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Using a Thematic Approach

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The Start with the Arts program is organized around thematic units. The themes represent typical topics that are often the focus of early childhood curriculum units. During the early years, theme topics generally pertain to children's life experiences and interests. By selecting topics of high interest to children, the opportunities for active involvement in the process of learning are increased. Organizing curriculum around a theme allows for curriculum content and learning processes to be addressed within a meaningful context.

Today's early childhood specialists stress the importance of presenting curriculum in an integrated format, rather than spending short periods of time focusing on separate subject or content areas (Day & Drake, 1986; Katz, 1990). This view point is further supported by The National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990). They have identified as an indicator of quality early childhood programs the organization of the curriculum around thematic units. The theme approach includes activities in language arts, social studies, creative dramatics, music, art, science, math, or any combination of these. Many teachers and curriculum specialists have developed thematic units that incorporate content and process objectives from several content areas and heavily infuse them with the language arts processes of oral language, listening, reading, and writing (Tchudi, 1991; Varnon, 1991).

The themes chosen for the Start with the Arts program reflect topics which are typically covered in early childhood classrooms. The purpose of selecting common themes is to increase the probability that teachers will find it appropriate and convenient to integrate the activities into the current curriculum. This approach of selecting themes that are commonly used by teachers, increases the likelihood of the activities being integrated into existing classroom experiences (McGarry, 1986). It is important to note that while the Start with the Arts unit activities can "stand alone," learning will be enhanced and integrated for children when the activities are directly linked to the existing curriculum.

The topics selected for the thematic units in Start with the Arts are broad in scope and provide a selection of activities that can be tailored to fit into most early childhood programs. The thematic units allow for teacher ingenuity and creativity and encourage the adaptation of the curriculum to the needs of students. The topics directly concern children and the need to capitalize on their interests as they learn about themselves and their environment.

Teacher flexibility and adaptation in the use of this program is encouraged and a particular topic in any given activity can be substituted for another. For example, the teacher selects an activity that involves learning about trains. But, the children live in an urban area and have little, if any, knowledge about trains. Moreover, subway systems are being covered in the district's unit of study, but not trains. Here is an example where the subway system could easily be substituted for trains and still maintain the integrity of the activity.

In science, the class may be studying weather and its effect on the environment. The Start with the Arts activity entitled, "Rain Again?" may be used to further extend children's learning of weather and provides a rich resource for vocabulary, concept and oral development as they create and discuss their water color paintings of rain.

In making adaptations, it is important to select activities which support children's prior learning. Although the activities can double as "stand alone" art activities, their true value will be realized when they are used in the context of promoting literacy.

The goal of each activity in the program is to provide children with many opportunities to advance their art skills and conceptual knowledge, while facilitating the development of their communication and literacy skills and promoting positive attitudes toward themselves and learning. To illustrate, a brief description of five thematic units follows.

Each Thematic Unit is described in detail:

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Day, B.D., & Drake, K. (1986). Developmental and experiential programs; The key to quality education and care of young children. Educational Leadership, 44(3), 24-27

Katz, L.G., & Chard, S.C. (1990). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Company.

McGarry, T.P. (1986). Integrating learning for young children. Educational Leadership, 44(5), pp. 64-66.

National Association of Elementary School Principals (1990). Early Childhood and the Elementary School Principal. Alexandria, VA: author.

Tchudi, S. (1991). Planning and assessing the curriculum in English Language Arts. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Varnon, D. (1991). The principal's guide to making the transition to whole language. Ann Arbor, MI: Exceptional Innovations, Inc., pp. 16-19, 30.