Themes to Teach By
By Renee Farrington

Integrate! Motivate! Authenticate! Sometimes it seems as if mandates to improve our early childhood curriculum are hurled at us from all directions like pedagogical Frisbees. What's a teacher to do? Adopt the project approach? Go Reggio? Climb onto High Scope? Switch to Waldorf? Modify Montessori? Forget curriculum? The answer may not be so drastic. Increasingly teachers in a broad spectrum of programs have decided that they can integrate their curriculum, motivate their children, AND provide authentic experiences by teaching with themes.

Why Themes?
So, just what do we mean by teaching with themes? There may be as many ways of using themes to teach as there are teachers teaching with them. But first let's look at some activities observed over a period of time in a program where themes are not a focus:

Morgan notices something new in the discovery corner. Fish models, photos of sea life, a bucket of sand filled with shells and pieces of coral, a magnifier, and an intriguing book on ocean explorations have all been added to the center for the children to explore.

At math time, Miss Shannon brings out a graphing mat so children can show and compare their preferences of sea creatures.

After they enjoy a reading of Swimmy, the children are invited to make their own sponge paintings of underwater wonders.

These activities would have great validity at any time during the year, but if they are consolidated into one period of time and centered around a theme, rather than scattered, children have the opportunity to make meaningful connections, to link one experience to another and by doing so, to make what they learn their own. Using a variety of stimulating activities to approach a single theme allows children to learn according to their own specific styles. And in a time when both kids and grown-ups are buffeted by far too much information, stimulation, and isolation, theme-based programs help both teachers and children feel an overall sense of direction and connectedness.

Choosing the Right Approach
Making connections. That's what it's all about - both in how you teach and how your children learn. More and more teachers are turning to theme teaching as a way to ensure themselves (and the administrators and parents they report to) that their children are receiving the most valuable integrated, authentic, and enjoyable learning experience. The way teachers use the theme approach to teaching will look different in different programs. We're going to describe a few approaches to choosing themes. From the more traditional (and sometimes controversial) themes of the month, week, and day approach to the newer project (or topic) approach to selecting themes, the range is broad. It's up to you to make the connection with the approach or parts of approaches that fit your learning and teaching style.

Theme of the Month
Monthly themes are usually set by a director or administrator or are part of a teacher's yearly plan. Monthly themes are often very broad ("macro") and last a prescribed amount of time - a month. It's common to start the school year with a "fall" or "all about me" theme and to do the other seasons and holidays as themes throughout the school year.

Letter of the Week
It's "P" week. We're going to have pancakes for snack, read The Story About Ping, and do our math work with piggy counters. In social studies we will discuss the career of a police officer and in science we will study polar bears.

Prop of the Day
Ms. Callaway brings an eggbeater to class. We sing aboutHumpty Dumpty, and we readEmma's Eggsat circle time. Out on the playground we whirl and twirl and become virtual egg beaters. In the dramatic play area we get out our kitchen utensils and for science, we study the use of simple machines that make an egg beater work.

Child Initiated
Louie has a new baby at home. Max got some new shoes. Nancy discovers a spider web in the corner. In each case the event receives the attention of the teacher and the class as they make it a theme that they are going to study. Together they set about deciding what it is they want to know about the subject.

Free Unstructured Discovery
As kids and teachers proceed through their day, they make connections randomly as they occur. "Look! There's a butterfly. Remember the butterfly in The Very Hungry Caterpillar?"

Organizing Your Theme
Now that we have chosen a theme, how do you organize activities around it? Here again, there are a variety of approaches. Let's look at some of the ways educators are organizing their curriculum around themes.

When I started a theme, for example on cats, my whole room would be transformed into a cat room. I would be the expert on the topic, I would set up the room before the theme would start, I would get all the materials ready, I would plan every center, make every worksheet that I was going to use, find every art project that I was going to make with the children. My own knowledge would be the starting point for the study on cats. Everything would be preplanned. I would pull out my boxes on cats and use the same stuff year after year.

