing, and managing activities, and then assessing, communicating, and documenting how learning takes place.

The degree of flexibility that the teacher has in terms of how to structure the day or how detailed to make the lessons depends in part on the type of early childhood setting within which the teacher works. Working in a federally funded preschool program like Head Start, for example, usually involves a selected curriculum and clearly described procedures and expectations about how it will be implemented. On the other hand, teachers working in a private child-care program might get to select or develop the curriculum they use, while teachers in public schools have very different kinds of choices to make, as they navigate a complex system of curriculum standards, resources, and accountability.

The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum refers to things children and teachers learn or are expected to know in school that are not directly taughtoften related to social rules, interactions, and behaviors that represent the “culture” of a school, classroom, or home care setting (Giroux & Purpel, 1983; Jackson, 1968; Myles, Trautman, & Schelvan, 2004). Familiar examples of hidden curriculum include raising your hand when you want to be recognized, being quiet in the hallway, or lining up at the drinking fountain.

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Teachers help children and their parents navigate the hidden curriculum by clearly communicating and explaining expectations for conduct, interactions, and school or program values.

The environment communicates information about these hidden messages in different ways. For instance, you may remember from your own experiences in school that if your teacher seated students at desks aligned in rows facing the front of the classroom, you understood where attention should be focused and that it might not be acceptable to turn around to talk to the classmate seated behind you. Conversely, if your teacher seated everyone at small tables facing one another, you might have assumed it was acceptable to engage in conversation. Children get into trouble or can become confused when they misread or don’t understand the messages the environment is set up to convey. Complicating matters is the fact that the hidden curriculum can vary from teacher to teacher or one part of the school environment to another.

Young children especially need help “reading” these kinds of messages, as they often represent expectations that are very different from those they already know from home. For instance, perhaps at home one child has a toy box and is accustomed, when asked to clean up, to simply toss all the toys from the floor into the box. Another child may not be expected to help with putting toys away at all and may be allowed to leave them lying about. At school, we would help the child learn that all students are expected to help keep the classroom organized, and we would do this by putting picture labels on shelves to make it clear where each item or group of items belongs. By doing so, we convey an additional hidden message, which is that we value independence and responsibility and a spirit of “everyone helps.” Successful teachers not only implement the “official” curriculum effectively but help children to understand the hidden curriculum as well.

As a teacher, you might also be expected to conform to expectations that have not been explicitly explained or described to you. For instance, you might be told that your official work hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. But what if you arrive at school at 7:30 and you notice that you are the last car to pull in the parking lot and that all the other teachers are busy working in their classrooms as you enter the building? Will you feel anxious or confused? Should you ask someone if you are expected to arrive earlier than 7:30 or will that convey the wrong impression? As you consider how you might feel in this circumstance, remember that young children experience these same kinds of feelingswanting to be accepted and do the “right” thing at school, but perhaps needing help to understand what that means.

Stop and Reflect

When you think about your own experiences in school, can you recall how you learned to interpret a particular teacher’s body languageperhaps the slight nod of approval or the “look” that let you know you needed to think twice about what you were about to do? What are some other examples of hidden curriculum from your own school experience?

What Is the Difference between a Curriculum Approach and a Curriculum Model?

In the curriculum literature, the terms approach and model are sometimes used interchangeably (Frede & Ackerman, 2007), but they can also be interpreted differently. For purposes of clarity in this book, these two terms will differentiate the level of detail and specificity within a curriculum about how things should be done and the degree of freedom the teacher has to make choices. This distinction will be important as we discuss the kinds of decisions teachers make about curriculum.

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A curriculum is a program for learning implemented by teachers who work with children in many ways. In this photo, a teacher works with a small group of children.

Curriculum Approach

curriculum approach is a broad framework designed from a specific perspective or orientation about how children learn (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2008). An approach includes key ideas and principles but allows or encourages “reflection, practice, and further careful reflection in a program that is continuously renewed and readjusted” (Gandini, 1993, p. 4). Thus, a teacher who follows a particular approach will make a lot of choices about how to interpret and apply these principles. Reggio Emilia, which we discuss later in the chapter, is an example of a philosophical approach that guides the curriculum in many American preschools; however, schools following this approach do not receive materials or explicit instruction from Reggio Emilia administrators.

