To Theme or Not to Theme: That is the Question

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE.

When I first started work on my doctorate, about twenty years ago, I was determined to remain true to my early childhood education roots and to focus my research on issues that connected to my context of early learning. I wanted my research to reach early childhood educators to build a bridge between theory and practice. To define a research topic, I took a trip down memory lane to reflect on the issues that I had grappled with as a young preschool teacher. I landed on themes. Now, as I look forward to retirement, I am somewhat surprised that themes continue to be a thing in early learning. A post that I wrote a few years back still gets shared often. Now when I consider the question will themes ever end? I am not so sure of my answer. I think themes will endure. I am still asked to present webinars about moving away from a theme approach to an emergent curriculum. I am recognizing that the reason for their longevity is complex. So, when I ask the question, to theme or not to theme – the answers are important as they serve as an opportunity to ask more questions!

In my webinars, I often ask participants how they plan their programs. The response seems to be either “I follow themes” or “I follow interests”. I really appreciated how one participant described themes as what she uses to “spice up” her program. They are there on a spice rack ready to use when interests are expressed by the children. Would that be an emergent approach to themes? What makes the flavour of themes appealing? Is it that they are contained and transportable into many situations? A theme is usually a broad concept or topic. We know that themes are often related to seasons, holidays, and concepts such as numbers and letters. Themes are teacher-directed and teacher-owned, but they don’t have to be that way. In my last post, I reflected on the role that I play in early learning. I have now gone beyond seeing myself as a mentor where I have all the answers to the questions asked. I now see myself as a coach, who has questions for the answers. I feel a sense of rejuvenation, as I plan to continue to explore the role of coach as this approach is kind, non-judgemental and profoundly accepts context. There are many questions to ask others. What is your background? What is your training? What is your experience with themes? What is your knowledge about the theories that underpin the thematic approach? What is your knowledge and experience about emergent curriculum, inquiry, and the Reggio Emilia Approach? How do you plan and program? How do you decide on thematic topics or emerging interests? Who makes the decisions? How do you approach the implementation of your plans? What is your understanding of how learning happens (your pedagogy)? What are your beliefs about play-based learning? Interests usually are built from the premise that learning happens through play. Themes don’t necessarily support play as the basis of learning. Consider these photos of a child at play. Can you see a theme? How about an emerging interest?

In the theme approach, the teacher could use the children’s interests as the source for selecting a theme around which to build the curriculum or they may do what they did the year before and the year before that. Having selected a theme, the teacher plans ahead for activities to present information that provides some interesting facts about the theme and, possibly, opportunities to practice specific mental ability skills, such as simple classification or letter recognition. However, the question remains, can themes be used to support play-based learning?

Themes can also help to decorate the classroom. Here is where materials and props are often superimposed on children and the environment “to help give some structure and order to the curriculum, such as a fall theme with leaves, pumpkins and apples” (Lee Keenan and Nimmo, 1994, p. 253). This is unfortunate as the children’s identity and the uniqueness of the context become obscured. As a preschool teacher, it would concern me, when my classroom was decorated with a theme from the week before because we had moved onto a new theme. The length of a theme is pre-set by the calendar or the teacher. It assumes that all children will benefit and be interested. This is especially concerning when themes are related to the holidays of the majority. What about those children that do not celebrate? This was the issue for my own children who approached these holiday themes in a good natured way but I was always concerned that they would openly question the existence of a certain bunny or a certain reindeer riding, bearer of gifts. Themes do not acknowledge each child’s uniqueness and they do not empower children to become part of the planning process. The lack of uniqueness is often seen in the classroom decoration.

Whereas pedagogy is how learning happens, curriculum is the content of the learning (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). What becomes the content of the learning should have meaning to the children. It should be relevant to their interests. When themes are chosen without consideration of children’s interests, they run the risk of being meaningless. Children need to be involved in the process and there needs to be consideration of how children learn. So why are themes still a thing? Should I be painting all users of themes with the same brush? Can themes be part of play-based learning? Do themes provide children and teachers with what one of the readers of this blog calls “a response to the chaos that is life” and “an attempt to create order, ceremony, predictability, comfort, and stability to help us feel better?” I am very grateful for the perspectives of others and the comments that were shared on my Facebook page. There is so much in her words that resonate.

There’s a whole lot of unknowns when we practice emergent curriculum! Have we been taught that being professional means having control and so, by letting go of control we aren’t sure how professionalism might look and feel? What’s our image of children when we choose what they need to know and when? How would I feel if someone told me that they chose a book that I would read every day this week and all my activities would evolve around that book? (I would likely resist). Who decides how, and which, holidays are celebrated? Which holidays deserve to be themes and why? Are the themes chosen making the world a better place? Are the themes inviting children to be active and engaged citizens? What’s the purpose of our work with children and do our practices support those purposes? I’m less concerned about themes and more interested in purpose, power, and community building; if you can do amazing work within a theme approach, go for it! ~ Friday Bailey

Context matters. Consider the constraints so well-articulated by another reader.

