Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Emergent


Contemporary interpretations of an emergent curriculum draw on the ideals of progressive education and child-centered pedagogy. The term emergent curriculum was introduced to the field of early childhood education by Elizabeth Jones in her introduction to the book Curriculum Is What Happens (Dittmann, 1970) and later more completely in the book Emergent Curriculum (Jones and Nimmo, 1994). The term served as a container for exiting practices in the field and helped communicate important theoretical and philosophical ideas in a coherent way.

The adoption of the traditional term “curriculum” was intended to shift the frame of reference from teacher-directed, written plans focused on narrow educational objectives to conceptualizing curriculum as all that actually happened in a child’s day. An underlying assumption of the approach is that preplanned curriculum can lead to educational standardization and less attention to the diversity of children’s experiences and abilities (Jones, Evans, and Stritzel Rencken, 2001). Rather than having curriculum content defined apriori by external bodies, experts or frameworks, the emergent approach sees content as virtually infinite for young children. Specific curriculum decisions are negotiated locally by teachers and learners based on their documentation and assessment of the context and through a consideration of the community’s educational values.

The foundation of Emergent Curriculum in a child-centered pedagogy is best demonstrated in the focus on children’s active engagement in play. Play is viewed as a context in which young children take the lead in exploring, representing, and solving meaningful problems. While Emergent Curriculum shares many of the tenets of other child-centered approaches by highlighting curriculum content that is designed from children’s emerging ideas, questions and problems, the term goes further by acknowledging the significance of other contextual sources for curriculum. These sources include the physical and social environment, serendipitous events, social problems, cultural and community values, and the interests and skills of teachers and other significant adults. In the preface to the Chinese translation of Emergent Curriculum, Nimmo, Jones, and Li-Chen (2003) write that children’s observations and questions emerge “out of a unique context that speaks to important differences in family, local community, history and culture” (p. 6). In this respect, Emergent Curriculum also shares underlying assumptions with culturally relevant/responsive models (Ladson-Billings, 1994), which emphasize the grounding of curriculum and pedagogy in an understanding of children’s prior knowledge, cultural values and history, and learning styles.

Emergent Curriculum has been differentiated from other social constructivist approaches such as the Project Spectrum model (based on the theories of Gardner and Feldman) and the Reggio Emilia approach because it has been viewed by some educators as requiring a more passive or minimized role for the teacher (Chen, Krechevsky, and Viens, 1998, p.29). While the term itself grammatically suggests this passive orientation, the associated practice and writings acknowledge the significance of an intentional planning process and the need for negotiation between teachers and learners in determining content and teaching strategies. The terms negotiated curriculum (Forman and Fyfe, 1998) andprogettazione (Rinaldi, 1998) have been proposed as concepts that more effectively capture this active role of the teacher in curriculum development.

While Emergent Curriculum does not advocate specific pedagogical strategies, there is a clear focus on constructivist and social constructivist practices such as those inspired by the experiences from the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, including documentation and collaboration (Rinaldi, 1993). The spontaneity and flexibility of teachers in being able to adapt to and respond to the unexpected and unplanned is viewed as an important pedagogical skill and disposition (Jones, 1986). Emergent Curriculum is complementary to the Project Approach (Katz and Chard, 2000) but differs in its emphasis on deriving curriculum from sources that are relevant and meaningful to young children and their context. The specific structures and techniques of the Project Approach, which focus on in-depth projects and an inquiry orientation, can be applied, but the Emergent Curriculum also acknowledges everyday social activity, play, and other isolated classroom experiences that may not be conceptualized as forming specific projects or investigations. See Pedagogy, Child-Centered.

Further Readings: Chen, J., M. Krechevsky, andJ. Viens (1998). Building on children’s strengths: The experience of Project Zero. Project Zero frameworks for early childhood education. Vol 1. Series Editors, H. Gardner, D. H. Feldman, and M. Krechevsky. New York: Teachers College Press; Forman, G., and B. Fyfe (1998). Negotiated learning through design, documentation and discourse. In C. P. Edwards, L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds., The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach—Advanced reflections. 2nd. ed. Greenwich, CT: Ablex; Jones, E. (1970). Preface. In L. Dittman, ed., Curriculum is what happens. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Jones, E. (1986). Teaching adults: An active learning approach. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Jones, E., andJ. Nimmo (1994). Emergent curriculum. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Jones, E., K. Evans, and K. Stritzel Rencken (2001). The lively kindergarten: Emergent curriculum in action. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Katz, L.G., and S.C. Chard (2000). Engaging children’s minds: The Project approach. 2nd ed. Stamford, CT: Ablex; Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Nimmo, J., E. Jones, and W. Li-Chen (2004). Preface to the Chinese Language Edition of the book Emergent Curriculum by E. Jones and J. Nimmo. Translated by X. Zhou, L. Z. Lu, and B. Wang. Shanghai, China: East China Normal University; Rinaldi, C. (1993). The emergent curriculum and social constructivism. An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds., The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Rinaldi, C. (1998). Projected curriculum constructed through documentation-progettazione. An interview with Lella Gandini. In C. P. Edwards, L. Gandini, and G. Forman, eds., The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach—Advanced reflections. 2nd ed. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

John Nimmo