Curriculum Model

curriculum model, on the other hand, is more prescriptive. Formally, it’s defined as “an ideal representation of the theoretical premises, administrative policies, and pedagogical components of a program aimed at obtaining a particular educational outcome” (Spodek & Brown, 1993, p. 91). It describes everything about what and how the teacher will teach, from the way in which the classroom should be organized and the materials to use to activity plans and directions about how to introduce, teach, and assess lessons.

The purpose of having a model is to ensure consistency no matter who uses the curriculum or where it is implemented (Goffin, 2001). This allows for a high degree of reliability that the curriculum is being implemented as originally intended, so that it achieves its expected outcomes. The Montessori Method (Montessori, 1912), or a purchased curriculum that includes specific instructional materials you need in order to implement it, would be an example of a curriculum model. The choice to use a model or an approach is not reflective of one being better than the other but largely dependent on the mission or philosophy of a program.

Comprehensive and Limited-Scope Curriculum

A curriculum can also be comprehensive or limited in scope. A comprehensive curriculum addresses all areas of learning, while a limited-scope curriculum focuses on a single area, such as literacy, math, or the arts (National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center [NCCIC], 2011). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (Heroman et al., 2010) and The High Scope Preschool Curriculum (Epstein & Hohmann, 2012) are examples of comprehensive curricula, since they are designed to address all areas of learning. The High Scope Educational Research Foundation also offers limited-scope curricula that can be purchased separately, such as the High Scope Growing Readers Early Literacy Curriculum (2010) or the Numbers Plus Preschool Mathematics Curriculum (Epstein, 2009).


Curriculum standards are statements about what children should know and be able to do that are organized in a cohesive, systematic manner according to areas of growth and development or academic subject categories. Standards are developed by states, programs (such as Head Start), or organizations that represent different dimensions of curriculum, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) or Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Standards should not be confused with curriculum, but they are used to guide curriculum selection and implementation as well as evaluation of student achievement. For example, CCSS mathematics standards are grade specific and “provide clear signposts along the way to the goal of college and career readiness for all students” (Common Core State Standards [CCSS] Initiative, 2010, p. 4). Teachers developing curricula for second graders, for example, would focus on four core areas:

  • extending understanding of base-10 notation;
  • building fluency with addition and subtraction;
  • using standard units of measure; and
  • describing and analyzing shapes. (CCSS Initiative, 2010, p. 17)

While these standards will apply to any classroom governed by the national math standards, they do not dictate which curriculum to use to teach mathematics.

Degree of Teacher Control

A teacher’s effectiveness in implementing any curriculum will be greatly influenced by her knowledge about child development, the skills and experience he brings to the classroom, and her personal belief system (Hill, Stremmel, & Fu, 2005). As a new teacher, you might appreciate a curriculum that provides lots of direction, support, and instructional resources so that you can focus most of your energies on developing your skills and insights about how children learn and behave. Over time, teachers often develop a comfort level with a curriculum to the point where they can “tweak” it to more effectively meet the needs of individual children.

Some teachers see structured models as limiting what they can do with children’s imaginations, individuality, and intelligence. A highly experienced teacher may not need the kind of instructional support and direction provided by the curriculum. He may actually become frustrated if he is not permitted to exercise the personal knowledge and skills acquired through practice over time. We mentioned earlier that the degree of control a teacher has to interpret the curriculum can vary considerably by setting; that is, in some classrooms diverging from the set curriculum is not an option, while in others the teacher has more freedom to embrace more flexibility and creativity (Frede & Ackerman, 2007).

In all cases, children need and deserve teachers who understand them, are highly knowledgeable about the curriculum options, and know how to make good decisions on their behalf.

How Do Curricula Vary within Early Childhood Education?

All curricula, including those developed for young children, are designed to complement and support the students for whom they are intended. They include:

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A curriculum for infants emphasizes one-on-one interactions between adults and children.

  • A theoretical or philosophical orientation
  • Stated or implied assumptions about learners
  • Goals or intended outcomes for learners
  • Stated or implied assumptions about the role of teachers
  • Specified or suggested content
  • Specified or suggested methods of implementation and assessment of learners (Frede & Ackerman, 2007; Goffin, 2001; NAEYC, 2003)

The period of early childhood is commonly understood to include birth through age 8, as defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Yet within this period, children’s developmental characteristics and interests vary enormously, so curriculum across the early childhood span does as well. We would not expect a curriculum for infants or toddlers to be the same as one for first or second graders. In this section we will discuss some of the general similarities and differences in curriculum across early childhood.

