Archived — Emergent Curriculum: How Art is used as a Language

Justin West

Justin West
Peter Green Hall Children's Centre
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Type of setting: Licensed full time childcare centre for 3.5 to 5 years

Fear and dread washed over me. Never before had a child's request caused such a reaction. For most people it would have been an innocuous enough activity—copy her drawing. I'm a deft hand at painting, mixed media is a cinch, but drawing has always caused me endless hours of imperfect offerings. Having spent the night before frustrated by a similar task for my Masters program, I felt the universe was having a full belly laugh at my expense. A simple rainbow drawn by a four year-old was about to teach me about the flexible nature of an emergent curriculum.

In my many years in the field of early childhood education, I have seen the impact of an emergent curriculum—children are engaged because the lessons learned stem from their interests and curiosities. Such programs empower the children by taking the knowledge they have already acquired and use it to help them teach others, as well as allowing for additional information to be included in which they may not be aware. Art weaves into these lessons with ease – seeing some of the children in my centre, Peter Green Hall Children's Centre, painting while on their backs underneath a table, I was able to teach them about the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo.

The children are fond of going out into the community and engaging with local artists and making connections with the local art university who allow the children to see art in progress, speak with artists, and have even agreed to come work with the children in their space to encourage creativity, understanding and art appreciation.

Problem solving and critical thinking skills are often required to resolve an issue, but facing it straight on can be daunting. We employ the skill set of breaking it down into its most basic parts/shapes and drawing each so we can figure out how to make it work—the drawing then becomes a tool they can use in future in their problem solving arsenal.

I specifically marry emergent curriculum and art because together they help foster a non-verbal language for everyone to express difficult concepts and emotions. Let's return to the rainbow drawing and my lesson learned—no matter what the drawing (read: task), it can be taken apart piece by piece—the line spacing, the curves, the materials, and the right space for the work. Intuitively the little girl knew what she wanted—a replica of her rainbow on yellow paper in a selection of markers by her teacher. We worked together, she had some authority in doling out instructions and I learned that confidence has a lot to do with how easily a task can be completed. Consequently, the homework I needed to do benefitted from a better space to work, the correct materials and in no small part, confidence.

Ultimately learning and teaching are intertwined, the children and myself are involved in a feedback loop that drives knowledge, understanding and in my centre an artistic language that fosters empowerment, trust, openness, respect and space to try new things and explore the wider world.


Vecchi, V. (2010). Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia: Exploring the role and potential of ateliers in Early Childhood Education.

Reynolds, P. (2004). Ish.

Gemini, L., & Topal, C. (1999). Beautiful Stuff: Learning with found Materials.

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