I recently had the privilege of observing a project from beginning to end in a mixed-age preschool classroom in a child care center. I was not able to be there every day, but I was able to observe there two or three mornings per week over a period of three months. This project took place at the beginning of the school year, so quite a few older children had recently left the class to attend kindergarten, and several young 3-year-olds had moved up from the 2-year-old room. I was curious to see how the teacher would help these younger 3-year-olds participate in project work, and I came away with helpful strategies related to the pacing and location of project work in this situation.
It typically takes a week or so to go through Phase I of a project with a group of older 4-year-olds, but in this case the teacher wisely invested a great deal of time and energy in helping the younger children who were new to the room learn to manage their emotions, social interactions, and routines. Therefore, it took longer to move into the investigation. Phase II of the project began almost three weeks after the opening event, and that was fine. The pace fit the children in the class, not the other way around.
Another helpful strategy this teacher used was informal floor work with small groups. Videos about project work often feature whole group discussions. However, this can be very difficult for 3-year-olds, especially at the beginning of the year. In this situation, the teacher positioned herself on the floor during choice time, and she invited children who were interested to join her for project-related activities such as webbing, listing questions, or creating representations. Working in these smaller groups allowed her to listen carefully to children, scaffold for them, and pair them with more experienced role models. She adjusted the project work to fit the children in the class, not the other way around.
By adjusting the pace and location of the project work to the developmental levels and experience of the children, teachers can begin to engage them in project work soon after they join the class, even at the beginning of the school year. Mixed-age groups also can be very helpful because more experienced children can model participation in project work.