Themes in Early Childhood Education: Will They Ever End?

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. It was about fifteen years ago that I embarked on a journey to research, write and defend a doctoral dissertation on emergent curriculum. I wanted to write about a topic that reflected my practice as an early childhood educator and focused on an unresolved problem. I graduated with an early childhood education diploma in the 1980s without a clear pedagogical orientation. In fact I had never heard of the word pedagogy. While I was eager to expose children to the wonder of new experiences and discoveries, I looked for recipes and plans without critically examining teaching practice in relation to theory. I accepted a theme approach to curriculum development. Today, I have gone back to my dissertation: Reaching the Top of the Mountain: The Impact of Emergent Curriculum on the Practice and Self-Image of Early Childhood Educators to once again reflect on themes and pose the question, when will they ever end? All these years later, I still hear about their use and wonder why, they have endured when there is now so much written and available on an approach to curriculum that emerges.

A Fall Theme

A theme is usually a broad concept or topic like seasons or animals and is often based on holidays. In theme work, children are rarely involved in posing questions to be answered or taking initiative for investigation. Themes are teacher-directed and teacher-owned. I chose what would be the content of the learning for the children that I worked with from a book, which told me what to do every day of each week. It was easy way to plan. At first, I was excited to see how the children would respond to the “reproducibles” and cut outs that represented the theme. However, the excitement of using a curriculum based on themes quickly evaporated. I became bored with the approach of planning curriculum based on overriding week-long themes. I knew that there was something more to teaching and learning. At the time, I was experiencing cognitive dissonance and have written about this in past posts including one on facing the resistance to change. I recall back then, I was increasingly uncomfortable with what I had once believed to be an acceptable approach when children displayed disinterest in a particular theme. It was not during the theme activities that I could see learning taking place. It was during play, when the children themselves were faced with cognitive dissonance, realizing that in order to build a bridge from blocks, a foundational structure was needed.

Building a Bridge

The overuse of themes suggests a process that is mimetic with the children repeating or miming newly presented information. It is an artificial imposition on children. Themes can end up merely as external decoration superimposed on children and the environment. The length of the theme is preset by the calendar or the teacher. It implies a planned or crafted progression, as in the notion of developing a theme. It suggests an overarching, general concept that connects several ideas. It is based on the assumption that all children will benefit and be interested. It does not acknowledge each child’s uniqueness and does not empower children to be part of the process. The common issues and concerns about teaching children using themes involve planning themes in advance and choosing themes with questionable meaningfulness. Often teachers use seasons and holidays as the guide to curriculum planning with themes. Holiday themes run the risk of being little more than a convenient backdrop for classroom decorations and craft displays. Early childhood education curriculum should be about meaning making. A meaningful curriculum is relevant to children. Recently, I had the privilege to visit Blueberry Creek Forest School and Nature Centre and spent time with a child who was given time and space to create her own representations of her own learning. This is how learning should happen!

A Fairy Garden

When themes are chosen without consideration of children’s interests and development, they run the risk of being meaningless. Children need to be involved in the process and there should be consideration of how children learn. Since themes are often short lived (one week in duration), there is also potential for a lack of depth. The message being communicated through the use of themes is that there is a great deal of information to be consumed by children through a transmission model of learning. Themes related to the alphabet, numbers and geometric shapes are accepted as important concepts for children. The difference between a theme method and a curriculum with an emerging focus is that that what children actually know about the subject or topic is as relevant as their interest in that content. The image of the child embedded is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within the environment.

Theme of the Week is Letters

Why are themes still used? I would love to read your perspectives about the endurance of this curriculum approach. My theory is that it connects to the need to fill in boxes on a planning form. The theme approach has very specific features revealed in linear, segmented ways as activities written into a matrix posted outside the classroom. This is the early childhood educator’s curriculum plan. Ever since I was a practising early childhood educator, I was constantly searching for the ultimate format that could represent a more authentic view of what was happening in the classroom. I am still searching. I was excited to find a discussion thread in an early childhood education Facebook group about planning formats and hoped to see something innovative shared. I was saddened by what was shared. Even though there were not overarching themes, the boxes were filled with discrete and questionable experiences. Do you have a format that works for you? Does it offer something meaningful? In retrospect, when I recall the matrix of activities that represented the curriculum I presented to children, it was irrelevant, meaningless, and incongruent. The main challenge was to fill in the boxes so that each represented the overarching theme, paying little consequence to what or how children were learning. My blind adherence to themes brings to mind the words of Malaguzzi as eloquently expressed in the “100 Languages” poem:

The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred, hundred, hundred more). But they steal ninety-nine; the school and the culture separate the head from the body. They tell the child to think without hands, to do without head, to listen and not speak, to understand without joy, to love and marvel only at Easter and Christmas.

