Is your curriculum designed to follow the interests of children? Is it open-ended enough to meet the needs of mixed-age groupings? With the introduction of the second free pre-school year many practitioners are wondering about their curriculum. How will they cope with children from maybe 2 and a half years old to 5 years plus, all in the same group? What will their curriculum look like over 2 years?
We know that for many years, long before the introduction of the free preschool year, pre-school settings have been places where children of varied age groups play together. We know that children learn from one another – the younger children learn how to engage in play and how to develop play stories and roles, the older children learn how to engage and manage the younger children and how to be good mentors and teachers. Indeed, back in the 1930’s, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the phrase ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) to refer to this very practice of learning from more capable others. Children, he says, can achieve skills and thinking levels in interaction with others that they cannot manage alone. This is what learning is about. We see it every day in families – children clean, cook, shop, paint, plant and build with help from others – all skills that they could not accomplish alone. Jerome Bruner used the term ‘scaffolding’ to describe the supports we give. The scaffolds are there until the building is capable of standing on its own. Children get the supports they need from one another and from adults, until they have mastered the skills themselves.
In early childhood settings, we recognise that when younger children play with older children they display higher levels of involvement in complex play, use more sophisticated expressive language (descriptions, vocabulary and conversations) and engage in more negotiation and problem solving. But there are also benefits for the older child in these mixed-aged groupings. The older child demonstrates more responsibility and leadership, and discovers how to involve the younger child in their play and how to be kind, caring and persuasive. These are very important leadership and management skills.
When developing a curriculum to support these mixed age groupings, we need to consider children’s interests, questions and experiences. We need to recognise that long before children enter pre-school settings they come with knowledge, dispositions, abilities, needs, interests and theories about how the world works. When we find out what children already know and what they are enquiring about, we can begin to plan how to extend and support their further learning and development. Harnessing children’s interests can be the stimulus for a relevant, meaningful and stimulating curriculum for all ages. It is called an emergent curriculum.
Over the next few weeks, we want to think and talk more about what this kind of curriculum looks like in practice. We’d love you to join in the conversation, so we really welcome your comments and thoughts in the comment box below.