General Distinctions

In general, curriculum for infants and toddlers emphasizes language development, socialization, exploration of the immediate environment, and acquisition of self-help skills, often through daily routines like diapering and feeding. Preschool curricula focus on the development of social and interpersonal skills, play, acquiring a love of learning, and thinking skills. Kindergarten serves as the transition from preschool to elementary school, and the curriculum begins to focus more on early reading and writing.

In the primary grades (1 through 3), curriculum is typically broken out into defined subject or content areas and the focus shifts from growth and development to academics. Strategies teachers use to implement curriculum for all young children should support individual and group needs of typically developing children, second-language learners, and those with special developmental needs (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

Teacher-Child Ratios

Young children usually spend their entire day with the same teacher, child-care provider, or small team of teachers, and early childhood educators usually plan for and implement all components of the curriculum. Typically, however, the teacher-child ratio, or the number of children each individual adult is responsible for, increases by age, because we know that owing to their physical needs and language capacities, infants and toddlers require more hands-on attention than do preschoolers, kindergarteners, and children in early elementary grades (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). Therefore curriculum for infants and toddlers will emphasize one-on-one interactions between the adult and child, while curriculum for preschoolers and older children includes an increasing number of activities for small groups of children and sometimes a larger group.


A high-quality comprehensive early childhood curriculum emphasizes global, integrated learning across all areas of development (NAEYC/NAECS/SDE, 2003). However, our knowledge of how children grow and develop across each of the individual developmental domains (cognitive, social-emotional, physical, creative) affects the expectations we have for children of different ages in each of these areas. For example, we don’t expect toddlerswho, at this stage of development prefer to play on their ownto interact with a group of children during play. We might however, be concerned about a kindergarten-aged child who doesn’t play with others, since by this age children have typically developed a preference for play with peers (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

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A well-equipped early childhood classroom provides a range of materials specifically chosen to support the needs and interests of the children.


Adults who work with young children rely on instructional materials and strategies, or “tools of the trade,” that support children’s needs and interests. Early childhood classrooms or child-care settings usually have basic furniture, equipment, and learning materials specifically designed for small children. Some curricula specify exactly what materials are needed; others provide general guidelines or suggestions.

Some early childhood materials, such as puzzles, are constructed to be used for very specific purposes (in this case, developing fine-motor coordination and matching a shape with a corresponding space). But the designs of these materials will vary according to the age of the child for whom they are intended. For example, toddler puzzles typically have fewer, larger pieces, some even with knobs on them, while puzzles designed for older children would have many more pieces and be smaller in size.

Similarly, blocks intended for toddlers will be large enough to be handled easily and might be made of foam or cardboard, while kindergarteners might have access to a large selection of wooden blocks of all sizes and shapes as well as a selection of accessory items, like small people and vehicles, to be used with them.

As children acquire language and an interest in reading and writing, the amount and kinds of paper and writing implements increase as well. Once children gain the ability to talk and move about, they will gradually become more interested in activities like easel painting, drawing with crayons and markers, and manipulating a large variety of materials that help them to acquire the fine motor skills they will need for writing. Their interest in reading and writing continues to develop as the curriculum exposes them to many different kinds of stories and nonfiction books. While reading and writing become a more prominent element of curriculum in the later part of early childhood, materials of all kinds that children can handle and manipulate remain an important feature throughout.

1.2 How Did Early Childhood Curriculum Evolve?

Prior to the seventeenth century, childhood was not generally considered a distinct phase of the life span. Children who survived the first years of life were quickly incorporated into the work routines that sustained the well-being of the family. However, beginning with the Enlightenment, thinkers like John Locke (16321734) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) began to describe the period of childhood as developmentally distinct and significant.

The way we think about early childhood curriculum today is influenced by many ideas about childhood that have emerged and evolved since that time. The curriculum models and approaches we use today reflect ongoing work with young children in places as diverse as the tenements of Rome and the laboratory preschools of influential universities.

