Curriculum design utilizes multiple strategies to maximize the variety of ways that children learn. Through ongoing professional development and collaboration, we are consistently gathering and integrating new resources and techniques into our approach to early childhood education, so we can richly invest in each individual student. It would be impossible to list every method here, but below are two design strategies and classroom examples so that you can get a glimpse of how we learn together in The Studio Garden.
Curriculum Design Strategy – Providing Opportunities for Exploration, Integration, Connection, and Application
As a curriculum designer I look for the most effective and engaging way to build a journey of discovery for the learner. My goal is to assemble a variety of ways the student can explore different aspects of a concept. I seek to provide a range of experiences, ultimately creating three-dimensional understanding of each idea. After thorough observation and creative exploration, I then guide the learner through a process of integration, connection, and application. Integration synthesizes the child’s different discoveries of a concept or idea. Connection identifies the relationship to previously learned material in related subjects and/or places the new learning within a larger context. Lastly, application takes the new learning and applies skills or principles to subjects that are related – not just in content, but also in function.
Classroom Example: “Tools that Twist”
For example, in class we might be learning about tools that twist. Exploration: The students learn how to use age-appropriate tools and materials (screws, nuts and bolts, wrenches and screwdrivers). We then observe what is the same about these tools. Then we contrast the twisting tools with a different tool that they have used before, like a hammer. Integration: After becoming familiar with the twisting tools and functions, we may build a small structure that has a simple function (pushing, digging, or lifting). As we build we might identify the different shapes we are using, how many pieces make the structure, and how many twists will fully tighten the screw or bolt. Connection: Once we have built and fully experimented with our structure, then we would match the function of what they built to that of larger construction trucks and machines that they haven’t used themselves, but that they have learned about in other classroom areas (books, photo matching, sensory table etc.). Application: Following this lesson, during art-making we would sculpt with materials that use a similar twisting motion like pipe cleaners and clay. We could also do the same with painting. We would paint with tools that twist and notice how the listing motion creates a different result with painting than with sculpting. Lastly in music, we would make music with an instrument called the cabasa, which is played with the same twisting motion as the tools we used. We would sing cultural songs that use the cabasa and notice similar sounds created by the metal parts of the cabasa as we heard using the metal twisting tools earlier. We would then sing a building song with the cabasa – and the noisy tools – to bring the experience full circle. Finally, we would end with a fun book about building that features rhythm and onomatopoeia.
Curriculum Design Strategy: Linking Learning and Increasing Inquiry
I have found that the creativity, inspirations, and natural surprises embedded in the arts are an ideal catalyst to engage students in more deeply exploring and more broadly applying what they have learned. I also have found that the most powerful learning moments often occur in the space where one idea in one subject overlaps with a similar idea in different subject – like a series of overlapping circles. Each subject “link” has a learning cycle that then leads us to connect to another link. The cycle is: observe, zoom in, explore, identify a connection point, and follow curiosity to a new link. We continue the linking process until the chain for our lesson is complete. The goal for this learning strategy is not to remember which subjects are linked, but rather to encourage the process of seeing similarities and then following our curiosity as it leads us through different subjects. This process mirrors how children experience various activities and afterward establish connections and order to those experiences. We all have seen the joy when a child will notice similar objects in different contexts. Imagine if we actually trained them not merely to be pleasantly surprised when this happens, but to look for those connections actively and allow their curiosity to carry them further. We nurture their natural sense of inquiry and increase their follow-through in deepening their own learning.
Example: Bluebirds, Triangles, and Bears
For example, let’s say we read a fictional storybook that features bluebirds as the main characters, but is not about how bluebirds live in nature. We observe what the story was about, and we wonder about bluebirds in nature. We zoom in and explore bluebirds more closely – where they live, the nests they build, the eggs they lay, and their unique color and feathers. When we look closely at the patterns on the bluebird’s feather, we see patterns of lines. Those patterns look very interesting – we explore them using art by painting the lines we see in the feather on our papers. Maybe we even paint with feathers as we explore this! We notice that the point the lines connect looks like a shape. We compare the shape on our paper with shape cut-outs, and we identify that the shape on our paper looks like a triangle. We then observe the triangle more closely – counting its sides and points, and tracing its shape. Then we cut out triangles in different colors and sizes. We zoom in and explore what we can make with triangles. Through looking at photos of nature landscapes, we make the connection that triangles look like mountains. Then we observe a mountain – big, made of rock, and three-dimensional. So we explore creating a three-dimensional triangle with self-hardening clay. Once we have built our mountain, we may notice that some mountain look gray and others look green. What makes them green? We zoom in and notice that forests are on the sides of mountains. We imagine what animals might live in the mountain forests – on the ground like bears or in the trees like squirrels and birds. We may pretend to be birds flying over and around our mountain. We may create our own story about our mountain, sing a few bear songs, and end by reading a book that has a bear, a mountain, and a bird in it. The children have experienced how reading a story can lead to science, art, geometry, sculpture, nature, songs, and to creating our own stories. Full circle! They experience learning as interconnected encounters guided by their own inquiry. Of course they don’t understand the scope of the multiple subject areas they explored, but they do become more familiar with the process of inquiry. Later, they will begin to make their own connections in different areas of the classroom. At this point, the children begin taking greater ownership of the process. As a curriculum designer, I can then follow the children’s connections and build the curricular experiences around their processes of inquiry. This is a core principle of Montessori education and is foundational in how we design our classroom learning.