Paying attention to children and what they like is the key to their greatest learning experiences. It’s called emergent curriculum, and this is much like how it happens:
“Imagine being on a quest with a group of children, walking through the woods, and suddenly discovering something shiny on the ground. You pause to look, brush away the dirt and leaves, and uncover a hatch. You stop, knowing the excitement is just the beginning, and ask questions. Oh, those “W” questions lead to hours of wondering and predictions. At last, you open the hatch and discover there is no darkness. There is light and a beautiful stairway, leading to the joy of learning.”
In order for emergent curriculum to happen like this, I have to be open and let my instincts be my guide. Of course, it is the children who always start the ball rolling. And, a play performance can often be that shiny hatch, what the children want when they are involved in learning.
We studied Fairy Tales recently; reading stories, telling stories, writing stories, using props, learning about different characters. The children deemed Goldilocks a “not-listener”. They were right. We then voted on the Fairy Tales we liked the best, and one was The Three Little Pigs.
The children were interested in the story and the characters. After reading different versions, we debated on what the wolf really did. Did he eat the pigs, or did each pig rush to the house of his brother when the wolf was huffing-and-puffing? Hands down, the popular choice was the pigs running away. So, the only thing left to do, in order to make this thinking and studying work, was to become the characters ourselves. That meant a play performance.
After all, isn’t that what a good book ultimately does? The reader becomes the characters.
Costumes? Oh, no. The only thing we needed were the pig’s houses.
We placed the straw house and the stick house atop our classroom tables, and the brick house alongside our loft. Children chose to be pigs, wolves, and sellers. Then, I stood back and watched amazing things happen.
Jayden, one of the quiet and younger children, and only three-and-a-half years old, decided to be a seller. When the pigs came to buy his straw, he belted out, “I don’t think that’s a good idea!” When the next group of pigs came to buy his sticks, he said, “That is NOT a good idea”, with the confidence and determination of a real seller of sticks. I could hardly believe it.
Wolves and pigs nailed the words they wanted to say, and became the characters. Even the old sow, the mother pig, had a grand performance.
Why did this play work? There were no costumes, no set lines to say, just the children wanting, needing to do this in order to go along that stairway in the light, under the hatch.
I have watched far too many plays with nervous children worrying if they mess-up their lines, and plays that focus on the costumes. It makes me sad. It has nothing to do with learning and developing self-esteem. What do children really need to experience? Self-esteem, bravery, and joy. Those will be their foundation. I know this to be true; it all started with Kevin…
Kevin was what teachers refer to as an “observer”, a child who watches others, usually at a bit of a distance. He was painfully shy. Even talking with his teachers was not easy for him. Kevin was in my summer camp group, and we did a play performance at the end of each camp session. Kevin decided he wanted to be a dog in the play. We sneaked into the storage room so children could pick anything they wanted to make their own costume. Kevin found a piece of brown card stock paper, cutting out a small triangle.
“It’s my tail”, he exclaimed with a satisfied look on his face. “Do you need anything else?” I asked. “No, I’m all set.”
When the play began, Kevin walked onto that stage with tall shoulders and a big smile. Of course, no one could see the tail, but that didn’t matter. Kevin knew it was there. He was terrific in the play. We did another play, with children wanting to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That is one difficult song! Yet, the group was sure, mainly because one boy was quite a gifted singer. The plan was to have him in the front, and the other children behind him holding the American flag. We practiced. It worked.
As we lined up behind the curtain, ready for the play to begin, the boy panicked and refused to sing. He was in tears. Before I had a moment to help out, Kevin stepped forward and quietly announced he would sing. Kevin! He was wonderful. The audience cried silent tears.
That’s what happens when children have the freedom to be, and the support to ‘just do it’.
Today Kevin is in a top college, a math and science guy. He wears a big smile, and he has a knowing warmth about him, much like someone who has had a few life experiences under their belt. He has, indeed.