A Cast of Influential Thinkers

Many scientists, theorists, and philosophers have contributed to the current view that children should be respected as individuals in their own right. Further, these thinkers continue to help us understand how children learn and the methods and environments that best encourage the learning process. The following brief profiles describe individuals whose ideas and theories have generated important themes for early childhood curriculum; these will be addressed throughout this text.

Friedrich Froebel


Many of Froebel’s gifts, including various blocks and tiles, can be found virtually unchanged in preschool classrooms today.

Friedrich Froebel (17821852) is generally credited with proposing the seminal idea that young children need a systematic program and materials specifically designed for their unique learning style. Froebel likened children to seeds to be cultivated in a “garden of children,” or kindergarten. He believed a teacher’s role was to observe and nurture the learning process, in part by encouraging them to play. He also believed that children’s play should be structured for their own protection and maximum benefit.

Froebel’s curriculum for young children centered on concrete materials he called “gifts” as well as activities, including songs and educational games, he described as “occupations.” Gifts were objects such as wooden blocks and colorful balls of yarn designed to teach children concepts about color, shape, size, counting, measuring, comparing, and contrasting. The purpose of occupationswhich involved the child’s manipulation of items like clay, paper, and beadswas to develop the fine motor and visual discrimination skills needed for reading and writing. Froebel encouraged the use of the play circle, a curriculum feature that looks familiar in any preschool classroom today, as a time to sing songs that would help to reinforce concepts and develop memory.

Maria Montessori

Many of Maria Montessori’s (18701952) ideas are embedded in virtually every early childhood program, and her influence on our thinking about curriculum has been profound (Goffin, 2001; Morrison, 2011). Montessori was the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree, and she was a tireless child advocate. She insisted that through proper early education, underprivileged and cognitively impaired children could be successful. She worked first with children who were described at that time as “mentally retarded” (a term we would not use today) and subsequently with poor children in the tenements of Rome, establishing preschools, each of which was called a Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House). In essence, Dr. Montessori proposed the idea of children at risk and the notion that society had a moral responsibility to devote resources to early intervention.

Dr. Montessori embraced and expanded Froebel’s kindergarten concept. She felt that children were natural learners and should drive much of their own learning. She asserted that children should be grouped in multiage (2½ to 5 years) classes to allow flexibility and opportunities for peer mentoring. Montessori developed an extensive set of “didactic” materials and lessons designed to be attractive to children and used by teachers to teach specific concepts and skills. She adapted furniture to child size as a gesture of respect for the unique needs of early learners (Montessori, 2008).

Montessori believed that the environment in which children learn should be meticulously prepared and organized to offer materials and activities in a carefully orchestrated sequence. She trained teachers to observe children carefully and recognize sensitive periods, the most appropriate moments at which to introduce new lessons. Montessori’s ideas about early education promoted the development of independence, responsibility, curiosity, and aesthetic sensitivity (Montessori, 2011). We will discuss her method in more detail in Chapter 2.

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Maria Montessori opened her first Casa dei Bambini in Rome in 1907.

John Dewey

At about the same time Montessori was conceptualizing early education in Italy, John Dewey’s (18591952) work completely redirected the course of American education with a movement known as progressivism. Dewey, known first as a philosopher, believed in pragmatism, or faith in the value of experience (practice) to inform ideas (theory). He promoted a practical approach to education, the idea that “education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Dewey, 1897).

Like Montessori, Dewey believed that the curriculum should be child-centered and school should be a place where children practice life through active, hands-on activities. Dewey also believed, like Froebel, that children learn through teacher-facilitated play. He viewed classrooms and schools as incubators for democracywhere we should learn social responsibility and citizenship (Dewey, 1916). To promote later success in society, progressive schools emphasized collaborative learning and problem solving.

Dewey also thought deeply about the role of the teacher, and his concept of the teacher as a facilitator represented a big departure from the commonly accepted notion of the teacher at the front of the room delivering information to children. He stated that “the teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences” (Dewey, 1897).

Dewey’s idea that schools should be places where “education is life” gave rise to thinking about curriculum in a new way. Thomas Heard Kilpatrick, one of Dewey’s students, published The Project Method in 1918, describing a scientific approach using long-term project work as a means of integrating learning across all areas of the curriculum and engaging children in topics of their own choosing. Dewey’s ideas about education as a process, teachers as collaborative partners, and curriculum as a practical and meaningful activity had an enormous impact on educators of his timean impact that is still felt today (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 2008).

