Updated: Apr 20
If you're new to early learning, you're probably thinking, "Why does everything have a theme?!?"
I understand...it seems like a lot. And, honestly, it can be a lot if you aren't careful. But to answer your question...because it helps kids learn!
Let me explain...
Science and Social Studies: Themes are usually topics within the Science and Social Studies standards (not always, some are just for fun). In early grades, the focus is teaching kids to explore the world around them. We're really not teaching history or an in depth knowledge of the scientific world. So, most teachers don't set aside a specific time to teach Science and Social Studies. Instead, we incorporate it with Math & Literacy through our themes. We read books about the topics, play games, explore materials and tools, etc.
It keeps kids excited and engaged in learning. The things kids are learning at this stage are very basic but also very difficult to learn. It takes a lot of repetition for students to master these key skills. If you aren't careful, it can became dull and boring for kids to get in the practice they need. By using themes, you can utilize the same activity with different pictures or manipulatives and suddenly it becomes fun and exciting again.
Now, your mind is probably filled with a dozen questions...how do you plan for a meaningful theme? Doesn't it get expensive buying activities and manipulatives for all those themes? Where do you store all that stuff? How long should you stick with a theme? What themes should you use?
So...let's take a closer look.
Planning a meaningful theme: I'm going to be honest, this does take some careful thought and planning. But it gets easier as you get used to it. Unfortunately, there is too much information to share within this blog. Instead, check out my blog How to Plan an Exciting Theme.
Cost: If you are buying activities and manipulatives unique to every theme, you are going to spend a ton of money. Fortunately, you don't have to do that. There are a lot of activities that you can customize to a theme just by changing the manipulative.
For example, counting mats (often called Play-Doh mats) are easily changed to match various themes. Many people only think of using Play-Doh, but think outside the box.
Alternate manipulatives: candy corn, spider rings, Christmas tree erasers, conversation hearts, cereal, jumping frogs, marshmallows, pom poms, etc.
When you do buy an activity with a specific theme, think about how many different themes you could use it for.
Personally, I feel like I get a lot of use from my Apple Unit every year. So, I consider it worth it to have these themed activities. How much use I will get out of something is what I keep in mind when making decisions about what to create and purchase for my classroom.
Storage: Manipulatives are a lot more tricky to store than the activities themselves. I like to buy manipulatives that are reusable (because I get more use out of it), but that means I have to store it somewhere. Preferably, somewhere I can find it and easily access it.
I like to store my manipulatives in clear boxes with snap locks on the lids. I purchase square boxes that are meant to be stacked so that my closet stays neat. The boxes I use are approximately 8 inches long, 6 inches wide, and 3 inches tall. If the manipulative will not fit in this box, I don't buy it.
To help me easily see what is in each box, I take a picture and put it on the outside of the box. Then, I store theme in alphabetical order. I know some people store by theme, but since I use the manipulative for multiple themes, that method just doesn't work or me.
I store my activities in a file box. I put each activity in a manila envelope and label the outside so I know what activity is inside. In my file box, I have hanging files labeled with my units of study: colors, shapes, patterns, measuring, counting, money, name recognition, letter recognition, beginning sounds, sight words, letter formation, etc.
Once I have my activity in a labeled envelope, I place it in the corresponding file. Again, keeping things organized by theme doesn't work for me. Organizing activities by topic really helps me when planning. I simply go to the topic for that week and look through to find any activities that could match my theme.
Length: People differ greatly on how long they stick to the same theme. Some people use a theme for a month or 2 weeks. Personally, I use a theme for 1 week. This keeps students from getting bored with the theme, and keeps me from burn out trying to find a ton of different activities for the same theme. Truly, the length of time is up to you and what works best in your classroom.
Themes: There are a ton of themes you can choose from. I recommend looking to your standards when deciding what themes to use. I plan what I will teach the entire year before the year starts. My Scope & Sequence includes the theme, letter of the week, math topic, character focus, and memory verse. To get a free copy of my Scope & Sequence subscribe to my newsletter.