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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

IEL FAQ: Project Approach: Display and Documentation About

Displays that document what children have done and learned are an essential part of project work. Documentation can communicate to visitors (including parents) what has taken place during a project. Memory drawings; topic webs; charts of questions, predictions, and findings; surveys; sketches, and photographs; data from field visits and interviews; models and other representations of knowledge—all may be important features of the “story” of a project. Bulletin boards, walls, shelves, and even floor space in a classroom can be used for effective displays that describe the progress of a project throughout all three phases. Creating effective, efficient project displays can be challenging for educators who may face shortages of space, time limitations, and files or piles of data collected from and by the children over several weeks or months of investigation.

This FAQ introduces some aspects of display and documentation and lists resources for readers who want to explore the topic further.

What are some differences between displays and documentation?

Displays are the part of documentation that makes the children’s work visible within the classroom and school. In a project display, you would typically include a title, a short introduction by you or some of the children, samples of children’s work, photographs of the work in progress, and statements the children have made about their work. Children’s work can include sketches, graphs, charts, diagrams, maps, and other representations of what they have done and what they have found out. A display can also include ongoing webs or lists; you and the children will add to them as the project proceeds.

Some other aspects of documentation are not so visible. For example, anecdotal records of individual children’s activity during project work enable you to share information with parents during conferences or casual conversation. Less-visible documentation may also include items you would keep in file folders or other storage space. For instance, the class may keep track of their ideas and other aspects of a project in journals or learning logs that show how the project progresses. You could also make audio recordings of what the children say about the topic during class discussions or conversations during play. You can then pick out especially interesting or relevant comments to type up for later reference. Such records of what children say are windows on their understandings and misunderstandings of the topic.

You can also take photos or make brief notes to keep track of children’s progress on models, paintings, or other representations of what they have found out. Children often work for several days on one representation. During this time, you might make suggestions or invite other children to suggest possible ways to improve the representation. You can document these suggestions, also. Parents’ comments on their children’s work may also be filed for later use in a display or a book about the project.

How would displays vary during the three phases of project work?

Displays tell the story of a project as it develops from Phase 1 through Phase 3. Phase 1 focuses on what children already know about the topic, so the display should encourage children to find out more about their classmates’ experiences and understandings of the topic. Items for display include the stories children tell or write, surveys about their prior experiences, and their drawings, paintings, or models that express what they remember or what they have done related to the topic.

Phase 1 is a good time to start a web of vocabulary with the children as the words emerge in their personal storytelling. Display the web where you and the children can easily add to it as the project progresses. An important part of your Phase 1 display is a list of questions you and the children develop, along with the children’s predictions about what the answers might be. These questions become the focus of investigations in Phase 2.

During Phase 2, displays focus on what children do and find out as they investigate questions about the topic. You can work with children during this time to create displays that document their discoveries. Photographs, sketches, and notes from site visits and their conversations with experts can be included in a display. Captions may include comments that the children made as they worked. Your director or principal may appreciate seeing that you have posted learning standards and benchmarks relevant to the work the children are doing.

Phase 3 of project work is a time for review, reflection, and sharing information with others. It is not a time to generate a lot more work to put on display. The arrangement of the display may change, however, to accommodate visitors who will view the work. You or the children might also make a few minor additions, or you may want to add new commentary to show ways in which some gaps in the children’s knowledge or earlier-held misconceptions have changed.

What are the best ways to arrange the display of the sequences of events of a project?

You can show the sequences of events in a chart or a timeline or recorded on a calendar. The children can help you maintain the timeline or calendar.

You might want to document related events close together on the classroom walls. However, keep in mind that the children are likely to think of the key activities—the field visit, the expert coming to the classroom, the delivery of a box of books from the local library—as separate events. They are able to appreciate displays about the events as stand-alone pieces of documentation.

You will provide a sense of how events are connected if you make sure that each of the displays includes a title, a short explanation, and children’s accounts of what took place and what they learned.

What are some common mistakes for teachers to avoid in their documentation when they are new to the Project Approach?

If you fully understand the purpose of display, you are not likely to make serious mistakes in showing children’s project work. The main purpose of display is to share information with all children in the classroom. A display should tell the story of the project as it unfolds for the whole class. Project displays should inform, not serve as decoration. Keep in mind that except in Phase 3, showing the display to visitors is a secondary purpose, but anyone who visits the classroom and sees the display should be able to recognize where the children are in the process of carrying out the project.

During a project, each child has opportunities to choose what to investigate and how to represent his or her findings. A child may be the only one in the class who has learned about one specific aspect of the topic. As part of the work, the child can share what he or she learns—even teaching classmates about it. You may want to help the child think through the ways to do this teaching (Oral report? Drawing? Model? Display board? Some other means?), but it is important to have the child make the final decision about what to do.