Jean Piaget

A contemporary of both Montessori and Dewey, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (18961980) proposed a theory of cognitive development that initiated a constructivist view of curriculum. Piaget’s experiments with young children (some of them conducted at a modified Montessori school in Geneva, Switzerland) revealed them, during their play, to be active participants in the development of mental concepts through trial and error, repeated interactions with materials, and adaptation to the environment. His work confirmed early learning as distinct from other developmental periods, implying, therefore, that materials and activities for young children should reflect the idiosyncratic way in which they think and process stimuli (Branscombe et al., 2003; Chaille, 2008).

Piaget proposed that cognitive development occurs in four distinct stages, three of which occur either wholly or partially during early childhood (Piaget, 1977). In the sensorimotor stage, infants and toddlers process experience and begin to coordinate movement through sensory exploration (Branscombe, Castle, Dorsey, Surbeck, & Taylor, 2003). Preoperational thinking of preschoolers emerges spontaneously, as they are internally motivated to make sense of their environment by testing ideas and theories in play and exploration with materials (Chaille, 2008).

More From the Field

In this video, teacher Meredith Iverson describes how her experiences with young children help her see developmental theory in action.

Critical Thinking Question

  1. Identify an experience you have had with a young child that provided you with insight about how they think and learn differently than older children or adults.

At about age 7, children figure out that they can solve problems logically by using objects to perform “operations” (like addition and subtraction). They also begin to understand that operations are reversible (e.g., 2 + 3 = 5 is the same as 5 2 = 3) (Branscombe et al., 2003). Formal operations, or the ability to think logically and perform operations entirely in the abstract without the support of objects, begins to emerge at about age 11.

Piaget’s ideas and experiments have been challenged and reinterpreted in ways that continue to expand our understanding of a constructivist view of curriculum (Branscombe et al., 2003; Cannela, Swadener, & Chi, 2008). Most early childhood teachers recognize that children are “concrete thinkers” who require large blocks of time to explore materials and processes. However, “Constructivism is not a method, a curriculum model, or a series of appropriate practices. . . . Rather, constructivism is the theory that underlies the choices and decisions you make about how you set up the classroom, choose the curriculum, and respond to the children’s work and ideas” (Chaille, 2008, p. 5).

Lev Vygotsky

While Piaget’s work continues to have an immeasurable influence on early childhood researchers, teachers, and theorists, Lev Vygotsky (18961934) expanded constructivist theory in ways that also make particular sense to early childhood educators. Vygotsky proposed that cognitive growth was not just the result of individual interactions with materials, as described by Piaget, but a socially constructed process requiring interaction with others (Bodrova & Leong, 2008). He described the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a window of time when childrenwith thoughtful and intentional teacher coaching known as scaffoldingare most likely to be able to advance what they can do independently (Vygotsky, 1962). The ZPD is not unlike what Montessori described as a “sensitive period.”

Vygotsky’s work is most evident in early childhood curriculum today in the prominence of sociodramatic play and emphasis on language; these are considered mental tools that enable the child to convert experiences into internalized understandings, a key process in cognitive development (Bodrova & Leong, 2008). For example, when a group of children decide to set up a pizza parlor, they determine who will be the cook, servers, and customers. They might use paper to make hats and aprons and roll out modeling dough for pizza shells, pepperoni, and other toppings. They develop self-regulation as they apply mental and physical self-control and social rules to act out the scenario, all the time using language to negotiate, communicate, and offer ideas to keep the play going. As children begin to use objects symbolically, plan and take on roles in play, and use language to share experiences, higher-order thinking (executive functioning) develops.

Uri Bronfenbrenner

Uri Bronfenbrenner (19172005) proposed thinking about the growth of relationships as a multilayered, interactive ecological system of five expanding spheres of influence (Figure 1.2):

  1. The microsystem, which includes the environment with which children have the most direct and concrete experience, such as their family, neighborhood, schools and churches.
  2. The mesosystem, which consists of relationships among the elements of the microsystem, such as parent-teacher conferences or a school-sponsored back-to-school picnic.
  3. The exosystem, which influences children indirectly through policies and decisions of which children are largely unaware, such as the implementation of learning standards.
  4. The macrosystem, or the larger societal environment, which affects our daily lives. For example, living in a high-crime neighborhood would influence the resident children in a variety of ways.

