The road less travelled

This article first appeared in Teach Primary and is re-printed here with their kind permission.

I like to imagine the curriculum as a map of a country only partly explored. There are aspects – the coastline, a mountain range, some major rivers – that are well known to previous explorers, but there are others, too – the dark interior – that represent an unknown land waiting to be discovered. Of course, some parts of the new world we are told we have to visit, these are the mandatory places every traveller goes to, but there are others only we will find; places for us to explore and put on the map.

This is a rather fanciful way of saying I see the curriculum as something I build in collaboration with a class over the year. Some parts are the prescribed objectives of skills, knowledge and understanding laid down by the National Curriculum. Others though emerge from the work we do as a learning community together in the classroom. For this reason I plan for ambiguity, for openness and for opportunities for the children to contribute their ideas. The activities, questions, and challenges I plan for in advance are like the routes we take as we explore, but much of what we will find I deliberately leave undecided.

Of course there is a danger in this approach that we will wonder off on a side path and get lost or forget to travel to those places on the map we are obliged to visit. This happened to a friend of mine who, when teaching Nelson with a year 1 class, found she had spent three weeks studying sharks. For this reason I find the first steps into a new learning context are the most important. It is essential to establish clearly from the beginning what it is we are exploring, for what purpose, and where we hope to end up. Many explorers have lost their way due to bad planning and preparation.


I’ll give you an example from a unit of work I’ve done many times with infants: reception, year 1 and year 2. The topic is animals; the mandatory curriculum centres on Key Stage 1 science, but the cross-curricular opportunities include reading, writing, speaking/listening, maths, geography, art and ICT.

In the imaginary context I plan, the children will work as a team of rangers running an animal park. The park is an ethical business; open to visitors, but with the welfare of the animals as its main priority. There is a wide range of animals at the park – many of them will have been saved from poachers, rescued from badly run zoos or treated for injuries. The purpose of the park is to educate people about the animals, to treat them humanely and ultimately, if possible, to return them to the wild.

These are what might be called the ‘givens’, those features on the map already explored (and which we will definitely visit), and some of the main routes and paths we will be taking along the way. When I plan, my purpose is only to decide in advance as much as I have to and to leave as many opportunities as I can for the children to ask questions and contribute ideas. As a principle, I think a child’s idea is always much better than my own, as long as we end up exploring the same curriculum.

So then, in the first steps into the animal park context I ask the children what kind of animal they would like to look after, if they were people looking after animals in a park. This is an easy question for a class of young children. There usually follows a short conversation, something like:

“A rabbit.”

“Oh, do you have several rabbits you look after or just one?”


“Um, are people who visit the park allowed to pet them?”

“Yes, as long as they are careful.”

“Of course. Does anyone look after a dangerous animal?”

Several hands go up.

“I look after the lions.”

“Ok, are they together or kept apart? I know sometimes lions can fight.”

And so on. My questions are designed to steer the children’s thinking into the context. To help them understand what it is we are trying to develop together not ‘telling’ them: “Today we are going to build an animal park.” Generally teachers spend too much time telling kids what to do and not enough time listening to them. When I’m asking these questions I’m not looking for the right answers, I’m aiming to use them within the context we are building and trying to help extend their thinking.

The priorities at this stage are to firmly establish what the context involves and to engage the children’s interests so they feel they have a contribution to make. As the context develops then the children can start making more of the decisions and contributing more of the ideas, which I can then use as the basis for further classroom activities. In this way the curriculum might be said to ‘emerge’ from the work, much like (to continue my metaphor) a new landscape might be said to emerge before a team of explorers.

The key thing here is to work (as much as the requirements of the mandatory curriculum allow) collaboratively with the children and, in this way, to develop and extend their knowledge, skills and understanding. This approach is called imaginative-inquiry, and it involves using a combination of different teaching strategies – inquiry, drama for learning and mantle of the expert – to create imaginary worlds for children to explore. These environments, like the animal park context, can work as a sort of evolving storyline, providing setting, narrative and tension to the children’s studies and making the curriculum more purposeful, relevant and exciting.

Imaginative-inquiry is not a new idea, although it has a new name – in fact, it’s a well-researched pedagogy with a long history of practical application in the classroom. Teachers use it in many different ways, some as a single lesson (perhaps at the end of the week), others as a year-long project incorporating large amounts of the curriculum. It is a flexible approach and has the advantage of drawing on the children’s imagination and energy. Often there is a great deal of detailed planning that has to be done in the beginning to make sure the context will do the job of teaching the curriculum, but once it is established most teachers find the process becomes much easier as ideas emerge from the work. To help with the initial stages a group of colleagues and I have built a subscription website ( with a developing range of imaginary contexts, written by teachers, each one with a step-by-step sequence that you can use to get started.

Download a FREE planning unit for the animal park imaginative-inquiry context.

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