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Materials for Representation in Project Work

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Paint brushes and crafting supplies on the table in a workshop.

As children acquire new knowledge and understanding through project work, they typically represent their understanding in their work/play in the art, writing, dramatic play, and block areas. Teachers new to project work may want to revise or add to the types of materials they make available to young children in these centers. In a recent study of factors that support teachers in implementing the Project Approach with diverse groups of preschool learners, prekindergarten teachers stated that they found it useful to incorporate real objects and materials in the classroom environment. “Real objects” refers to concrete “actual’ objects or authentic materials related to the project topic—tools, machine parts, and other items that are not toys. The teachers found it useful to provide real objects for children to use as props in play or as resources for gathering further information through close examination (Beneke & Ostrosky, 2009).

In the study mentioned above, teachers also reported gathering collections of free or inexpensive, flexible, open-ended materials that children could use in creating 3-dimensional constructions. The brightly colored buttons, shapes, feathers, and papers that are often standard art supplies in prekindergarten art areas are appealing and provide many opportunities for children to engage in sorting, sequencing, and patterning, but they are not likely to be particularly useful to children who want to construct 3-dimensional representations of objects or events under investigation.

As a teacher, I observed this need for real objects and open-ended materials in my students’ project work. In the course of an extensive investigation of cars, children in my mixed-age classroom of 3- to 5-year-olds were very interested in examining and manipulating real car parts that we brought into the classroom (Beneke, 1998, 2004). The children used a welding mask in dramatic play (see Figure 1), and they loved learning about car engines by taking them apart (see Figure 2).

Figure 1. One boy was interested in pretending to weld, so we added a real welding mask to the dramatic play area.
Figure 2. We placed real car parts on our sensory table so that children could examine them by feeling as well as looking. They used real tools, such as a Phillips screwdriver to explore how the machinery was assembled.

As they constructed their own car, they studied and represented parts of cars using open-ended materials such as paper towel tubes, meat trays, sponges, liter soda bottles, paper bags, newspaper, and lids from gallon milk containers (see Figures 3, 4, 5, and 6).

Figure 3. A dashboard was constructed from a meat tray and various small bottle caps.
Figure 4. One boy made a battery from a small cardboard box and then connected jumper cables made from yarn and clothespins.
Figure 5. Children taped a red sponge and a green sponge to the floor of the car to represent the accelerator and brakes.
Figure 6. The children used open-ended materials such as Styrofoam bowls, aluminum foil, cardboard boxes, and cardboard to construct the car. They also incorporated real objects such as a steering wheel and windshield wipers.

The final construction combined both real car parts and car parts constructed from open-ended materials (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. The children tried making steering wheels out of a variety of manipulatives and art materials. They were unsatisfied with those versions and wanted to attach a real steering wheel that was part of the dramatic play.

Other teachers have also reported the use of real objects and materials in their students’ projects. For example, children who wanted to construct a hair salon in their dramatic play area developed a list of the objects they would need to create their salon. They decided that they would be able to gather some of the props, such as shampoo bottles, but they also decided that they would need to construct some of the objects themselves, such as the lollipops to be given to customers (Gallick, 2000). The materials that the children used to construct lollipops included orange juice cans, film containers, and Popsicle sticks. This pattern of collecting real objects and creating representations of others can be seen in many projects. For example, children in the Hospital Project collected objects used in real hospitals and then created their own lab coats out of plastic bags (Sanchez, 2007), while children in the Katrina Project experimented with building strong levees by using “playdough, clay, rocks, and cardboard” (Aghayan et al., 2005).

Three classroom practices associated with real objects and materials are likely to benefit teachers who are beginning to incorporate project work into their curriculum: (1) collecting real objects associated with the classroom topic to use as props in dramatic play, (2) collecting real objects that children can study to further their understanding of the topic, and (3) collecting a supply of open-ended and recycled materials that children can use to construct representations (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. It is helpful if open-ended materials are sorted and ready for use. Found objects and open-ended materials are incorporated into an attractive display of art materials at the Evelyn G. Pitcher Curriculum Resource Laboratory at Tufts University.
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.


  • Aghayan, Carol; Schellhaas, Andree; Wayne, Angela; Burts, Diane C.; Buchanan, Teresa K.; & Benedict, Joan. (2005). Project Katrina. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 7(2).
  • Beneke, Sallee. (1998). Rearview mirror: Reflections on a preschool car project. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
  • Beneke, Sallee. (2004). Rearview mirror: Reflections on a preschool car project [Motion picture]. Champaign, IL: Early Childhood and Parenting (ECAP) Collaborative.
  • Beneke, Sallee, & Ostrosky, Michaelene M. (2009). Teachers’ views of the efficacy of incorporating the project approach into classroom practice with diverse learners. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 11(1).
  • Gallick, Barbara. (2000). The hairy head project. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 2(2).
  • Sánchez, Xiomara. (2007). The hospital project. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 9(1).

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About this resource

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

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2023