Bronfenbrenner’s theory is important, as early childhood educators develop curriculum to be responsive to diversity and culture. The microsystems experienced by the young children in your group or class may be quite different in terms of language, ethnicity, foods, and family traditions. Including materials that reflect this diversitysuch as African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Caucasian baby dolls and play food from different culturesprovides a connection between the school or care and home environments.

Figure 1.2: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory can be visualized as a series of concentric circles that represent increasingly larger spheres of environmental influence.

Loris Malaguzzi

Loris Malaguzzi (19201994) founded the municipal early childhood programs in Reggio Emilia, Italy, immediately after the end of World War II; he is therefore known as the father of the Reggio Emilia approach. Malaguzzi is not considered a theorist or philosopher like Dewey or Piaget, but his contribution to early childhood curriculum is significant because he integrated and refined the ideas of others to legitimize an eclectic articulation of curriculum (Goffin, 2001; Hill, Stremmel, & Fu, 2005; Chaille, 2008).

A contemporary of theorists like Gardner, Piaget, and Bronfenbrenner, Malaguzzi modeled curriculum and program development through ongoing critical reflection, merging new ideas with old and reinventing as necessary. He envisioned curriculum as an organic process, responsive to the unique characteristics, interests, and community of children and families at any particular moment in time (Gandini, 1993; Malaguzzi, 1993). Chapter 2 includes a fuller description of key ideas associated with the Reggio Emilia approach.

Howard Gardner

Until 1983, the prevailing view of intelligence held that it could be measured by assessment of verbal and mathematical abilities and assigned a number, the intelligence quotient (IQ). The widespread use of standardized IQ tests, emphasis and time commitment in elementary school on language, literacy, and mathematics is evidence of the major influence of this perspective. In 1983, Howard Gardner (1943), a cognitive psychologist like Piaget, published Frames of Mind, challenging that view by describing intelligence as multidimensional, interactive, and fluid. Gardner identified seven distinct intelligences and added two more in 1995 (see Table 1.1).

Table 1.1: Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Dimension of IntelligenceExample of Profession
Disk Jockey

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI) immediately attracted a great deal of attention in education. Within a year of its publication, plans were under way to establish the Key School in Indianapolis (now known as the Key Learning Community), with a curriculum entirely based on MI theory.

Because he is a contemporary theorist, the full impact of Gardner’s MI theory has yet to be determined, and determining its influence on early childhood curriculum is a work in progress. In the latest edition of Frames of Mind, Gardner describes two major curricular implications of MI theory for teachers, individualizing and operating from a pluralistic perspective:

By individualizing, I mean that the educator should know as much as possible about the intelligences profile of each student. . . . and to the extent possible . . . teach and assess in ways that bring out that child’s capacities. By pluralizing, I mean that the educator should decide which concepts, topics, or ideas are of greatest importance, and should then present them in a variety of ways. (Gardner, 2011, p. xvi)

How Has Thinking about Curriculum Changed over Time?

The theories and ideas of the individuals profiled above, as well as those of others, continue to affect our thinking about early childhood curriculum. Other factors that influence curriculum development today include society’s values, standards, accountability systems, research findings, community expectations, culture and language, and individual children’s characteristics (NAEYC, 2003).

Our society’s core values are expressed through primary documents like the U.S. Constitution as well as through our laws, national holidays, social programs, and public education system. The variety of family structures and traditions, religious practices, and socioeconomic conditions reflected across our changing population continually shapes our culture. Globalization, art, the media, recreational pastimes, scientific discoveries, and technology also all play a role.

Individuals and society process these factors as internally held perspectives, a world view, that affects how we relate to others, react or respond to events, and imagine the future (Mezirow, 2000; Miller & Seller, 1990).

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This famous photo by Dorothea Lange shows a “Dust Bowl” mother and three of her seven children. It characterizes a time when the national world view was dominated by a mood of stress and worry. This made for an environment in which progressive ideas about education could take hold.