To create captions for displayed work, you can take children’s dictations or write captions for the item based on what they say about it. They may want to write some of their own captions. Photographs taken by you or the children can provide a record of children’s good ideas about how to represent what they have found during fieldwork.

Classroom space for display is often scarce, so most of the work to be shown does not have to be large scale. The children can make small constructions, drawings, etc., which are best displayed at eye level. Mount larger-scale, less-detailed work higher on the wall—for example, paintings, collages, or murals. Captions explaining the larger work can be placed lower down so that viewers can easily read them.

It is a good idea to avoid displaying work at an angle rather than horizontally or vertically. Though some people feel this approach makes the display look more interesting, it actually takes up more space and makes the writing harder to read.

You may be tempted to display almost everything the children have done, since so much of it has value. It is important, however, to involve the children in choosing just a few pieces of work to illustrate particular information. Items that are not selected might have other uses. Perhaps they can be published in a class book about the project or be stored in a child’s project folder to be used as needed.

Here are some additional tips for displaying the children’s work:

  • Mount or set items on dark or neutral-colored construction paper (black, beige, grey, brown, etc.). Bright colors tend to distract the viewer’s attention from the work itself.
  • Fasten the material at all corners so that it does not curl up or get torn. Double-sided tape can be very useful.
  • Use a large sheet of backing paper, such as butcher paper, newsprint, or colored paper on a large roll.
  • Use different colors of backing paper for neighboring displays on different subtopics. (For example, a display about a site visit to a farm could be on a green background, next to a black background featuring a map with pictures of local landmarks and captions explaining what the children have found out about them.).
  • Avoid putting brightly colored borders around bulletin boards or other displays of the children’s work. These take up space and can be distracting.

When you keep anecdotal records during a project, the purpose is not to compare one child’s work to that of other children. Instead, the point is to record individual children’s approaches to their work and their growing dispositions to develop interests and strive for mastery. For example, your notes might show that Sarah has made progress in explaining her work clearly to classmates, or has persisted instead of giving up on hard tasks, or has solved problems resourcefully, or has collaborated with other children.

It’s important to keep in mind that the project is a collaborative effort. All the children contribute to it according to their interests and abilities. For example, a display need not include a sketch by every child. You might have sketches by three children, photographs of two other children at work, an experience story dictated by two others, etc.

You can help children see the value of their classmates’ efforts by highlighting the work the children do, rather than praising specific children when something goes well. For example, if a pair of children worked especially well together to make something, you might ask them to share their tips for ways to work effectively with a partner, and type up their ideas to display along with the item they made.

What goes into deciding the amount of narrative that should accompany photographs, drawings, etc., in a display?

The amount of print (captions, etc.) in a display needs to be small because space tends to be limited. Children and visitors are not likely to have enough time to read very detailed written information. Keeping in mind the purposes of display (mentioned earlier) can help you to keep the story of the project brief.

The writing in a display may have various purposes, including

  • To help tell the story of an investigation.
  • To show a range of children’s responses to an experience.
  • To feature information that will be useful to other children.
  • To explain various techniques the children used to represent their ideas and findings.
  • To summarize changes in children’s understandings over time.

Try out different font sizes with the children to determine the how large the type needs to be on any print portions of the display.

What are some ways for teachers or children to make elements of display interactive?

It’s no surprise that an interactive display will invite children’s attention much more than a static display. Invitations to interact might include the following:

  • Questions to provoke the viewer to think about the information. These may be written on flaps, which viewers can lift to see answers hidden underneath.
  • Tabs to move sideways or up and down to reveal more information.
  • A comment box with pencil and paper.
  • A pencil on a string to invite visitors to respond to a survey.
  • Invitations to lift an object to feel its weight, touch it to feel its texture, or shake it to hear a sound.
  • Magnifiers, with invitations to observe details about living things in a vivarium or terrarium.

The children may have their own ideas to make a display more interactive.

What are some ways to display the large constructions that are often part of project work?

Constructions can take many forms in project work. Children may work on large-scale collages, murals, or posters, as well as 3-dimensional models. It is a good idea to think about the final product when children make models so that there will be enough space for display.

A model might be large enough for children to play in or operate, such as a grocery store or a car wash. Such large models call for space on a floor or playground area. Other models can be too small for play but large enough to show a great deal of detail. They can also be shoe-box-sized or smaller to fit on a shelf or be stapled to a vertical surface.

Many children enjoy miniature representations of reality. Even very young children can make small, light models. Colored paper is a good medium for smaller models. Children can cut, fold, and stick it together to make 3-dimensional models that will fit in a small display space. Two-dimensional (flat) work will take up less space than a model.

You may also be able to find display space in the hallway beside the classroom doors. You might want to find out if the class can display some items in the entrance hall of the school for a limited period of time. The entire school can benefit from seeing what your class has done. In addition to sharing information, the display provides an opportunity for children to appreciate each other’s work.

