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Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.
There’s a lot to balance when thinking about your approach to your preschool curriculum. Whether you’re buying a boxed curriculum, building totally from scratch, informed by a specific philosophy, or somewhere in-between, here are some best practices to keep in mind to ensure a developmentally appropriate and engaging learning experience for your entire program.
Far too many curricula options include printables, coloring pages, worksheets, and flash cards, despite what we know about how children learn. While these things may not be outright harmful, generally speaking, they are not the most developmentally appropriate materials for preschoolers. Preschoolers need concrete, hands-on, and open-ended activities. You might be able to use flash cards to create a really fun and engaging game. You might make coloring pages available as just one option among many for your kids to do. The point is to think critically about any elements that are included in your curriculum resources and making sure they’re implemented in a developmentally appropriate way, which might just mean leaving them in the box.
Grounding your planning process in a developmental framework for how children develop will ensure you’re meeting all of their needs. A developmental framework is a comprehensive map of all of the domains and skills children need support in developing. By including this resource in your planning process you’ll know if you’re not doing enough pre-math development or missing out on some important language building skills.
There is no limit to what topics you can explore with young children. We often feel limited by the common themes we associate with preschool learning — myself, my community, the farm, space, dinosaurs, transportation, etc. You can and should resist feeling constrained by what we readily associate with preschool curriculum. Many of these topics have become common because they broadly appeal to children, and maybe they even appeal to your children. But don’t feel limited by them. Get as far out of the box as you want to, especially if you’ve been doing this for a few years. Your excitement and enthusiasm for a topic is a powerful tool for your little ones. So if doing yet another exploration of squirrels makes you want to pull your hair out, don’t do it. Look to what your kids are most interested in right now, and use that as inspiration.
It’s so easy in early learning to continue doing things because that’s how it’s written in the lesson plan, or because that’s how we’ve always done it. But why? Just like in any line of work, you are the professional. You should develop and trust your own instincts, especially because while there are many powerful curriculum tools out there, the writers of that curriculum do not know your children, your classroom, or your community. Is circle time not working? Change it, cancel it, move it outside, shorten it to 5 minutes — you have a lot of options!
You can and should think about these aspects of your classroom as they pertain to your curriculum. While your schedule is going to be generally predictable around the timing of meals and nap, the rest can and should be flexible. If you’re in a large center, some aspects of your schedule might be out of your control (like if you have assigned playground time). But as much as possible, making tweaks to the flow of your day can be super helpful in better implementing learning experiences. Adjusting the schedule and environment can ensure kids most basic needs are met (meaning that they’re not hungry or tired), so they are available to focus on learning.
It’s neither appropriate nor possible for young children to sit and listen to a teacher all day. Young children need the freedom to move and explore. Teacher-led activities are great additions to the day — they can allow for more one-on-one attention, more in-depth projects, and messier materials. They shouldn’t be the whole day, however. Children need the flexibility to choose how they spend their time and direct their own play and learning. There’s no perfect or fixed ratio for teacher-led versus child-led, and it will likely change day to day and over time.
You should be observing your kids to understand their development, and it’s also a powerful tool in designing curriculum. By paying attention to what’s happening you can proactively plan, adapt, and adjust. This might be as simple as noticing how riled up kids are during the morning free play time, knowing it’s not a good day to do a big cooking project, and postponing it to another day. Or it might be a more specific observation about a child who is having a hard time sitting at story time. You want your day to flow smoothly for everyone. Constantly observing, processing, and planning will allow you to continue adapting.
The most common piece of feedback we hear from parents is that they want more communication. The most important form of communication is the logistical stuff — when their child ate, slept, etc. But parents want more than that. They want to better understand what their child is learning, how they’re doing, and how they can support at home. Pick-up and drop-off are not ideal times for sharing a lot of information, so think about other ways you can share this stuff with parents. You have so many tools at your disposal, from calendars and lesson plans, to technology and apps, to developmental assessments and parent conferences. Find a system that works for you and stay on top of it. Your parents will appreciate it — and will better understand the amazing things you’re doing every day.
Designing a preschool curriculum can be such a personal experience. There’s no one right way to go about doing it. Instead think of it as an evolving process in which you continue to learn, observe, analyze, test, and ultimately grow. And so long as you keep the needs of your little ones at the center of everything you do, you’ll be successful in creating a really engaging and responsive learning environment for everyone.