The description above is from Sylvia Chard's Project Approach website, She makes planning a theme almost sound like getting ready for a party. No wonder she has changed to a more "authentic" approach. Rather than themes, the project approach uses the term topics. These are much more focused than traditional themes. On her site, you can read about how to organize around the topics which are child initiated and are carried through with the help of their brainstorming. An example of a micro theme - or topic - might be APPLES as opposed to macro themes such as FRUIT or FOOD. Brainstorming consists of setting up specific information that the students want to learn about apples such as their composition, how they can be eaten, where they come from, what they might look like, etc. They then continue to make an outline of the key events in their investigation, the possibilities for fieldwork and collecting their resources.

In Creative Resources for the Early Childhood Classroom, Judy Herr and Yvonne R. Libby Larson, emphasize the importance of organizing micro themes around developmental domains such as aesthetics, cognition, language, physical skills, social skills, construction skills, and pretend play skills.

Theme webbing is another easy and popular method of weaving the curriculum activities around a central theme or the specific investigations around a micro topic. Webbing is simply an aid to ensure that the children are given the most opportunities to make connections and to learn according to their own style. We've illustrated two types of webs for you. In one we have webbed the topics of a theme to be investigated. In the other we have integrated the curriculum activities where these investigations can be pursued.

Involving Children and Families
When creating a theme, it is essential that the activities be developmentally appropriate and engage the children as explorers, investigators, and participants. Also essential is involving the families of the children as resources and support for the investigations their children are engaged in. Many themes begin with a letter home announcing the topic to be explored. Part of a theme's magic is making families partners in their children's exploration of a theme and as resources for materials and expertise.

Once you know a theme, you can use your children and their families to start collecting related materials. Dollar stores, party stores, and other merchants (especially during post-holiday sales); garage sales; neighbors; and, if you're really lucky, fellow teachers are other great resources for materials. For simple organization and storage, create a box for every theme and drop items it whenever you get them. Add copies of songs, books, and tapes and be sure to include a folder of activities and a bibliography of books.

How Long Should a Theme Last?
The length of a theme depends on your goals and on the interest level of the children. A micro project-approach topic might last one day or several weeks depending on the extensions that arise from the children's investigations. A period of two to three weeks is usually adequate for kindergartners, less for preschoolers. And remember, the theme does not need to involve everything you and the children do throughout that period of time.

Ready to go theming? Perhaps now you'll see that there really is no one way to organize your teaching around themes. But hopefully you will see the value of using themes to integrate your program, motivate your children, and authenticate your hard work and theirs. And maybe you'll even deflect a couple of Frisbees along the way. Happy theming!

Renee Farrington retired from Discount School Supply. where she conceptualized, wrote, and developed products for young children.

Creative Resources for the Early Childhood Classroom by Judy Herr and Yvonne Libby-Larson (Delmar). An excellent practical resource for teaching 67 "micro" themes. This book includes content webs, flow charts, theme goals and concepts, vocabulary, activities across the curriculum, bulletin board ideas, books, and other resources.

Teaching Young Children Using Themes is edited by Marjorie J. Kostelnik (Good Year Books) and contains over 1,000 activities related to 24 "macro" themes.

Every Day in Every Way: A Year-Round Calendar of Preschool Learning Challenges by Cynthia Holley and Faraday Burditt (Fearon). More than 1,000 developmentally appropriate activities are grouped around 52 thematic units (one for each week of the year) in this resource book.

Resources for Every Day in Every Way: A Teacher's Handbook of Preschool Activities Learning Challenges by Cynthia Holley and Faraday Burditt (Fearon) includes songs, fingerplays reproducibles, and planning guides.

The Giant Encyclopedia of Theme Activities for Children 2 to 5 and The Giant Encyclopedia of Circle Time and Group Activities for Children 3 to 6 are edited by Kathy Charner (Gryphon House) and each contain more than 600 activities designed by teachers grouped around "macro" themes.

Kindergarten Themes by Mary J. Kurth (Creative Teaching Press) includes eight broad theme units, explains how to create a theme-centered classroom, and offers management and record keeping ideas, reproducibles, and hands-on learning activities.

Theme Storming - How to Build a Theme-Based Curriculum the Easy Way by Joni Becker, Karen Reid, Pat Steinhous and Peggy Wieck (Gryphon House) is as unconventional as its title. The themes in this book range from "Sticky" and "Crash, Bang, Boom" to "Giant Teeny Tiny" and "All Tied Up!".