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Exploring Project Work Through the Eyes of Toddlers and Twos

Originally published:

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Teachers often ask if, and how, the very young children in their care can do project work. They may work in a center where prekindergarten children and their teachers are doing project work. As they watch the projects of these older children unfold, they might question whether it is possible to adapt project work for even younger children.

Unfortunately, many teachers of toddlers become frustrated when they learn that preschool project work includes children asking questions, explaining findings, and representing their discoveries through observational drawings. These teachers question whether they can successfully implement those activities with their younger students.

However, it makes more sense to match the goals of project work with what we know about the stages of children’s growth and development. Very young children are typically not prepared to participate in project investigations in the same way as 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Therefore, we need to design investigations for toddlers and twos to match their earlier stage of development, not expect them to “perform” like preschoolers.

Toddlers and 2-year-olds are sensorimotor learners. This means that they are naturally driven to explore and learn about the world through their senses—by touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, smelling, and moving in the world. They typically play by themselves, observe other children’s play, or play with the same materials alongside another child. They show an interest in their world through the materials with which they choose to interact.

Toddlers and twos represent their growing understanding of a topic in how they use the materials. For example, when encountering a pile of leaves, a child might walk through them, sit in them, touch them to their face, or pile them at the end of the slide and then slide into them in different ways. The teacher’s role when doing project work with toddlers is to help them become aware of materials that they can explore using their senses and to provide them with language, materials, and playful experiences that deepen this awareness.

Doing project work with very young children requires that teachers be astute observers who recognize children’s interests and strengths and then build on them. Based on her observations, a teacher may choose to create and track children’s knowledge of the topic with a topic web. As the children explore the topic more deeply, the teacher might make a list of things she believes they are curious about and then use this information to plan further, deeper investigations for the children.

Consider a project about bells. A teacher notices that her group of toddlers enjoys playing with jingle bells and decides to begin a project on bells. Over time, she can gradually introduce a variety of bells (various sizes, unique sounds, unusual types of handles, etc.) in different locations within the classroom, on the playground, and even around the early childhood building. She can then observe which bells individual children choose to play with and how they use the bells.

The teacher might then plan experiences that allow each child to explore the features of each type of bell more deeply and in a way that suits them. For example, if a child is interested in a bell with a handle, she might introduce a group of handheld bells that make different tones. Or, she might place handheld bells in the floor play area, but also on a table and in the grass near the playground. Additionally, the teacher might model using a handheld bell to signal that it’s cleanup time or time to go home.

As the children’s investigation deepens, the teacher can document and share the children’s growing understanding through photos and narrative accounts so that families and others can appreciate their accomplishments. She can even hold a culminating event for families in which they share in some of the children’s discoveries. In this case, they might join the children in experimenting with and playing bells.

Never underestimate the potential for very young children to do project work; just realize it will not look exactly like project work with preschoolers and older children. The key is to design a playful, joyful investigation that matches the strengths and interests of the toddlers in our care. If we can do this, children will develop an expectation that teachers want them to be curious and are eager to respond to their interests. As children naturally continue to grow and develop, we can then gradually transition them into more complex project work.

Sallee Beneke

Sallee Beneke

Sallee (BenekeSalleeJ@sau.edu) is Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in ECE at St Ambrose University, Iowa. She coauthored The Project Approach for All Learners (2019) with Michaelene Ostrosky and Lilian Katz. Sallee used the Project Approach as a teacher and has worked to build the implementation of the approach via training and consulting. Sallee co-founded the IEL Project Approach Web site, and Facebook page with Lilian Katz, and she continues to contribute to the site.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022