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?

22 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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    • I was a stay at home Mom. Was always an active volunteer in the classroom – whatever the teacher needed. When my youngest child was a senior, I went back to college and took Early Childhood Classes. Went to work as a Pre-K teacher (4’s and 5’s). This is when I was introduced to theme’s and classroom “decor”. I managed to do it, but my heart was never in it because I had “taught” my 3 at home until they started Kindergarten. I have been teaching 30 years in June (7 of those as a Director). The last 13 years I have been teaching a Kinder Prep class 1/2 day Program. I do not use themes. It just does not fit with my idea of early education. My kiddos all have done quite well and my parents like the results. I have my own idea of the problem with theme teaching, but I would be interested in following this and hearing everyone’s comments.

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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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    • I’m late to the party, but have been examining my own pedagogical thinking and found this article on themes. As I find confidence in my ability to observe the children, and then interpret my observations into meaningful data, I find myself moving away from themes for the sake of more emergent interests. Early childhood educators , in the US, at least, are not educated to understand child development structure and patterns, or how to interpret children’s play in the context of pedagogy- unable to determine from play what might interest the children. Further, the majority are probably not taught/experienced to be able to create an environment/project/provocations to scaffold learning based on children’s interest. It is quicker, takes less time and effort and most important, SKILL, to teach a thematic unit in which all material is provided and a box is filled. I think the main reason we continue to use themes is because we do not value early childhood education, and therefore do not educate our educators to do better. We pay them little to nothing, so this population of teachers is transient, young, and mostly unskilled.

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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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    • As always Diane you provoke thinking and more importantly critical thinking living within a space of reflection. I appreciate the evolution of themes as educators explore the curriculum. Within the ontario context we can look to the influence of our American cousins and publishing houses from the US that have cornered the market on curriculum and it’s influence on ontario and perhaps even Canadian educators. When we look deeply at theme based teaching (notice I did not refer to this work as a learning) there is an undertow of consumerism to be considered in the world of themes. What do I need to buy to make this work? What materials, tools, and resources can be allocated from popular companies and stores that are easily accessible? How quickly might I complete this weekly rotation and move on to the next planning session?
      Curriculum is not to be devoured as a pizza purchased from a chain of restaurants but to be created and co constructed with ingredients of culture, language and critical thinking. It is in the stirring of the sauce the stories of learning are explored, expressed and reflected through invitations to learn not invitations to purchase the next shiny thing. As educators working within structures and systems, the need to critically position our relationships with colleagues, families, communities and children is critical to our professional well being.

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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

  8. This is a great article and I really find myself becoming bored with the monotony of planning themes — especially when the children and not engaging in everything I have planned. I am looking forward to learning a new method and finally seeing excitement in learning. Where do I start? What do I look for? Any recommended reading on the topic?

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  9. Pingback: Child-Initiated Play and Learning: Teacher-Framed Documentation and Reflection | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  10. Diane, you and I are on the same page here. I listen to educators who cling to their adult, pre-decided themes year after year, and try to understand where the resistance to even small steps toward change comes from. For some, it is fear or bewilderment. It is all they have ever known, and the way they were trained. As humans, we are often uncomfortable with change,. That being said, I find that rough documentation (by someone else in their classroom), taken back to the teacher for discussion, is often an eye-opener, and a doorway to an alternate way of seeing and thinking. What was this child trying to do? What were their strategies? What was interesting about this for you? How can we respond? As a consultant,this has been the only way in for me….to build a relationship where both the teacher and the child are heard. It has been through discussing the children’s play and wondering about it together that we have started to develop a pivot point, where new things can happen. Documentation, as you know, is my go-to tool for reflection! I do agree with Misha, though, that the world ‘theme’ has several connotations, and we have to decide what we mean by ‘theme.’ Yet whatever we mean by the word, so important to keep bringing the conversation back to the child’s thinking. Thank you for re-opening this door and not letting go of the discussion!

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  11. If not themes, then what? Just stand back and watch them play for 2.5 hours? I find it gets very chaotic very quickly if we don’t transition from one activity to the next every 20 minutes or so. I will have to visit a non-themed classroom for a whole day, in order to wrap my head around it….I was trained with themes ten years ago, have been in many many preschool environments since, and I still haven’t seen the true emergent curriculum ideal of which you speak.

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    • LInda yes, it’s extremely valuable to see emergent curriculum in action. When the environment is intentional and supportive, there is not chaos, only the busy hum of engagement and excitement. Is there someone following these comments that could offer a place to observe?

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    • With emergent curriculum, I still plan curriculum. But based off of children’s interests. Indeed some themes emerge, but they’re themes that children are showing me are meaningful to them. For instance: I worked with a preschool group who loved: trains, cars, and things that move. In the literacy area, I brought audiobooks about trains, books about cars, and matching felt board props. In the cognitive area, I created a home made marble run and train puzzles. In the sensory area, I created a carwash station. At the art table, I had cars and paint. I asked for parental feedback, carefully incorporating these ideas into future curriculum. I also provided families, with financial barriers, access to borrow: car card matching games, train books, train puzzles, plastic trains and cars, and art materials.

      With a group of children who love firefighters, I would do a field trip to a firehall, put firefighter outfits in the dramatic area. I would make a firetruck out of a cardboard box OR get the children to participate in making one if they had any interest. Outside, I would use sidewalk chalk to create flames and give children squirt bottles.

      But these themes are always planned on child observations in my field notebook. As their interests change, the curriculum changes. I also never do cut outs or product art, but focus on art activities that are more about the process of being creative and exploring materials.