How might a family child care provider, who works alone, create displays and documentation of children’s project work?

As a family child care provider, you may have to be resourceful to find space for documentation and display. The children may be glad to give up some play space for a short time in order to display their project work. Children often are pleased to see their work on the walls of the rooms where they spend so much of their time.

In addition to wall displays, you might also make big books that include drawings, paintings, photographs, quotes from the children about what they did, captions dating and explaining the work, and so forth. If you have the budget for it, you might make copies of the book for each child at the end of the project. If not, a single copy of the completed book can circulate among the families, with children taking turns having the book at home overnight.

You can also document project work in PowerPoint presentations. Scan the children’s flat work (drawings, paintings, etc.) and photograph their models, block constructions, etc., with a digital camera. The images can become part of the PowerPoint presentation, along with captions explaining each piece. You might want to have the completed presentation playing so parents can see it when they arrive to drop off or pick up their children.



Web Resources

Illinois Early Learning Tip Sheets

Other Resources

  • Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children's Work, Second Edition
    Author(s): Helm, Judy Harris; Beneke, Sallee; Steinheimer, Kathy
    Publication Date: 2007
    Availability: Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027
    Abstract: This popular guide provides teachers with a method for documenting (collecting, analyzing, and displaying) young children's work at school.
  • Progettazione and Documentation as Sociocultural Activities: Changing Communities of Practice
    Author(s): Moran, Mary Jane; Desrochers, Lisa; Cavicchi, Nicole M.
    Publication Date: 2007
    Source: Theory Into Practice, v46 n1 p81-90 2007
    Abstract: This article discusses how teachers' and children's patterns of participation in the sociocultural activities of documentation and flexible planning changed and concomitantly transformed the laboratory school community at the University of New Hampshire.
  • Using Hallways and Walls to Reflect Children's Learning
    Author(s): Wilford, Sara
    Publication Date: Mar 2005
    Source: Early Childhood Today, v19 n5 p14-15
    Abstract: This article discusses the importance of documenting children's work.
  • Creating Rooms of Wonder: Valuing and Displaying Children's Work to Enhance the Learning Process
    Author(s): Seefeldt, Carol
    Publication Date: 2002
    Availability: Gryphon House, Inc., 10726 Tucker Street, Beltsville, MD 20705
    Abstract: Asserting that displaying children’s artwork with thoughtfulness and care benefits children, teachers, and families, this book offers teachers of 2- to 8-year-olds a primer of how to display children’s work.
  • Initiation into Documentation: A Fishing Trip with Toddlers
    Author(s): Gray, Heather
    Publication Date: 2001
    Source: Young Children, v56 n6 p84-91 Nov 2001
    Abstract: This article discusses how documentation is used to communicate and converse with children and offers teachers opportunities to collaborate with one another.
  • Using Documentation Panels to Communicate with Families
    Author(s): Brown-DuPaul, Judith; Keyes, Tracy; Segatti, Laura
    Publication Date: 2001
    Source: Childhood Education, v77 n4 p209-13 Sum 2001
    Abstract: This article suggests using documentation panels in early childhood classrooms to communicate with families regarding their children's activities and learning, as well as to communicate the teacher's educational philosophy.
  • Documentation: The Reggio Emilia Approach.
    Authors: Katz, Lilian G.; Chard, Sylvia C.
    Publication Date: 1997
    Source: Principal, v76 n5 p16-17 May 1997
    Abstract: This article notes that the municipal preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, are attracting worldwide attention for extensively documenting children's experience, memories, thoughts, and ideas. It suggests that this type of documentation contributes to early childhood program quality by enhancing learning, taking children's ideas and work seriously, providing continuous planning and evaluation, encouraging parent participation, fostering teacher awareness, and making learning visible.
  • Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years. Early Childhood Education Series
    Author(s): Helm, Judy Harris; Katz, Lilian G.
    Publication Date: 2001
    Source: Teachers College Press, P.O. Box 20, Williston, VT 05495-0020
    Abstract: Key features of the book are an emphasis on how teachers solve the practical problems of doing projects with young children, including selecting topics, encouraging children to represent what they are learning, and involving parents.
  • Project Approach: Taking a Closer Look.
    Authors: Chard, Sylvia C.
    Publication Date: 2001
    Abstract: This CD-ROM presents accounts of seven children's projects, illustrated by several hundred photographs of project work in progress and samples of children's work.
  • Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach . Second Edition.
    Authors: Katz, Lilian G.; Chard, Sylvia C.
    Publication Date: 2000-00-00
    Availability: JAI Press, Inc., Ablex Publishing Group, 100 Prospect Street, P.O. Box 811, Stamford CT
    Abstract: This new edition reintroduces the Project Approach and suggests applications and examples of the approach in action.

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