Educational Decision time…Theme or not to theme…that is the question!?

Recently, I have been reading some interesting comments on themes and project work.  It seems that most people are either ABSOLUTELY FOR or ABSOLUTELY AGAINST!

Like all opinion on what we do as educators, depending on the opinion, we are either going to damage children for ever if we do a theme or the children will miss out on important learning if we don’t.

It’s that time again, as we all decide Olympics theme or no Olympics theme. As always, I feel balance and common sense are the key.

Many years ago, I remember a time when the thematic approach in Preschool/Lower Primary was THE way to go.  Everything was taught via the theme.  For the Olympics, we measured the race track and did a medal count for mathematics and wrote about our favourite sport for language, we read books about Olympics and we pinned a World Map with all the countries that are participating for social studies (and yes I have purposely used the old names for subject areas!!!).  Same cliché activities were rolled out every Olympic and Commonwealth Games; the children had very little say.  Also remember that was in Primary School.  This did not happen so much in Kindergarten (3-4 years in QLD back then) and children just weren’t in care before that age, (do you remember the time before long day care, or am I showing my age?) except some limited family day-care (no planning required…my Mum did family day-care, the little boy spending the days with our family, no paperwork, no observations!)  So much has changed…

Now I think back on it, were the children as excited as I was about the themes? Were the teacher/educators more interested than the children?   Maybe if we had let the children have more say, many of them would have been more involved.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that themes are done to impress parents and wider community, in the “look, we are actually learning something” stakes and there are great photo ops to be had.  Maybe we are doing what is expected from parents.  For educators, it may be to use all those many subject/content based activities they have been stock piling.  Let’s buy an Olympics kit and all is solved.  However, this will mean little in the true, thoughtful, supportive education of young children.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love a good theme…but that’s the point isn’t it, I love it, but do they?

If you are in an under 5’s learning environment, remember to be led by the children’s interests.  If children are interested and come to the learning environment keen to discuss the Olympics, I say go with it, but try to refrain from rolling out every possible activity so you can to stay on theme!  Some children will be keen for days, others have no interest.  Try to limit the “activity” (usually with a product in mind, like make a flag, run a race or make Olympic Rings) and encourage learning experiences that are open ended, planning with the children; asking some questions like: How could we make a flag?  What would your flag look like?  What sort of competitions would you have at your Olympics.  Would everyone be a winner? Remember what is important: the learning process: skills and knowledge like problem-solving, investigating, hypothesizing, inquiry, enthusiasm, curiosity (and the list goes on )with the associated numeracy and literacy that is appropriate;  NOT lots of product and subject/content.

If the only one discussing or introducing the theme is you, a full blown theme or project is not the best choice for your setting.

I do think it is good to talk about the Olympics…my daughter’s year one class didn’t know what they were and you might find something very similar in younger groups of children.  I do think it is important to discuss new things and events, expanding the children’s world.  It also is a wonderful way to discuss different cultures and nationalities coming together.

You and the children may choose to do a “one-day-er”.  Great parents/families day.  Ask the children who are interested, what they would like to set up at their Olympics.  You may find the Most Interesting Playdough Sculpture, Most Colourful Collage, Who Can Hang Longest From A Tree Branch or Run and Pluck A Leaf From A Tree may be the events. Let the children decide and everyone may not take part, it is their choice.

I don’t think the odd medal count in Early Childhood is going to cause lasting damage to any child.  However “Do No Harm” is not the educator creed.  Ours is “Best Practice for Young Children” a higher expectation than just doing no harm.

So ask the children, do a learning web, see what they know and what they want to know…and there will be your answer.

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