      Most of the day is free play, with children choosing which center they would like to visit. But the centers are carefully laid out so that no matter which center the children choose (Cognitive, sensory, art table etc) they are learning something. I am very careful about selecting materials that enhance development in different domains (social, cognitive, linguistic etc).

      It’s not the only way to teach. But it is certainly one way. And I haven’t found it too chaotic. Actually, I found it reduced behaviours because children were more engaged.

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      • I am interested in the emergent curriculum and took a workshop relating to it. I still struggle with figuring out the jump off point for things that interest the children. Do you just start the year with an open environment and see what they like? What do you do if you don’t have a consensus i.e. girls want to be princesses, boys want to be ninjas. I also think some of the themes relate to a “core” knowledge that every child needs to know at a certain age i.e. insects have 6 legs, etc. Butterflies have a life cycle. One of the best themes I did this year was based on artists. We discussed several artists and did process art relating to it. The kids loved it. I do sometimes feel like I am filling out boxes on my lesson plans. Would love to know more resources on emergent curriculum.

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  12. I was having a discussion with a coworker. In our center we are supposed to plan on the interest of the children, her reason for using themes is, when I put the new material out the children are interested in it. It is also hard when I am trying to more pedagogical learning that I am always compared with the themed classroom, because it is easier to see what they are doing. I work with infants and toddlers and sometimes I just want to exclaim, “of course my classroom looks different than a preschool room”

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  13. I happened upon this at the right time. our center does not use themes but I know some still struggle with letting this practice go. I think for many the extension of learning or seeing and hearing what the children are interested in is almost blinded by theme….we look for the the theme ” oh the the children have been talking about pirates” so we take out every pirate related object we can find …fill our sensory bin with treasures and sand….but to find out what the learning is in there sometimes is hard to do for many….in a pirate inquiry perhaps there is some interest in the water, the boats floating …sinking…currents moving the big ships …we have to listen and pay attention to what is going on within the classroom in order to extend the learning ….am I along the right lines here …I do not have my ECE I have worked in the field for 15 years, I am a pedagogical leader for our center

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  14. Great article! I agree that much of the theme planning in early childhood is planned by the teacher and while I cannot comment for those in preschool, I would like to mention something from an elementary education perspective (public school). In California, where I am, there are so many children that come from all over the world (in my Kinder classroom years ago, I could count 11 languages represented in my classroom alone!).

    One of the most effective tools for helping those English language learners is to present information in a themed way (in as many modalities (Gardner) and realia as possible, of course). This helps ELL students learn more efficiently when they understand words presented within the theme. (I don’t have a reference but looking up methodology for English acquisition/English language learners should present you with a plethora of information).

    Teaching language in context is really important…example: learning that I can say the word ‘wet’ probably is an easy word to grasp (even for preschool-aged children) but can they distinguish between ‘damp’, ‘sopping’, ‘humid’, ‘moist’, ‘saturated’, etc.?

    To me, using the theme of let’s say rain forests could lead to so many discussions of ‘wet’ as an example. Theme is a vehicle/springboard to many rich discussions and yes, perhaps part of this is teacher planned but vocabulary to me is something that all teachers should be working at (esp. academic vocabulary, which is something that English learners don’t usually get, unless they live with a teacher 🙂 –if you look up BICS/CALPS (Jim Cummins), you will know what I’m referring to). To understand how to use which word in what context is what defines someone that is a native speaker vs. someone that is learning. Most likely, most young children are working on a conversational level but with instruction and intention, the teacher can nudge children towards a more academic vocabulary direction.

    I feel that the theme (or unit?) doesn’t matter–as long as the children are interested/curious about it and the teacher can help support that, the words (and possibly the theme) can become even more meaningful. Once instruction is made with new vocabulary, the teacher has the opportunity to see if the child really understands the vocabulary in context or in a sentence.

    As an attempt to answer your question at end of your article, I offer that themes stay from a vocabulary pedogogical stance (at least in Elementary it does–also probably some kind of economics conversation goes along with this as public education is always looking for more money to serve everyone). Themes serve as an umbrella for vocabulary to make meaning for those learning English (and even little ones). It allows for the learner to organize vocabulary (in the case of a “water” type of theme, you can see the nuances of ‘wet’, ‘damp’, ‘moist’ etc.). Many words can be organized on a continuum…the learner needs to organize them on that continuum.

    I agree that there should be more choice for students. It’s more authentic that way. However, in public ed and elementary, differentiation with little money/resources…I’ve been doing this for 20+ years (and we don’t ever seem to have enough money). 😦

    Themes/units can also be springboard to meaningful activities (assuming children have a say in the theme/unit). Children may not know what they may be missing out on if it weren’t for the teacher. Sometimes, themes can be a good thing…sometimes themes are done poorly (ie. worksheets all about the same topic).

    However, they can also be amazing! Teachers that are passionate about certain topics will actually spark a lot of interest with the children they work with and possibly they may become passionate about it, too. I know of a 5th grade teacher that was working off a weather theme and then hurricane Katrina showed up (long time ago). The children were devastated that they couldn’t help more (from California). The teacher challenged them to create their own itinerary of what they would do to help (objective), how everyone in the class would help (teamwork), they used maps to figure out where Katrina was and where to locate themselves (geography/map skills), and they had to figure out costs to get them there for flights and then on the ground (math), etc. They called her bluff (and she had to figure out a way to rent a school bus over there where it flooded!)! (yes, public school, parent-participatory kind of school) Just imagine the experience for the children in this case!

    I think it’s all about the quality of instruction and its relation to the learner. The teacher’s job is to help a child see its relevance AND actually help the child connect the dots as to why it’s relevant (if the child cannot make the connection). The theme just helps teachers achieve this.

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