Themes in ECE Curriculum

What is Theme-Based Learning?

Theme-based learning involves incorporating multiple subjects and activities around the same topic and does not break up the curriculum into separate subjects.  A teacher would not announce “It’s now time for math,” because the math lesson will be interwoven into the current theme. 

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Why Theme-Based Learning?

Learning is a process of continuous construction.  When the student can see and understand how ideas merge and connect across subjects and the real world, it improves comprehension and retention (EdTechLens, n.d.).

Theme-based learning ensures lessons are exciting and fresh. Necessary soft skills are embedded into the activities. The students work on problem solving, goal setting, critical thinking, and much more.

Themes should be based around the culture, considering what students need to know about their world and community. Learning in context leads to greater retention of content (Romani, 2022).

I would like to explore two themes. The first theme we will look at is Inquiry.

What Does an Inquiry Theme Involve and Why is it Beneficial?

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Inquiry means that lesson topics are based around student-developed questions, ideas, and observations (Learning by Inquiry, 2022). The students are the generators of the topics they will study, which is a good way to involve them directly in what they are learning. This helps students stay involved and interested in the lessons.

What Essential Lesson Topics will Benefit Students?

I believe the lesson topics should be based on the grade and ability levels of the students, as well as their interests, curriculum requirements, current events, and the community they live in.  Looking at specific skills that would greatly benefit students in an inquiry-baed theme, I have put together the following list:

  • creative thinking
  • forming relative questions
  • answering the whole question
  • planning and organizing
  • taking your time to research the answers
  • a simple introduction on citing sources; being able to show the class what sources they have used
  • working together
  • learning empathy; if it’s a sensitive topic, we must be careful with the questions we ask and learn to ask appropriate questions

For specific lesson topics, let’s consider a second grade class composed of mostly native English speakers and some ESL students.  The teacher may ask the students what topics they are interested in and what questions they can form for each.  Making a list together, the teacher considers their personal interests along with real-life problems and situations.  Some lesson topics include: 

How to Be a Responsible Citizen 

Expressing Myself and My Emotions 

Family and Home Life

Foods that Keep me Healthy 

Animals Around Me

Planet Earth 

Around the World 

Jobs and Careers 

Important People in History 

How Are These Topics Incorporated into an Interdisciplinary Curriculum?

As the students work together to complete the inquiry-based activities, they learn about the importance of teamwork.  The teacher should ensure that each student in the group has a role and is able to participate equally.  For example, if we consider a group of students researching information, one student takes on the role of the scribe, writing down and recording information.  Another student is the main researcher, while another is nominated as the announcer, sharing and presenting the information with the rest of the class upon completion of the project.  Another topic that holds great importance is learning how to ask sensitive and appropriate questions.  SEL lessons should be visited frequently to ensure students show empathy to their classmates while working together. 

Here are a couple examples of subtopics that can be integrated within an interdisciplinary curriculum and the subject areas covered:

How Can We Reduce Pollution?

⁃ A unit on pollution when learning about How to Be a Responsible Citizen.  Students explore the different types of pollution, analyze data and statistics on pollution and climate change, create a photo collage about the harmful effects, and lead a discussion about positive change.  They might be introduced with a real-life scenario that they will try to solve.  For example, students work in small groups to make a flyer to advertise a community clean-up day.  They choose a natural area in their town and organize an event to clean up pollution.  Some fun science experiment ideas: 

  • Students simulate an oil spill in a tray of water
  • Students bury items like plastic, leaves, and an apple core underneath the soil and check them one month later for biodegradability 
  • Students analyze acid rain, watering plants with acid rain made from lemon or vinegar mixed with the water (Reynandez, 2019).

These ideas have covered science, social studies, writing, math, and art. Check out this website to see the detailed steps of the science experiments mentioned above: https://www.plt.org/educator-tips/science-projects-pollution/

Image via parentingchaos.com
Image by Mary Austin via explorable.com
Worksheet by The 5 Gyres Institute

Image via science-sparks.com

How Does Mindfulness Affect Our Health?

⁃ A unit on mindfulness during Keeping Myself Healthy.  Students may look at healthy eating habits, expressing emotions, or the benefits of physical exercise.  Students begin writing in an emotions journal each day to record how they are feeling and practice identifying those feelings.  Students choose a yoga pose, meditation, positive affirmation, or breathing technique to do each morning.  Using sensory experiences like listening to music or sounds, guessing the smells of different foods, or closing their eyes and feeling different things like slime, a sponge, or some cotton balls, and guessing what they are (Shardlow, 2015).  Students create an informative brochure about mindfulness, analyzing data and statistics and interviewing their family members.  These activities cover Health, SEL, P.E., math, writing, and social studies. 

Image by Lucky Little Learners via Pinterest
Image by annakennedyonline.com via Pinterest

A Lesson Idea

This lessons covers the subjects of art, history, reading, and writing.

Students will look at different paintings or sculptures and ask questions about how the artist felt while creating it, considering their emotions and motivations for creating the work (Clapp, Kar Ning Ho, Laguzza, & Solis, 2020).

Students must tap into their knowledge about emotions and creative expression, thinking creatively about what the artist may have been trying to communicate through his or her piece.  

Next, students work in groups to find out more about the artist and the history of that time period.  They work together to research information about the artist and the corresponding artistic period.  After that, students may choose to create a timeline, write a biography, give a short presentation, or create their own artwork reflective of the same style.

Here are some more lesson ideas that may inspire you to utilize an inquiry theme in your own classroom: https://www.learningbyinquiry.com/9-powerful-inquiry-learning-examples-to-use-in-the-classroom/

The second theme I have chosen is Maker.

