Understanding Curriculum: An Umbrella View
By Judith Colbert Ph. D.

Competencies for Curriculum Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competencies that can be used for this article are:

  • To support physical and intellectual competence.
  • To ensure a well-run, purposeful program responsive to participant needs.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability areas:

  • The ability to demonstrate knowledge of child development theory, research, and practice.
  • The ability to establish and maintain a well-run and purposeful early childhood educational environment for children.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

is curriculum? Chances are, the first response that comes to mind is that curriculum is a written document outlining topics to be covered or activities that will take place at a given time. Its format may range from a short-term plan, to a large book or e-document that sets out a step-by-step learning process that may take months to complete. But is there more to curriculum? If learning occurs all of the time, shouldn’t curriculum have a wider meaning, something closer to “everything that happens”? Within that definition, wouldn’t curriculum include both what is planned and what is unplanned?


A Double Perspective

Truth is, it is important to think of curriculum in both ways. Try to imagine curriculum as something that grows along a line that starts with a narrow, very specific view and extends to a wider, all-encompassing view. Another way of looking at curriculum is to picture it as a giant umbrella. This umbrella shelters a rich mixture of experiences that include not only the planned and unplanned events that occur in the child care setting, but also what occurs in the world beyond that may have an impact on what children learn. It is important to think of curriculum from this double perspective for two reasons.

  1. Having a specific plan matters. The authors of Eager to Learn (2000), a report of the National Academy of Sciences, say that, although they cannot identify a “single curriculum or pedagogical approach,” children who attend “well-planned, high quality early childhood programs in which curriculum aims are specified and integrated across domains” are “better prepared” for formal schooling (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000, p.6). In short, teachers in all settings need to have a plan for daily activities that meets specific goals.
  2. The big umbrella view also matters. Everything that happens to each of us, teaches us something. What happens in the wider world influences what happens in the classroom. The character of curriculum is achieved from being embedded in “contexts of the larger society” that “interact with teachers, learners, other curriculum developers, and the culture of classroom life all at once – each interacting with and influencing the others” (Schubert, 1986, p. 9).


What Are the Responsibilities of Teachers?

Unlike children, adults have the ability to analyze their experiences, learn from what seems valuable, and reject what is inappropriate or appears to be of no benefit. Adults interacting with children have to recognize that children watch and learn from the adults in their midst, and are vulnerable to the effects of what is happening around them at all times, not just in formal teaching moments. If teachers do not wash their hands, the observant child is likely to ask, “Why should I?” As a result, teachers have additional responsibilities to 1) Model appropriate behavior; 2) Respond to unexpected events and integrate them into existing activity plans; 3) Filter external events; and 4) Provide a context for learning.


A Traditional Role

In carrying out these responsibilities, teachers fill a traditional role described by Joseph Schwab, an important researcher in the education field. Schwab (1973) described curriculum in relation to interactions among four elements: learner, teacher, subject matter, and environment, or milieu, as he called it. He saw curriculum as the product of a dynamic process, captured by a fifth element, a curriculum-developer who is sensitive to the nature of the individuals involved, the topics being considered, and the setting where learning is to occur.

All of this may sound familiar to teachers in early childhood settings who in most cases also fill a role, both formally and informally, that could best be described as a “curriculum developer.” You focus on the learner when you try to “match” what happens to the “varying needs of the children” (Crosser, 1996) and to achieve what NAEYC calls “developmentally appropriate practice” (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). You make decisions about how you interact with the children. For example, you decide whether you will be directive and instruct the children or whether you will permit what happens to emerge by standing aside and allowing the children to make choices. In either case, your decision is likely based on both what is appropriate to the child and situation, and your own preferred style. In addition, you search out and respond to subject matter and, finally, consider details of the setting as a member of a profession that has long understood that the arrangement and content of the environment influences what is learned (Colbert, 1997a).


Questions to Answer

In describing the process of curriculum development, Schwab was building on the work of an even earlier pioneer, Ralph Tyler. In 1980, Tyler’s Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (1949) was rated, with John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, one of the two most influential books on curriculum thought and practice (Harold Shane, cited by Schubert, 1986, p. 171).  In this influential work, Tyler proposed that curriculum-developers answer four basic questions related to:

  • Purpose - What educational purposes should the school/child care program seek to attain?
  • Learning Experiences – How can learning experiences be selected which are likely to be useful in attaining your learning objectives?  
  • Organization – How can learning experiences be organized for effective instruction? 
  • Evaluation – How can the effectiveness of learning experiences be evaluated? (See Schubert, p.171).