In my own experience with themes, no concerted effort was made to include the children’s wishes and interests. Some teachers may be able to use themes flexibly and allow for transgressions from the dominant theme, but I found it necessary to “stay on theme.” I made an assumption, every week and every day, about what the children needed to know. I acted as the transmitter of this knowledge. I was not open to hearing the voice of the children, the voice of the families, nor even my own inner voice. The primary way I covered the theme was through the use of adult-created, precut shapes that represented common symbols. Often, I would also include worksheets, which satisfied a need to have an academic focus within my classroom. That was then, it shouldn’t be now. Why have themes endured?

8 thoughts on “Themes in Early Childhood Education: Will They Ever End?

  1. The struggle is real. Thank you for this insight. Themes are easy. To an educator it is very concrete. No thinking involved or deeper meanings to be found. As a Director and coordinator of our program, I struggle with my educators to have them think deeper about the meaning of the children’s play and what are they trying to figure out about our world and life together in a school. Themes are only busy work and to satisfy a need to show parents that their children were busy in the day but educators are missing so much more from their children. We use Research Questions to start the thinking for the educators and our children. Just my thoughts and work as I define my works pedagogy. Heather Jackson, RECE Director of The Sunflower School in Orangeville

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  2. I feel like I have a similar story as you. My first job as an ECE was at a theme based center. But I deep down had a feeling theme wasnt for me. But it was the way. I actually struggled to do the planning format and fill in the boxes and I often wonder if it was because it felt so robotic and that I had no excitement for what I was planning. Could themes be sticking around because we still have the “We are teachers” mindset? That we have to plan and create and know what’s going to happen and what the children are learning? Maybe we are afraid of the unknown?

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  3. I agree with Heather. I feel themes are ‘easy’. It allows for educators to plan ahead, up to a year even, rather than observe their children, build relationships and get to know their interests and needs. I particularly struggle with this when I visit our before and after school Kindergarten programs and I observe the bulletin board displays that are presented by the classroom educators. There is no evidence of ‘authentic learning, deeper questioning, a challenge of learning. At the same time these educators are concerned with all of the ‘behaviour struggles’ in their rooms. It takes work to challenge ourselves but it’s good work. What if we approach it in a different way: what are your children interested in and ‘pretend’ that is your theme?? Maybe we can slip in the other pieces that need to happen. Just a thought. If we can’t get the themes to end can we reframe them?

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  4. Thank you for the article. I remember when I started working in the field many years ago. In my first 3 years we used themes for our after school group. The children were less than enthusiastic about their existence. Then I met a new co-teacher who shared a different way to approach our work with the children. We worked with the children and transitioned our approach and the children loved following their interests and diving deep into their work with us as partners in learning. As my career has moved along and I have worked in different school age programs, I have tried to share the same gift with other educators and it is usually met with resistance. Often the educators express they do not believe a child directed approach will be successful with school age children. I want to be positive and optimistic for the future of our field but this mindset has not changed for the most part my entire 24 year career. There is work still to be done to get the message out that there is a better way to support a thriving learning community.

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  5. I love this post. This is a topic that I’ve talked about frequently with other educators and everyone seems to feel a little differently.
    I’ll be the first to speak in defense of themes. They can be absolutely essential, especially in the context of nature education. While I do agree that some theme-based curriculum can be tired and lazy, I feel very strongly that there is a union of the two concepts. Themes and emergent curriculum are not mutually exclusive in my experience. An example that comes to mind is the theme of seasonal changes, which has come up for three years running in our program, yet has been entirely student-sourced. Although the program had different students, different class culture, and even an entirely different building, our class resoundingly picked seasons as a topic that they wanted to learn about.
    I believe that while some themes are artificial or teacher imposed, there are overarching human themes that are echoed in emergent outdoor classrooms. Kindness, life cycles, seasons, death, weather, and insects are all undoubtedly themes, but when them come organically from the students they can carry incredible weight and make for hugely dynamic explorations. I feel that there is merit in the recurrence of these; namely that there are commonalities between what all people in nature experience.
    Mostly, I think the word “theme” is very general. Although they are carefully considered and often distilled and reflected upon, Languages are at their core the themes of Reggio-inspired programs.

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  6. I will agree that theme based teaching is no longer my preferred method. I was just recently reflecting on why themes continue to be taught as I was going through our preschool storage room. There are a lot of ‘theme boxes’ from past teachers who had collected items related to particular themes. I think that if these are in storage and a new teacher comes in, it is easy to go through the boxes, use the stories/songs/puzzles/art materials collected, and deliver a program based on whatever themes have been used in the past. I don’t get much time with my storage materials, but I am slowly deconstructing the boxes, tossing things that are no longer relevant and saving what I feel I can in corporate into my own practice.

    Longer term projects and ‘threads’ really appeal to me so we are exploring music and movement, gardening, tasting and cooking items from the garden. Themes in the children’s play that have come up in our class this year are ghosts, treasure, construction, trains, and doctor/dentist.

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  7. Pingback: From Across the Pond: What Early Childhood Educators Can Learn | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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