Friday, May 3, 2013

5 Reasons for Themes

"Theme based teaching is not inherently evil!"
Lisa Murphy, Ooey Gooey Inc.
Theme based teaching does, however, often get a bad rap. So here are a few of the reasons that I LOVE theme based teaching.

Emergent curriculum, letting the children's interests guide the learning process, is touted as being the best. While I thoroughly agree that all emergent curriculum should be explored, if a child or group of children are REALLY into some topic, then it does need immersion, I also believe that any child care or preschool setting is limited by its hard structure, resources on hand, funding, and the creativity of its employees. 

I also believe that children under 5 have sufficiently limited experience that exposing them to new and interesting themes is to their advantage, and here's why...

#1  Themes enliven the environment.  

Themes provide a rallying point for every administrator, teacher and child to explore the endless possibilities of the current environment for re-purposing towards the theme. New items are borrowed, created, or bought that expand the learning experience. 

For instance, a teacher may bring in a tent for a camping theme, which would have never otherwise been brought in, and many children, especially young children and those that live in the city, may have never seen or felt one before. The same for hay bales for an autumn or farm theme, tadpoles for a pond theme, live hermit crabs for an ocean theme, saddle and for a cowboy theme, etc. 

Fairy Tales theme - Princess and the Pea - used every blanket available and a tennis ball first then a ping pong ball as the "pea" to feel

#2 Themes allow children to explore beyond limited experiences. 

They may have read a book on the circus, maybe a few children have been to the circus, but they really have no idea what all the circus entails. Even though it may be an interesting subject to them, they have no idea how to go about exploring it and wouldn't even bring it up as a potential topic on their own. As a theme, their opportunity to learn, play and investigate is vastly expanded through the teacher's experience.

Circus theme - lion tamer and lion during our finale performances
#3 Themes provide inexperienced teachers a starting point and a format. 
While an experienced teacher may be able to easily pick up on emergent curriculum from her students and immediately create some songs and fingerplays, pull out books from her vast collection relevant to the topic, create some file folder games and art projects, along with math, science and reading centers...that isn't so easy for the majority of teachers. Themes allow for thoughtful pre-planning of relevant curriculum, learning objectives, environmental set-up and potential field trips.
Dinosaur theme - paint with dinos
#4 Themes direct the prudent allocation of resources. 
If a teacher has a set of themes in which she can fully invest for the long-term, then the purchase of more expensive manipulatives, games, and resources can be justified, since they will knowingly be used over and over again, rather than getting lost on a back shelf in a closet because they have no specific relevance.

For instance, I use the game Log Jam every Groundhog Day, during our pond theme, when we discuss weather/water cycle, and it may come out for themes such as zoo, habitats, rodents, etc. 

8 pumpkins/squash of various sizes and textures bought for our Fall theme

#5 Project or theme-based learning makes sense. 

For children, immersion in a topic helps every aspect of that topic to combine into a cohesive collection of information. Studying clouds, acting out the water cycle, building a rain gauge, graphing the rainfall, doing erosion experiments in the sand and water table, studying ice/water/steam, all during a specific amount of time through a specific, well-planned, scaffolding curriculum, based upon play and hands-on learning, enables children to really get their minds wrapped around new concepts, ideas and experiences. 

Tiki Man craft during Hawaii/Luau theme

They make my job even more fun and enjoyable.

However, the downfall is if teachers use themes as simply a topic, rather than an immersion experience. 


They should NOT be a crutch. Good teaching comes from reading your students and responding to their educational and emotional needs. Some weeks we go without a theme because we are into some learning concept that doesn't work well with one. Eventually we get beyond that,  I throw out a few theme ideas for them to choose from, and we delve into one.

They should NOT be a topic for worksheets. Worksheets are for children over the age of 8! No color-by-number,  addition worksheet with a little theme icon in the lower corner, or "C c C c circus" writing etc. 

They should NOT be a few token activities without any connection or relevance. The whole beauty of a theme is interdependent learning opportunities. 

They should NOT be the SAME activities, only with a different theme.  Musical chairs AGAIN, only this time with animals on the seats, or foods, or transportation vehicles, etc...

They should NOT be rushed through with an uncompromising agenda. As with any curriculum, children need to be allowed to THOROUGHLY explore and investigate any aspect with which they become enamored. If it means extending the theme into an additional week, or two, then give them the time they need to learn. 

They should NOT be blanketed upon uninterested children. If a theme isn't working to hold the interest of the children, or teacher, then it needs to be abandoned and replaced. Age, maturity, attention span and interests of each and every group of children will vary dramatically. What worked great one year may totally flop with the next group. Move on. Don't beat a dead horse. 

By the way, Lisa Murphy's article on curriculum planning is excellent. Please go read it!
Tags: preschool, daycare, pre-k, child, care, theme, unit, curriculum, planning, 
Tags: teaching, child, care, daycare, preschool, pre-k, curriculum, planning, theme, themes, unit, homeschool, homeschooling, emergent, lesson, lessons, learning, education, ece, early, childhood


  1. Do you sell your 3K Curriculum?? If so where could I find it. Love this!!!

    1. Sorry, my notifications have been off all year and I'm just now realizing it. I now have a "SHOP" page that most of my for-sale curriculum can be purchased through. I will be trying to get the rest of it loaded through 2018.