More than 50 years after they were formulated, Tyler’s (1949) questions continue to be of value. They provide a framework for developing planned curriculum and helping teachers integrate unplanned events occurring both inside and outside the child care setting. As these questions are considered in more detail below, it is important to remember that each is related to the one that precedes it. In sequence, they create a cycle that moves from purpose to evaluation and generates yet another cycle, as the results of evaluation lead to the establishment of yet another purpose.



The very first question teachers should ask is, “What is the purpose of what we are doing?” The purpose of any learning activity should be described clearly so that it is objective, measurable, and specific.  For example, if you say that your purpose is to help children understand “bad weather,” you are likely to have difficulty evaluating the results of your efforts. “Bad” is a subjective word. A rainstorm that spoils a picnic is “bad weather” but one that ends a drought is “good.” “Weather” is also a very general word. It applies to a whole range of conditions. If you are not sure what “bad weather is” it is very difficult to evaluate whether your curriculum successfully helped children to understand the concept. On the other hand, if you say that your purpose is to help children understand a specific aspect of weather, such as rain, wind, or snow, you can find out from their drawings and discussions if they understand those specific conditions. It is also important to be clear at the very beginning about the purpose of what is happening in relation to both the “big picture” and the specific children who will experience the curriculum.


Linking Your Purpose to the Big Picture

Purposes that focus on the big picture illustrate how what happens relates to program philosophy. For example, consider how a sudden rainstorm might affect a planned program of activities in three early childhood settings, with different program philosophies, whose characteristics are revealed in distinctive responses to the question, “What is the purpose of what you are doing?” In each case, the teacher has an opportunity to integrate this unplanned event into existing curriculum plans:

Teacher #1: We are providing a safe place for children. It is likely that this program is providing basic custodial care with minimum focus on curriculum. The teacher monitors the class to ensure that the children are safe, but pays little or no attention to what the children might learn. For example, if a rainstorm arises, they will bring the children indoors where they are warm and dry, but will make little attempt to discuss what is happening outside.

Teacher #2: We are providing a safe place where children can develop emotionally, socially, cognitively, and physically. The children in this program are likely to be exposed to a wide variety of experiences. In programs that focus on child development and where teachers are responsive to change, a rainstorm might lead to rapid revision of the planned curriculum. The teacher is likely to encourage spontaneous discussion topics such as what is rain, where does lightening come from, or what it means to be afraid of loud noises.  

Teacher #3: We are providing a safe place where children can develop emotionally, socially, cognitively, physically and gain respect for the world around them. In addition to focusing on child development, this program includes concern for the environment. In such a program, the teacher might respond as described in the second example, however, the discussion might also focus on the importance of rain as a source of water for all living things and a necessary ingredient in the production of food.            

In every case, broad, “big picture” curriculum decisions are linked to ideas about the program’s purpose or goals that are embedded in program philosophy. A clear understanding of the link between program philosophy and what happens in the child care setting helps determine answers to curriculum questions for the children in your care.


Learning Experiences

Answers to questions about your purpose provide a context for curriculum development, but do not give you enough information for creating learning experiences for specific children. For that information, it is helpful to consider what Schwab’s four curriculum elements – the learner, the teacher, the subject matter and the environment – contribute to individual learning experiences. 


The Learner

Decisions about what to put in a curriculum plan, or how to integrate spontaneous events into an existing plan must be made with knowledge of the specific children involved. That knowledge comes from at least two sources: what the teacher has learned about child development, and what the teacher has observed about the behavior of the specific children for whom the curriculum is being designed.         

From the outset, curriculum developers consider the age and abilities of individual learners. Training and experience will give them a general idea of what is appropriate for children of a specific age. Only careful observation of individual children, however, will tell them what is important for a specific child to learn, and what is the best approach for helping that child to grow and develop. Teachers, therefore, need to make notes describing behaviors that are either positive or negative and take time later to reflect on how what they have observed might influence the activities they plan.

Curriculum Development in Action


Purpose: To reduce conflict in the child care setting and help a specific child, Zack, participate more effectively in group activities.

Situation: Ellen has been a preschool teacher for several years. She knows that the character of the room changes from time to time and that the behavior of one child can make a difference. Recently she has noticed an increase in the amount of conflict among the children. Every time there is an outbreak, it seems that Zack is somehow involved.

