Think of it as a modern harmony for “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “Wheels on the Bus:” Maryland education researchers, former teachers and graduate students, in collaboration with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the Smithsonian Institution, have created a new and engaging way to teach preschoolers about growing fruits and vegetables, transportation and the human body.

The “Children Study Their World” curriculum bolsters lesson plans and enhances learning by incorporating digitized versions of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s artifacts made available on iPad, such as a skeleton marionette and a nurse’s satchel.

Developed by UMD’s Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention (CECEI), with important contributions from the museum and MSDE, the preschool curriculum was rolled out this year in 61 classrooms and will be implemented in 200 Maryland classrooms next school year.

Brain research demonstrated the importance of providing young children with rich, hands-on learning experiences respectful of their capacity to learn and eagerness to explore, said CECEI Executive Director Christy Tirrell-Corbin, who is also the principal investigator and director of the curriculum project.

“We chose project topics like ‘My Body’ and ‘All Aboard: Transportation’ for the children to investigate, as 4-year-olds are very concrete in their thinking and benefit from studying the world that surrounds them every single day,” she said.

Each of the eight interdisciplinary projects includes digitized, child-friendly pieces from the Smithsonian collection that serve as the base of an “object investigation”—small group lessons written by museum staff who worked with the curriculum team.

“Our museum educators were able to integrate digitized objects from the museum’s collections and share expertise on how to engage children with enjoyable learning experiences that support literacy and school readiness, play and inquiry, and the development of executive function skills,” said Carrie C. Kotcho, A. James Clark Director of Education & Impact at the National Museum of American History.

The digital curriculum, available on iPad, will be widely disseminated for free to licensed child care programs and public preschool teachers in Maryland, overcoming the barrier that high-cost curricula can pose for communities with low resources. Available as digital books, the curriculum guides also provide strategies for students with disabilities and English language learners.

"The most important component to a quality pre-K program is the teacher. The teacher needs to be equipped with the tools to deliver high-quality instruction," said Karen Salmon, Maryland state superintendent of schools. "This new integrated curriculum and the training and coaching that accompany it helps to ensure this happens."  

In addition to the 200-classroom rollout, Tirrell-Corbin will host a podcast series focused on high-quality instructional practices for early-childhood teachers next year, and CSW staff will facilitate webinars for teachers and for coaches and program administrators.

“Children Study Their World” is a wonderful tool for teaching young children, said Patricia Aburn, a quality assurance specialist and credentialing liaison of the Maryland State Department of Education, who helps coach teachers to use the curriculum.

“Young children are like sponges their first five years,” Aburn said. “They need to be challenged, stimulated by free play and structured whole group and small group activities. They need to be socially engaged and exposed to language through rich vocabulary and stimulating literacy.”