Student-Driven Curriculum in Kindergarten – Why and How?

Kelly Bird, Early Learning Center Director
Despite COVID-19 limitations that require each kindergarten class to remain socially distant, the kindergarten teachers brought their students together on Zoom to brainstorm what topics they might be interested in studying. The list was vast and varied! Topics ranged from tunnels to whistles to clocks.

Each teacher created a list of the students’ ideas and the individual classes then began to group the topics into themes such as food, machines, toys, and transportation. Once several categories were identified, each class voted on a theme to study, with each student allowed two votes. Topics were given 2 points for a child’s first choice and 1 point for a child’s second choice. Two kindergarten classes selected transportation as their theme while the third selected toys.
Each class discussed what they knew about their new curricular theme and it wasn’t long before important lessons emerged and the unit of study began to take shape.
  • In Mr. Arnold's class, one student claimed, “Boys play with stuffed animals and girls play with dolls.” Mr. Arnold brought in a doll, Oona, he has had for 35 years to dispel that myth!
  • In another class, the students began to categorize where you might find each form of transportation, such as land, water, or air, and connections within the themes began to take form.
  • The weekly poem correlated to each class’s new theme.
  • Stacks of library books were requested to support further literacy integration.
  • Each theme inspired new journal entries such as "Where would you like to go and what kind of transportation would you take to get there?"
  • Students brought in theme-related items to share and practiced clearly conveying their thoughts, while others practiced listening skills and asking good questions.
  • Teachers created project-based learning opportunities.
    • In one class they designed paper airplanes and talked about making toys with paper and other materials.
    • Another class collected natural materials, like birch bark and sticks, on their weekly hike and used the items to make boats. As they tested the different materials, students learned about new concepts such as buoyancy and water displacement.
    • The third class engaged in a design challenge with specified materials and went through the processes of brainstorming, building, and testing vehicles.
    • Ramps, rug remnants, and cars were set out for a morning choice time to test force and friction; the sand tables were filled with vehicles, and students began erecting tunnels, and math lessons began incorporating the counting and sorting of cars.
When the curriculum incorporates students’ questions, interests, and community knowledge, it shows them that their ideas matter, and we can build upon their ideas. While there are skills that will get covered regardless of the theme, there is no script for the content of their studies. The teachers and students are off on a journey that will take them through books, poems, research, experiments, singing, and building. Instead of learning subjects in isolation – writing, reading, math, science, music, and art – the students are given a chance to connect the dots among these subjects, creating a deeper, more meaningful understanding of their theme.
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