Imagine you want to teach a group of preschoolers how to sort objects by shape or color. This is a common preschool learning objective that teaches children early math skills. How would you teach it? Would you start by making sure they understand the concept of sorting? Would you reinforce or teach colors and shapes? How would you account for the different strengths, weaknesses, needs, and abilities of the children in your classroom? The answer lies in your curriculum.
In this article, you’ll learn about curriculum, its importance in early childhood education, and tips on how to design a curriculum for your preschoolers.
What is curriculum in early childhood education?
A curriculum in early childhood education is a systematic learning plan that follows a specific educational philosophy. It’s a combination of what you want children to learn, how you want them to learn, and how you plan to teach and assess learning.
There are various types of curricula available to educators. The types used in early childhood education typically follow the standards of child development and are flexible to meet the needs of children at different stages of development. The curriculum not only determines your content, but it also provides your staff with the appropriate training and supervision needed to implement and execute a high-quality program.
Any curriculum guides you in implementing the program and evaluating its success and the performance of the children, but the models will vary. Many methods, approaches, and strategies can help children learn. For example, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf are three of the most popular types of preschool curriculum.
The Montessori method is based on the idea that children teach themselves through independent activity and their own experiences. While teachers provide a prepared environment and act as learning guides, learning is self-directed. Alternatively, Reggio Emilia is an emergent curriculum—built upon the interests of the children—that prioritizes collaborative group work and emphasizes child, staff, and family involvement in the learning experience. Waldorf preschool curriculum combines structure and creative learning. Instead of focusing on traditional academics, it takes a play-based approach to learning that emphasizes intellectual, emotional, and physical growth through creativity and practical skills.
As you can see, variations between preschool curriculum types reflect different values when it comes to prioritizing what children will learn as well as how they are believed to learn. Curriculum in early childhood education guides you to determine what knowledge, skills, and temperaments you want children to learn and develop for life, inside and outside the classroom.
Why is curriculum important in early childhood education?
An early childhood curriculum helps illustrate activities and teaching practices that meet developmental expectations or standards. This is important because, when you adopt a curriculum, you also adopt its program goals. Once you have program goals, you can determine whether they are consistent with the goals of the early learning standards set by your state that align with the age-appropriate milestones for child development and education.
In early childhood education, you must be continuously building on the knowledge and skills of the children. The curriculum you use reinforces this. Because it determines your sequence, the curriculum also ensures that your program moves your children closer to the desired learning objectives they need to meet to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.
Lastly, the curriculum is important because having a system in place means it can be assessed. Being able to assess a child’s progress based on the curriculum goals gives you an idea of how successful the curriculum and your approach is and whether they need to be updated—for individuals or the group—to make your early childhood program more effective.
Developmentally appropriate curriculum
Curriculum planning goes beyond finding a program philosophy that aligns with the learning and development goals you have for your children. To create a developmentally appropriate curriculum, you need to ensure that you’re using the most effective, up-to-date developmentally appropriate practices to guide you.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers the following information for defining developmentally appropriate practice:
- Developmentally appropriate practice requires both meeting children where they are—which means that teachers must get to know them well—and enabling them to reach goals that are both challenging and achievable.
- All teaching practices should be appropriate to children’s age and developmental status, attuned to them as unique individuals, and responsive to the social and cultural contexts in which they live.
- Developmentally appropriate practice does not mean making things easier for children. Rather, it means ensuring that goals and experiences are suited to their learning and development and challenging enough to promote their progress and interest.
- Best practice is based on knowledge—not assumptions—of how children learn and develop. The research base yields major principles in human development and learning. Those principles, along with evidence about curriculum and teaching effectiveness, form a solid basis for decision-making in early care and education.
To create a developmentally appropriate curriculum, early childhood educators need to plan and design using three core considerations: commonality in children’s development and learning, individuality reflecting each child’s unique characteristics and experiences, and the context in which development and learning occur.
Commonality requires researching and understanding child development and learning processes that apply to all children. This includes the concept that all development and learning happens at specific ages and stages. It’s important to acknowledge that research and theories that have guided early childhood education and its practices have greatly reflected Western society and its norms—white, middle-class, and monolingual. Because Western norms have been seen as standards, different practices have been considered inadequate, slowing down the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in early childhood education.
Social and cultural contexts create a framework for child development and learning. For example, play is an important part of a child’s development and education and is seen across all cultures. Although it's universal, the way children use play to interpret and make sense of their experiences is affected by their social and cultural surroundings. To obtain developmentally appropriate curriculum planning, educators need to understand development and learning commonalities and how they reflect social and cultural structures.
When designing your early childhood curriculum, consider the individuality of the children in your program. This means understanding the characteristics and experiences that are unique to each child. By taking their family and community into account, you can create a curriculum that best supports their development and education.