Analysis of Behavior: Zack plays well when he is alone or in a small group and seems to prefer being in a quiet corner with a few playthings. However, he is always at the center of a dispute when he is with a large group of children. On the one hand, she thinks that Zack has difficulty socializing with others, but he functions well in small groups so simply relating to others may not be his problem. Given that the group size seems to be related to the problem, she is wondering about the level of stimulation. After all, he is usually fine when he has just a few playthings in a quiet corner.

Solution: Ellen decides to tailor the curriculum for Zack by including activities that would permit her to relate differently to him, depending on the situation. When he is alone or in small groups, she gives him freedom to choose his activities, but when he is involved in more complex situations, she takes a more directive approach and intervenes before trouble develops. Over time, she structures learning experiences that foster success in increasingly complex situations. She tries to ensure that he does not have to confront an overwhelming number of toys, and gradually increases the number over time. She creates a classroom environment with clear pathways and quiet areas where only a few children can gather, and provides ample “cool down” time by alternating periods of high activity throughout the day. As time passes, she records her observations of Zack’s behavior and discusses her findings with his parents to determine whether her interventions are resulting in less conflict in the classroom and helping Zack to participate more effectively in group activities.

The Teacher

When planning curriculum, it is also important to think about the role the teacher will play in fulfilling its purpose. On the one hand, the teacher may be directive and require the children to be passive recipients of specific facts and skills. On the other, the teacher may be reactive, remaining in the background while the children largely determine what happens. In such cases, what results is often called an “emergent curriculum.”

Allowing children to appear to take the lead in curriculum development does not mean teachers are idle. Teachers are busy observing, organizing, and responding. Wien, Stacey, Keating, Rowlings, and Cameron (2002) provide an excellent description of an emergent curriculum project that illustrates aspects of the teacher’s role. Most of the teachers in the project were unfamiliar with emergent curriculum, however, the authors saw this lack of experience as an advantage: “It allowed them to take each step slowly and to observe children’s responses carefully. Gradually, they created new possibilities for curriculum.” In this project, each of the children received a handmade cloth doll with no features. After some discussion, the children set about to correct this deficiency in a variety of ways. As they did so, one teacher reports struggling “‘trying not to control’ where the children put eyes on their dolls” (Wien et al., 2002, p. 34). Wien et al. acknowledge the difficulty of the process: “It wasn’t easy. With planning that is responsive rather than programmed, teachers don’t know what comes next until they collaborate on devising the best plan to suit the children’s responses and interests”(pp. 36-37).

For some, the teacher’s role in emergent curriculum is too passive. For example, researchers at Project Spectrum, a 10-year research project established to test Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, regard learning as a complex interaction between the learner, the teacher, and the environment. In their view, the teacher is actively involved and provides support through what they call “scaffolding and bridging” (Chen, Krechevsky, Viens, & Isberg, 1998, p. 63). In contrast to the emergent curriculum study, Spectrum researchers believe that “teachers need to act as coaches and facilitators to guide and challenge students’ learning and thinking. We encouraged the teachers to ask children thought-provoking questions and to pose problems, suggest different hypotheses, and urge children to test these hypotheses in a variety of ways.” (Chen et al, 1998, p. 63; cited Colbert, 2000, p. 8-9).          

From time to time, depending on circumstances, teachers are likely to adopt all three roles – directive, reactive, and interactive. As they do, it is important to recognize that the role they play helps shape what happens and, as a result, what the children learn.


Subject Matter

In planning curriculum, teachers can choose from a wide range of topics. As Tyler (1949) suggests, it is important that the subject matter supports the curriculum purpose. The purpose of the curriculum mentioned above is to teach children about weather. Clearly the subject matter for the learning experience should relate to weather. On the other hand, the curriculum may be designed to fulfill a much more fundamental purpose and weather-related topics may be only vehicles for encouraging the development of more basic skills and abilities. For example, on a rainy day, the children might exercise their mathematical skills by collecting and measuring how much rain has fallen. They might develop their artistic ability by drawing a variety of cloud formations or by using cotton balls to create a 3-D tactile version of the clouds in the sky. They might also write a poem about rain or learn some of the scientific thinking about the causes of thunder and lightening. They might talk about how they feel when there is a storm and whether it helps to be with friends.            

Many readers will recognize these as activities that support Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993; Colbert, 1997a). Whether they concentrate on Gardner’s intelligences or some other learning theory, teachers who establish curriculum goals that focus on the individual child, rather than on a specific topic, have a foundation for flexibility. Although they might have planned to discuss bugs, body parts or some other topic, they can shift easily to rain if a sudden storm should arise and still accomplish their curriculum goals.


