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What is Emergent Curriculum?

In an emergent curriculum, children's interests and experiences shape the learning process. Learn more about how this child-centered curriculum differs from a traditional approach.

What is Emergent Curriculum?

What is Emergent Curriculum?

Early childhood education plays a critical role in a child's formative years, laying the foundation for future learning and development. There are many different approaches to an early learning curriculum and one approach that has gained recognition for its effectiveness and child-centered focus is emergent curriculum. Unlike traditional, predetermined curricula, emergent curriculum places emphasis on the unique interests, experiences, and perspectives of each child. By allowing children's interests and inquiries to shape the curriculum, emergent curriculum creates a dynamic and engaging learning environment that promotes meaningful learning and holistic development.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the concept of emergent curriculum, explore its key principles, and shed light on the benefits it offers to young learners.

What is emergent curriculum?

Emergent curriculum requires an in-depth understanding of your children individually and as a group. Influenced by the theories and philosophies of psychologists Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and John Dewey, this curriculum follows a child-centered method that aims to create meaningful and engaging learning experiences revolving around a child’s needs, skills, qualities, and interests.

Rather than following a pre-determined curriculum, emergent curriculum embraces the concept of child-led learning. It recognizes that children are active participants in their own learning journey and seeks to capitalize on their innate curiosity and natural desire to explore the world around them.

Guided mainly by the children, emergent curriculums are created organically and are constantly changing and developing as the children are encouraged to explore and ask questions. Teachers act as facilitators and guides to support and extend their learning.  

Young boy watering plant while looking through a microscope. 


How emergent curriculum differs from a traditional curriculum

The main differences between an emergent curriculum and a more traditional curriculum lie in their approach to learning, content, and the role of the teacher. In a traditional curriculum, learning is often structured and predetermined, with specific objectives, timelines, and standardized assessments. It follows a linear progression, covering predetermined topics, regardless of children's interests or experiences.

In contrast, an emergent curriculum is child-centered and flexible, allowing children's interests and inquiries to shape the learning process. It recognizes that children are active constructors of knowledge and emphasizes their individuality and agency. While a traditional curriculum focuses on imparting predetermined content, an emergent curriculum encourages exploration, discovery, and problem-solving.

Teachers in a traditional curriculum typically act as the primary source of knowledge, delivering information to students. In an emergent curriculum, however, teachers take on the role of facilitators, observing and documenting children's interests, providing resources and guidance, and engaging in dialogue to support children's learning. Overall, the key difference between emergent and traditional curricula lies in the level of flexibility, child-centeredness, and emphasis on individual interests and experiences.

Traditional Curriculum

Emergent Curriculum



Pre-planned/pre-existing curriculum

Learning activity plan based on children

Varying themes and subjects at teacher’s discretion

Topics are organically sourced from the children and open-ended

Less focus on individual skills, progress, and interests

Approach to learning is child-centered and takes every child into consideration when planning 

How does emergent curriculum work?

Emergent curriculum requires you to act as a facilitator and develop lessons based on your observations and interactions with your children. With a watchful eye, you'll carefully observe and document how your children communicate, play, and interact throughout the day to learn more about them and their skills. 

In addition, you'll gauge their interests, needs, and strengths which will impact how you design your curriculum. You'll also interact with children by asking them probing questions to learn more about their thoughts and ideas. These documented experiences will support future planning and tracking of their growth and progress while encouraging curiosity.

Unlike traditional curriculums, where lessons are pre-planned and focus on the class as a whole, emergent curriculum requires you to follow the children's lead and respond to their actions. This offers them an immersive classroom experience where they can be unafraid to explore, discover, and dig deeper into topics that interest them. Although much of an emergent curriculum is child-centered, you'll still teach them basic and traditional concepts important to their age group and preparation for school, such as letters and numbers. 

Another important aspect of this teaching method is project work, allowing children to learn more about specific interests and subjects. These projects may span a few days or weeks and involve small groups of children or the entire class. For example, children discover a cocoon during recess sparking new conversations and questions about the lifecycle of a butterfly. The children may be involved in a week or month long investigation about butterflies and the four stages in the metamorphosis process

This project may include hands-on activities such as drawing pictures depicting the different phases or the patterns on a butterfly's wings. It may even lead to more exploration outside to see caterpillars and butterflies in their natural habitat. 

A student participates in an emergent learning activity drawing a butterfly with chalk in the garden.


With emergent learning, the possibilities are endless. As you observe and uncover more details about your children and what topics excite and engage them, you can continue to build your curriculum and make changes to match and respond to their progress.

If you're a toddler or preschool teacher, staying organized and providing age-appropriate activities and high-quality lesson plans is essential. Save time with brightwheel's Experience Curriculum, an easy-to-implement curriculum system that pairs digital lessons in the brightwheel app with hands-on learning materials delivered to you each month. 

What are the benefits of an emergent curriculum?

An emergent learning approach offers children several benefits thanks to the open and engaging environment it creates. Some benefits include:

  • Meaningful engagement
  • Enhances children's observation skills
  • Encourages imagination, research, exploration, experimentation, and discussion
  • Gives children a voice
  • Teaches collaboration and socialization
  • Supports children's interests
  • Incorporates real-life experiences
  • Enables hands-on learning opportunities
  • Encourages more decision-making and problem-solving

Children aren't the only ones who benefit from this curriculum. It also allows you to grow as an educator. Because the curriculum is child-centered, it constantly challenges you to create meaningful and engaging lessons and learning experiences. Additionally, it teaches you how to better embrace and support children's needs and interests, creating a better learning environment for them. 

Children painting cardboard boxes with their teachers. 


Emergent curriculum examples

An emergent curriculum approach in early childhood education can take shape in various ways, fostering a child-centered and inquiry-based learning environment. For example, rather than following a predetermined lesson plan, teachers may observe and listen to children's interests and questions, and then design activities and projects based on those interests. This could involve creating a garden in the classroom after children express curiosity about plants and nature, or setting up a pretend veterinarian clinic after children show interest in caring for animals.

Another example could be an art project that evolves from children experimenting with different materials and techniques, leading to discussions about color mixing, texture, and composition. In an emergent curriculum, field trips may be planned based on children's interests, such as visiting a local fire station if they express curiosity about firefighters.

The Reggio Emilia approach is widely recognized as an example of emergent curriculum in early education. Originating from the town of Reggio Emilia in Italy, this approach is rooted in the belief that children are capable and competent learners. The Reggio Emilia approach places a strong emphasis on the child's interests and inquiries, allowing them to take an active role in shaping their learning experiences. Teachers act as collaborators and facilitators, working alongside the children to explore their interests and document their learning journey. The curriculum emerges from the children's ideas, questions, and curiosities, making it highly responsive and adaptable.


An emergent curriculum holds immense value for early childhood learning. By prioritizing children's interests, inquiries, and individuality, this approach fosters a deep sense of engagement and empowers young learners to take an active role in their educational journey.

It recognizes that children are natural explorers and problem solvers, and it provides them with the freedom and flexibility to delve into topics that spark curiosity and ignite passion. This type of curriculum allows for personalized and meaningful learning experiences, where children can develop critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and a lifelong love for learning.

Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at

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