As an educator, it is important to get to know the children in your classroom. You can do this by observing each child, conducting formal and informal assessments, getting information from families, and learning more about the community. This helps you create both abstract and concrete profiles of your children that include interests, strengths, and preferences; knowledge, skills, and abilities; and personalities, motivations, and approaches to learning.
Creating a developmentally appropriate curriculum means recognizing that each child is unique in their abilities and using that information to support all children’s learning.
In reference to context, you must consider and understand the distinct social and cultural characteristics of each child, educator, and program as a whole. This spans beyond the personal cultural context that reflects families, customs, and values. It encompasses broad cultural—social, racial, economic, and political—contexts that we experience based on where we live.
Because you are creating the curriculum, you must also consider what experiences and contexts affect your decision-making, while addressing and avoiding any biases they might’ve created. While this is especially important when educators don’t share the cultural contexts of the children, you can still experience a disconnect when you do. When you learn and understand the meaning of cultural contexts and how they shape a child’s social identities, you can create a curriculum that addresses and supports them.
Being an early childhood educator and creating a developmentally appropriate curriculum requires teachers to learn as they teach. It is important to keep up with child development research while learning from the children, families, and communities you serve.
How to plan curriculum for preschool
Developing the curriculum for your early childhood education program can be challenging and time-consuming, but with a plan, you can make the process easier. As you move forward with planning your curriculum and creating lesson plans, consider the following six key factors of developmentally appropriate curriculum planning as described by NAEYC:
- Desired goals that are important for young children’s development and learning, in general, and are culturally and linguistically responsive to children, in particular, have been identified and clearly articulated.
- The program has a comprehensive, effective curriculum that targets the identified goals across all domains of development and subject areas.
- Educators use the curriculum framework in their planning to make sure there is ample attention to important learning goals and to enhance the coherence of the overall experience for children.
- Educators make meaningful connections a priority in the learning experiences they provide each child.
- Educators collaborate with those teaching in the preceding and subsequent age groups or grade levels, sharing information about children and working to increase continuity and coherence across ages and grades.
- Although it will vary across the age span, a planned and written curriculum is in place for all age groups.
To plan a developmentally appropriate curriculum for preschool, you will need to:
1. Research and select a curriculum model
The type of preschool curriculum you choose acts as the framework for your plan. For example, the Montessori method is a child-focused model where children are guided through self-directed learning. If you choose to adopt this model, the independent learner activities characteristic of this philosophy need to be built into your curriculum. Preschool curricula can be academic-based or project-based. The nuances of each approach will guide you in determining how to best execute your plan and meet the learning standards.
2. Identify early learning standards
Early learning standards are research-based principles that take into account the abilities and skills of children in different areas and at different times of development and education. They define developmental goals for children at specific milestones. Early learning standards vary within each state, and your state is responsible for defining the ones you use for your program.
This can make it challenging for educators to keep track; however, brightwheel’s lesson plan feature makes it easy. Not only does it come pre-loaded with the early learning standards of each state, but it also lets you customize your lessons to satisfy the specific requirements of your state and early childhood education program. Once you identify your state’s early learning standards, you can use that to guide your curriculum planning as you define your expectations and objectives.
3. Define expectations and objectives
Your curriculum expectations and objectives are where you define the knowledge and skills your preschoolers will have at the end of a lesson or school year. When compared to early learning standards or program goals, learning objectives are more specific and help you evaluate how effective your curriculum is and how well your children are learning.
4. Determine curriculum content and resources
What content and resources do you plan on using during your lessons? As you design your curriculum, research the information and tools you need to educate your children and strengthen your lessons. What will you use to facilitate hands-on learning? What activities will you use to differentiate between individual and group work? Consider these questions and their answers to design a thorough curriculum. Start collecting books, toys, and supplies in addition to digital resources like videos and online apps so they are readily available once you’re ready to begin executing your curriculum.
5. Prepare assessments
An effective early childhood education program requires assessments and evaluations. Not only for the children but also for the curriculum itself. Prepare the assessments you plan to use for your learners. When and how often will you conduct observations? What information will you collect for portfolios or progress reports? These assessments help determine whether your children are learning the material successfully. Their success is also a marker of how well your curriculum is working. This will act as a base for any changes you make to your curriculum or teaching methods.
6. Write your curriculum
Your curriculum is not an abstract idea. It is a concrete plan that you reference, use, and revise regularly. Document your curriculum plan. Once you have a written curriculum, this can also promote collaboration between you and your peers as you work to brainstorm, strategize, and create a curriculum design with innovative, effective teaching ideas.
Design your curriculum
Early childhood curriculum makes teaching more effective and meaningful, and the design for your curriculum starts with you. Designing a curriculum requires that you understand several factors—child development and learning, individuality, and cultural competency—to ensure you’re using developmentally appropriate practices as you create your early childhood curriculum. Creating a curriculum design can be extensive and time-consuming, but it is an irreplaceable tool in guiding your children on the path to educational and developmental success.