The Environment

Finally, the nature and organization of the environment contributes to the learning experience. As long as concerns about the safety of the children have been addressed, curriculum developers can shape the children’s learning experience through the decisions they make about the physical environment. One obvious question to consider is whether an activity is more appropriate for indoors or outdoors. More complex questions relate to the organization of the space, which is closely related to both teacher roles and educational philosophy (Colbert, 1997a). For example, space that includes open pathways to activity areas promote children’s independence and free teachers to work with individual children. In contrast, space encourages wandering and conflict when it includes pathways that interrupt existing activities or that lead to dead ends or activities which do not hold the children’s attention. Teachers in such settings spend much of their time sorting out conflicts and directing group behavior, at the expense of attention to individual children.



Having explored the learning experience from a number of perspectives, it is important to consider how those experiences are going to be organized to fulfill the purpose of the curriculum. When thinking about organizing a curriculum plan that will unfold over time, it is important to start with basic information or foundation skills and build toward more complex subject matter and abilities. When organizing a plan for daily activities, teachers must consider routines (diaper changing, washroom visits, lunch) and transitions (the times between activities such as line-ups) as well as learning activities. When organizing learning activities, it is important to consider a blend of quiet and strenuous activities, and ensure that major events are not planned for times when the children are tired or hungry. Teachers can solve many behavior management problems by scheduling events at times of the day when children are most able to participate. Once again, careful observation of the children’s behavior provides clues to the ways in which the organization of activities can make positive contributions to the achievement of curriculum goals.



Finally, Tyler’s fourth question requires that some means be in place to evaluate whether curriculum purposes are being fulfilled. Answering that question requires closing the circle, returning to the beginning of the cycle, and considering once again, “What is the purpose?” Evaluation will only be effective if the purpose has been clearly stated and if observations along the way provide evidence that either supports the achievement of a specific purpose or indicates that it has not been met. In either case, the results of the evaluation set the stage for the next curriculum cycle – findings from one cycle lead to the formulation of new purposes in the next. If the evaluation suggests that learning has occurred, it is time to move on to new challenges. If it suggests that there is more to learn, the lesson can be repeated, with adjustments based on what has been observed.



Clearly, what happens in classrooms is based on observation and careful planning. No matter how careful the preparation, however, what happens is also beyond the control of any individual and cannot be fitted into any one theory of curriculum development. Children, like adults, learn from everything that happens. Curriculum is, in fact, a giant umbrella that shelters a myriad of events. A solid grounding in curriculum theory and a good idea of who participates and what questions to ask can help teachers and caregivers establish and achieve appropriate curriculum goals, and respond more effectively to everything that happens inside and outside the child care setting.


Judith Colbert, Ph.D., is a consultant who specializes in early care and education. She is the author of several articles on curriculum and a major study on the relationship between brain research and curriculum.



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Bredekamp. S. & Copple, C. (Eds.) (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth to age 8. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: NAEYC. 

Chen, J., Krechevsky, M., & Viens, J. with Isberg, E. (1998). Building on children’s strengths: The experience of Project Spectrum. Project Zero Frameworks for Early Childhood Education, Vol. 1, Ed. Gardner, H., Feldman, D. & Krechevsky, M. NY: Teacher’s College Press. 

Colbert, J. (1997a, May-June). Classroom design and how it influences behavior. Earlychildhood NEWS, IX (3). 

Colbert, J. (2000). Brain research and curriculum: Perspectives on intelligence and learning. Waterloo, Canada: author. 

Crosser, S. (1996, September-October). The butterfly garden: Developmentally appropriate practice defined. Earlychildhood News, VIII (5). 

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences.10th Anniversary Edition. NY: Basic Books. 

Shane, H. (1980). Significant writings that have influenced the curriculum: 1906-1981. Phi Delta Kappan, 62(5), 311-314 [cited by Schubert]. 

Schubert, W. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, paradigm, and possibility. NY: Macmillan Publishing Company. 

Schwab, J.J. (1973). The practical 3: Transition into curriculum. School Review, 508-509. 

Tyler, R. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Wien, C., Stacey, S., Keating, B., Rowlings, J. & Cameron, H. (2002). Handmade dolls as a framework for emergent curriculum. Young Children, 57(1), 33-38.