I think themes still exist in my teaching, partly due to this expectation every fall to create your year overview. Administrators, and I’m not saying this is as a critique, want to know what you’re planning and when you plan to do it. The argument is that “if you are suddenly away, the substitute will have your overview” still exists. As does the “unit plan”. Teachers are still expected to have plans for what they are teaching and my understanding of emergent curriculum (I’m still learning, so I could be wrong) is that it develops as the interests/questions/deeper learning of the child continues. That is very hard to put into a unit plan/overview in the fall. I’m not saying it’s right, but that it is a struggle to keep butting against policies and practices that don’t support emergent curriculum. Just my thoughts. I will continue to learn though and try to develop more emergent curriculum development in the classroom, especially when this pandemic learning is over.

Another reader gave me much pause for reflection as I consider that my role is to be supportive and helpful. I don’t want to “trash” anyone. I appreciate the time and thoughtfulness taken to respond to my query – “will themes ever end?” I have more questions for this answer. How about you?

Themes are often tied to the changing seasons. If we can plan for the changing seasons, we can have an idea of some of the resources we can have on hand to provide provocations, resources, and hands-on lessons that are enriching and dynamic for students to explore, question and inquire further. Themes are often a way to hook students who find it difficult to engage in the government curriculum. Bears lead to hibernation, migration and how animals behave and adapt for winter. Fall and harvest is for change of seasons, moons, harvesting food and preparing for winter. All about me leads to personal identity, culture, traditions, families and how they are unique. Plants lead to planting and exploring plants, growing food, the difference between plants and animals and their life cycles. What types of plants are there and what parts do we eat? It’s not right to trash other people’s ways of introducing topics of inquiry. Themes are fun. Imagination and curiosity are part of wondering and imagining different perspectives. Themes can be topics and big ideas with a twist that engage students in active wondering.

In my doctoral work, I related the adaptation of an emergent curriculum to empowerment and an elevated self-image for the child and the teacher. 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 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 seasons, alphabet, numbers and geometric shapes are accepted as important concepts for children. What is missing is the empowering possibilities of co-constructing learning with children. Moving beyond themes to experiences that encourage deep thinking while making learning visible will give voice to children. I wish the transition from themes to an emergent approach could be easier to explain and easier to do. Emergent curriculum is an umbrella term that incorporates inquiry learning, the Project Approach and the Reggio Emilia Approach. There is no single answer to the questions and we must always consider our contexts, striving to improve and do better. To conclude, I want to echo the words of the very wise reader who said she will continue to learn and try to develop more emergent curriculum in the classroom. If that is where you are or you are trying to help others who are there – I am here to help. In any way I can.

5 thoughts on “To Theme or Not to Theme: That is the Question

  1. Thank-you so much for your thoughtful post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reflections and provocations for thinking further about this idea. I too have been turning the idea of theme over and over in my head the last number of years (I am currently teaching K/1) and one of the things that I have found is that I still use “themes” but my definition of a theme has changed. Language is always so important and this is one of those instances that reinforces the importance of this. I have shifted from thinking about theme as “topic” towards the “underlying concepts”. When one studies literature or art, the theme is the the undercurrent of the work. A theme for me then is not “the seasons” but “change – what changes and what stays the same?” I think this allows for the emergent curriculum to come through, honours interests and offers an organizing principle within the complexity.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this perspective. I am also curious about the insidious nature of themes that infiltrate play based learning. I always wonder about…is it possible that children always become interested in nests and birds around the same time every year? I wonder how we might be disguising theme based learning through emergent curriculum. Thanks for this perspective and I am holding it alongside my curiosities.

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  3. I loved reading your perspective on this. As someone who plans to officially home educate when my son turns school age (he’s currently in late toddlerhood), I have grappled with this question, and see themes used often in the home schooling community (through social media) and I ended up buying a nature-based “curriculum” which aligns with the northern hemisphere seasons – and whilst many home educators don’t necessarily use it for “themes” but more for ideas and inspiration, this month it might be about wild grasses and bees, and while it’s fitting for this time of year, I haven’t felt compelled to offer this to my son. I haven’t looked at the curriculum and instead focus on exposing my son to experiences outdoors (forest/garden play/walks) and see what emerges from that. Mostly it’s transportation that lights him up! I could offer a theme around that, but instead as he’s currently into trains, I took him on the underground and we’ll go trainspotting or have a casual conversation about trains but I will make sure I get a related book out if the interest is lingering! I feel that ultimately themes are still popular because they appeal to those who feel like they need to have more control over the learning – and planning helps with this. With an emergent curriculum, essentially you can’t really plan, other than be responsive to what’s happening in the moment, and that’s the big challenge for me! It’s about listening not imposing too much of our own ideas!

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  4. This is perfect, Diane!
    As a younger educator with an undergraduate degree as well as my college diploma, working in a non-profit community childcare organization in a rural community is very challenging because the model used is more or less theme based but the planning sheet like to pretend the theme activities are interest-based. My co-teacher in the preschool room has been teaching for 33 years so we have quite differing views on pedagogy. This piece you’ve written really captures the theme/not theme dichotomy.

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  5. Pingback: Updating Outdated Practices in Early Childhood Education | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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