Framing & Connecting Learning: Backwards Design in Early Childhood

by Emily Hoyler

As educators, our job is to frame learning experiences for children so that they can construct meaning and make connections in order to make sense of the world.  One way to accomplish this is to use “backwards design” principles— begin with the end in mind.  No matter what the activity, think about what it is that you want children to understand or take away from this experience:  what is the “big idea”?  The same activity can be framed in multiple ways by focusing on a different big idea.  Deciding ahead of time on the focus allows us to be intentional in our work with children.

Deciding on an essential question, big idea(s), and enduring understandings allows us to craft a series of connected learning experiences that can span weeks or months.  The return to the same ideas allows children to deepen their understanding of the world.

The following provides an example of a possible frame for guiding children through an exploration of cycles and change over time.  Both of these big ideas are prevalent in farm and nature settings.

Essential Question:  guides inquiry and should be asked frequently.  It can also be helpful to post the question on the classroom bulletin board, and record observations below.

 What’s Happening?


Big Ideas: focus us as we facilitate learning experiences and engage in discussions with children, helping them notice these patterns in the world.

 Cycles: every organism and every system goes through different stages.

 Change over time: all organisms, places, and systems are constantly changing. 


Enduring Understandings: express what children may learn as a result of their investigation.


 Many cycles are found in the natural world. 

 Every living thing has a life cycle. 

 There are all sizes, shapes, types, and lengths of cycles (i.e. butterfly life cycle, seasons, phases of the moon). 

 Humans are part of natural cycles.

 Living things have different needs at different life stages.


Change Over Time:

 All things change, and can adapt to change.

 We need change; change is inevitable.

 Change occurs at different rates and on different scales.

 Change impacts ecosystems & communities in different ways. Some ways are healthy and some ways are unhealthy.

 Change may not always be seen as it occurs.

 Change is constant.


Discussion Questions: can be used to engage students in conversation that allows them to process their discoveries and observations.  Use these, and others, to help students make connections between their observations and the big ideas and enduring understandings.


 What do I notice now?

 What is different than last time? What is the same?

 What might I see tomorrow?  Next month?  In the ______(season)?

 Why have things changed/stayed the same?

 What would happen if_______________?

 How do we change?

 Why do we change?

 Is change important?

 What’s changing now?


For more on early childhood education for sustainability, stay tuned for Shelburne Farms’ new curriculum resource guide, Project Seasons for Young Learners, due out in the spring of 2013.


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