Thursday, October 6, 2016

Planning With Verbs

On the surface, “Emergent Curriculum” sounds easy enough. Observe the children, listen to their comments and questions, and find ways to extend what they’re interested in. Emergent curriculum often takes the shape of thematic curriculum, with the notable feature that the theme is something that the children introduced, not simply something the teacher decided on. A child brings in handful of leaves collected from the playground, another child brings in leaves from her backyard, and the emergent theme becomes “Fall” or “Fall leaves.” Several children choose to play with toy construction vehicles in the block corner day after day, so the emergent theme becomes “Construction”. Teachers plan art activities and select books, plan field trips, and choose materials for every area of the classroom to support children’s interest in the emergent theme.

But how do we know that what we as teachers perceive as the children’s interest is what the actual interest is?

One of the problems I find with planning thematic units is that they focus on a topic – on a noun adults assign to the category of objects that children express interest in. Leaves, trucks, colors, doctors, bakeries, etc. etc. As adults we zoom in on the “thing” that the children are interested in, and sometimes miss the reason that they’re interested in it.

We focus our planning on nouns when we should focus our planning on verbs.

When the children gather buckets full of leaves, are they really interested in the leaves themselves – their shapes and colors, the life cycle of trees, and their symbolic significance to regional seasonal weather? Or are they mesmerized by the texture and the sound of things that crumple and crinkle? Is it even important to the children that those are leaves in their bucket, or are they seeking out any available material that they can enclose in a container and transport across the playground? The things that they are interested in are important, but equally important, and often overlooked, is what they are doing with things that they are interested in. Our planning needs to involve verbs as much as nouns.

One way to do this is to view children’s interests in terms of schemas - the ways that children interact with, conceptualize, and construct knowledge about the world. Rolling a toy truck across the rug might not be an interest in trucks, or construction workers, or building sites – it might be an interest in motion, rolling, or speed. The bucket full of leaves might just as easily be a bucket full of rocks, or pompoms, or crumpled pieces of paper, and the interest is in transporting them from place to place. It’s easy for teachers to name the objects that the child shows interest in, it’s more challenging to observe what the child is doing with those objects.

But that’s what we have to do. To facilitate truly emergent curriculum, our observations and conversations need to hone in on children’s understandings and the concepts that children are grappling with. We need to look past the theme and discover the meaning through the child’s eyes. Sometimes a pile of leaves is about the leaves, but sometimes it’s a different thing entirely.


  1. Thanks for the thought -provoking post that asks us to look deeper :-) I will be adding to my collection of articles on "curriculum" in our classroom and will be thinkinh about your words the next time an interest/theme appears to be emerging.

  2. Thanks for the thought -provoking post that asks us to look deeper :-) I will be adding to my collection of articles on "curriculum" in our classroom and will be thinkinh about your words the next time an interest/theme appears to be emerging.

  3. Thank you! I'm glad you found this post meaningful.

  4. Thanks for this wonderful post! It aligns with something else that I read before -- I think that Diane Kashin wrote it -- about forming inquiries around verbs versus nouns (themes). I can totally see the benefit in this. I wonder though if sometimes we start with the noun, and need to watch and listen closely, to figure out the real interest and the "verb" for our inquiry. I've seen this so far in our classroom this year. We see an interest evolving, but now it's a case of putting out some new provocations, seeing what the children do, conversing with each other and with them, and really narrowing in on the verb. Does this make sense? I wonder if others have noticed this as well.


  5. I often encourage folks to focus on the how, rather than the what. How is the child using materials, how is the child playing, how are they in relationship? Rather than, what are they doing? Verbs rather than nouns open up our viewpoint, leading to a wider perspective. In my first book, the example of trucks that you mention is actually used when a student observer said 'I don't think it's about the trucks....I think it's about the movement.' We often need to just slow down and consider options!

  6. Love this thinking and Diane Kashin and I have been advocating this message for many years now. It's a slow journey forward!

  7. I think a lot of teachers already think this way in terms of themes, but the focus on planning for the materials instead of the actions can happen with open-ended Reggio inspired materials as well. Imagine a provocation of various loose parts that are different shades of blue, and the child's response isn't to sort or pattern them, but to pour them into a cardboard box and shake them. The teacher needs to be able to let go of her idea of how that material should be used, and follow the child's cues about what they want to experience and discover.