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Universal Design for Learning and Project Work

Originally published:

girl playing with letters

Teachers who work with learners with diverse abilities, including children with disabilities, find that the Project Approach provides an optimal learning environment, or a universal design for learning (UDL). Today, many of our environments are more user-friendly for all of us because principles of universal design have been applied.

The Center for Universal Design describes universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialization.” For example, curb cuts on streets are helpful to the diverse individuals such as mothers with strollers, skateboarders, and people who use wheelchairs.

When these principles are applied to the design of learning experiences, the diverse individuals in our classrooms are better served. Several of the project examples on the Project Approach section of the IEL website illustrate these benefits. For example, in The Worm Project, activities were designed to provide sensory interactions and exploration for children at all levels of ability. As a result, a child named Kyle, who had limited verbal language, began to ask and answer questions for the first time. Similarly, Amy, a child on the autism spectrum, became engaged with the project topic and began to interact with her peers and teachers.

As Beneke, Ostrosky, and Katz (2019) note, “the Project Approach is a good fit with UDL because, in project work, teachers plan based on the interests, knowledge, skills, and abilities of each individual child in their classrooms from the very beginning” (p. 8) rather than planning for an imagined average child and working to create adaptations for the diverse learners in the class. It is inclusive because children are interested, engaged, and motivated to investigate a common topic while still being flexible enough to accommodate a variety of learning levels and needs.

For example, in a project on dogs, children represented their understanding in a variety of ways. A child with limited verbal language engaged in pretend play with collars and props provided by the teacher, while a very verbal child dictated a story for a class book, Dogs We Know (Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2019).

To learn more, see the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) page on Universal Design for Learning.

To learn more about UDL and the Project Approach see:
Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Katz, L. G. (2019). The Project Approach for all learners: A hands-on guide for inclusive early childhood classrooms. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

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:
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten
  • Child Care Center

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020