The Importance of Our World View

The goals, foundations, and characteristics of curriculum can be directly affected by changes in our societal world view, or the way individuals and groups of people perceive reality and how those perceptions affect the way they function in their day-to-day lives. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, optimism and faith in our economic system were replaced by uncertainty among millions of people about their immediate and long-term prospects, especially among those impacted by the ten-year drought known as the Dust Bowl. This was the perfect environment in which progressivism, as led by John Dewey, could take hold and shape curriculum for students of all ages. Early childhood curricula at that time reflected Dewey’s pragmatic approach to education, which emphasized the development of useful skills, teamwork, and collaboration. University laboratory preschools also flourished as education researchers sought to generate imaginative long-term solutions to our problems.

Similarly, in the late twentieth century, as America became firmly established as a superpower both economically and militarily, a general attitude of confidence prevailed. The standard of living was at an all-time high, but a report, titled A Nation at Risk, commissioned by President Ronald Reagan and published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, claimed that we were in trouble:

“Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . . and the well-being of [America’s] people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983)

The report described public schools as failing institutions. Citing a 1982 Gallup poll confirming that “people are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation for the future strength of this country,” the report set new goals for American education, redefined “excellence,” and called for comprehensive reform. The “nation at risk” report led to wide-ranging changes in public education. A debate as to whether the report helped or hurt education, including early childhood education, continues to this day (Hyun, 2002; Toppo, 2008).

As you might imagine, shifts in world view tend to be cyclical, as each new generation reacts to current events. Typically, when times are good and people feel confident and secure, they tend to adopt the attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Conversely, support for innovations and experimental curricula arises when the view of the world and the future is more negative or tenuous.

Early childhood curriculum developers will continue to adapt to movements like the development of state and national learning standards, demand for accountability, and changing public school configurations. This work is complicated by three conflicting world views reflected among curricula, communities, and individual teachers. These perspectives can be described as transmissional, transactional, and transformational (Miller, 2007; Miller & Seller, 1990).

Three T’s: Transmissional, Transactional, and Transformational Views of Education

In short, the transmissional view is traditional, in that students are expected to master information delivered by the teacher. This reflects a teaching method that was standard around the world until the twentieth century. The transactional perspective is more egalitarian, and people with a transformational orientation believe that a curriculum should represent the actual lived experiences of diverse groups of learners.

The goals of a transmission-style curriculum, in which the teacher typically stands at the front of the class delivering information, are efficient whole-group instruction, sequential presentation of information, and transfer of information from teacher to student (Smith, 1996, 2000; Tyler, 1949). The method does not allow much room for individual learning styles or rates of learning, as all children are expected to master the same material in the same amount of time.

A good analogy for the transmission style is an assembly line, where the “product” is uniformly prepared students. This approach is derived from and mimics the factory model that made America so successful following the Industrial Revolution and throughout the twentieth century (Miller & Seller, 1990; Sears, 2003; Toffler, 1970, 1990). While most early childhood classrooms today no longer reflect this approach, your own schooling experiences or those of your parents may have been primarily based on this view.

The goal of a transactional teacher or curriculum is to promote individualized learning through process-oriented experiences and activities that are meaningful and relevant to both students and the teachers (Smith, 1996, 2000). Transactional classrooms are often organized with different activity areas and blocks of time when children are free to choose to work alone or with playmates and to direct their own activities. Teachers work with students individually and in small groups. Curriculum is often organized around topics or themes into units of study that integrate different areas of learning.

Transactional curriculum originated with progressivism and is heavily influenced by constructivism (Fenwick & Anderson, 2005; Miller & Seller, 1990). Early childhood classrooms and curriculum today reflect this highly interactive, collaborative style of teaching and learning.

The primary goal of transformative teachers and curriculum is to ensure that multiple perspectives are reflected among children and families in increasingly diverse communities (Bredekamp & Rozengrant, 1992; Miller & Seller, 1990). In early childhood, this view is promoted by a group of researchers and educators who call themselves reconceptualists and interpret and develop curriculum from a social justice perspective (Cannela, Swadener, & Chi, 2008). A teacher with a transformative orientation emphasizes curriculum focused on inquiry, driven by questions relevant and important to the students rather than predetermined goals or outcomes.

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