What Does a Maker Theme Involve and Why is it Beneficial?

Research shows the benefits of experiential learning.  Throughout my own experiences in the classroom, I have seen how it boosts engagement in students when they complete hands-on activities.  A maker is anybody who makes things, so a maker theme means the young learners are completing activities that involve them using materials to make something (Clapp, Kar Ning Ho, Laguzza, & Solis, 2020).  To students, these projects can feel like they are just playing which allows for higher engagement and enjoyment. 

Image via freepik.com

What Essential Lesson Topics in this Theme will Benefit Students?

Just like the Inquiry Theme, the Maker Theme should also be planned around the grade and ability levels of the students, as well as their interests, curriculum requirements, current events, and the community they live in.  I would also like to point out the soft skills that are valuable in this theme.  They include:

  • working together
  • sharing and collaborating
  • using what you have and being resourceful
  • working on gross motor skills
  • learning responsibility and following clean-up expectations; caring for supplies
  • visualization- taking inspiration from real world photos and examples and recreating things using the available materials

Lesson topics for this theme include:

Get to Know Me

Transportation 

The City I Live In 

Weather 

Relationships and Working Together 

Storytelling and Feelings

Holidays and Special Occasions 

The Solar System 

How are These Topics Incorporated into an Interdisciplinary Curriculum?

Students are working together and sharing materials when they do the actual building or making of things.  Each unit will involve these soft skills and at the same time, the hard skills and subject areas are incorporated into the topics.  The teacher should use lots of photos, videos, and real life examples in order to connect lesson topics to the real world, building connections and reinforcing retention.  The teacher will act as a guide,  inspiring and assisting children with their projects.

Lesson Ideas

  • Get to Know Me: Create a collage about yourself
  • Transportation: Create a dream vehicle (Clapp, Kar Ning Ho, Laguzza, & Solis, 2020)
  • Transportation: Design an airplane using recycled materials in the classroom. Role-play the different roles of people on the plane. This activity may cover a broad range of subjects; for example, using addition in math when a passenger orders something to eat or drink. Science is covered as students learn how airplanes fly or role-play a flight with turbulence. Social studies is included as students learn how people use airplanes for travel and their history (Clapp, Kar Ning Ho, Laguzza, & Solis, 2020)
  • Transportation: Students build and race their own boats
  • Get to Know Me: Create a daily routine wheel, drawing or pasting pictures and writing the times of the day that you do them. Get together with a partner and find similarities and differences in the daily routines
  • Relationships and Working Together: Students use manipulatives like cups and blocks to explore bridges (Clapp, Kar Ning Ho, Laguzza, & Solis, 2020)
  • Storytelling and Feelings: Read a story and choose one character. Follow their emotions, then use stickers or drawings to make a chart documenting how they felt at different points throughout the story
  • Storytelling and Feelings: Design a face mask representing one of the characters from the story
Image by Lucky Little Learners via Pinterest
Image by Fun-A-Day Preschool Activities via Pinterest
Image by Brought to You by Mom via Pinterest

I hope that these ideas inspire you! Even if your school’s curriculum isn’t theme-based, these are still some excellent ideas that will surely be exciting for your students.

References

Clapp, E. P., Ross, J., Ryan, J. O., & Tishman, S. (2016). Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds. John Wiley & Sons. https://books.google.es/books/about/Maker_Centered_Learning.html?id=DjBrDQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&hl=en&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Clapp, E. P., Solis, S. L., Ho, C. K. N., & Laguzza, K. (2020). Maker-Centered Learning Playbook for Early Childhood Education. Agency by Design. http://www.agencybydesign.org/sites/default/files/AbD_Playbook.pdf

EdTechLens. (n.d.). Five Reasons to Try Theme-Based Learning. https://www.edtechlens.com/blog/try-theme-based-learning

Explorable.com. (2011, August 7). Oil Spill Experiment. Explorable. https://explorable.com/oil-spill-experiment

Learning by Inquiry. (2021, July 8). 9 Powerful Inquiry Learning Examples to Use in the Classroom. https://www.learningbyinquiry.com/9-powerful-inquiry-learning-examples-to-use-in-the-classroom/

National Geographic. (2016, September 16). How We Can Keep Plastics Out of Our Ocean | National Geographic [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQTUWK7CM-Y

Oswald, S. (2021, January 11). Ocean Pollution Clean Up Science Activity. Parenting Chaos. https://parentingchaos.com/ocean-pollution-clean-up-science-activity/

Reynandez, R. (2021, July 15). 10 Hands-On Science Projects to Teach About Pollution. Project Learning Tree. https://www.plt.org/educator-tips/science-projects-pollution/

Romani, P. (2021, October 12). What Is Theme Based Curriculum? Pear Tree School. https://peartree.school/theme-based-curriculum/

Shardlow, G. (2015, November 18). Integrating Mindfulness in Your Classroom Curriculum. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/integrating-mindfulness-in-classroom-curriculum-giselle-shardlow#:~:text=Make%20mindfulness%20a%20part%20of,%2C%20guided%20imagery%2C%20and%20movement.&text=Educators%20know%20that%20children%20learn,comfortable%2C%20safe%2C%20and%20relaxed

Vanstone, E. (2022, January 26). Melting Polar Ice Caps. Science Experiments for Kids. https://www.science-sparks.com/melting-polar-ice-caps/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=pinterest&utm_campaign=tailwind_tribes&utm_content=tribes&utm_term=760264076_31209472_200888

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