All children learn differently, but one thing is clear for most: they learn best by doing and playing.
To meet young children in that sweet spot, educators work to create lessons centralized on a theme.
According to Nikki Henry, program director of children’s services at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Columbus, and Chelsea O’Neill, lead kindergarten teacher at University School in Shaker Heights, themed lessons can help children relate to and retain their lessons based on those experiences.
“Students can make better connections with what we are teaching if the curriculum is integrated into a theme,” O’Neill said. “By having a topic, theme or exploration, as we call it in kindergarten, we are hitting the surface through exploration and integrate other subject areas into that to help their learning and making those connections.”
For example, O’Neill said University School kindergartners are learning about insects, the first being ladybugs. She said students were able to better remember ladybug facts, like their life cycle, after they did a project focusing on the different stages. And near the end of the year, true themed learning will happen – with lessons focusing on medieval times.
“During that time, we learn about the structures of castles, and the projects we are doing help them envision that and visualize the different castles that were built and how they evolved,” O’Neill explained. “The hands-on experiences help them remember when we work on writing facts about castles and medieval times. They are more engaged in those projects and they’re thinking about what they have done and how it is connected to what we are sharing with them through videos and nonfiction text.”
At the Columbus JCC, Henry said the overall program believes children learn best through play and active exploration.
“We find this can be achieved through our teachers observing the children’s various likes and interests in the classroom when preparing a themed lesson,” she said. “These themes help to nurture a child’s natural curiosity and love of learning, which are skills all children need when preparing for kindergarten.”
She further explained that themed learning also helps align the Columbus JCC’s lesson plans with the state’s early learning and development standards.
“At the JCC, the theme runs through everything that happens in the classroom and acts as a connecting thread for our children,” Henry said. “This natural connection builds a strong independent learning base for our children.”
Teachers may work to differentiate themed lesson plans, allowing all subjects and areas to be included in lessons.
“Themes work best when the teacher considers the total needs of the children and uses the themes to invite new learning,” Henry said. “Teachers build their activities for the theme based on the children’s assessments and developmental needs in the classroom.”
O’Neill said differentiation also lies in meeting children at their specific needs.
“Some students need support with their fine motor skills, and then others are ready to go and expand on those projects, and they let their imagination come alive and their creativity, which is great,” she said. “Every child is different and the way they express their creativity is different too. So on some projects, the students might need more support with, and others, they won’t. So, it depends on the avenue they take into learning.”
But themed learning also shouldn’t stop once a child leaves the classroom. Parents also have a part to play in continuing the fun, the educators said.
“We believe that for a child to be successful in school the teachers and parents need to work together as a team,” Henry noted. “At the JCC, our teachers communicate with our parents throughout the day sending daily messages, photos and documentation. We have found that this helps to build the school-to-home connection as well as gives our parents a chance to continue the theme with their child at home.”
O’Neill said, “For families at home, knowing what their children like or what they would like to know more about, is a great starting point. You can take them on family field trips and explore together depending on what that interest is. It’s about letting that invested learning take place in their own home and to foster a love of learning so that they are getting more out of it.”