Universal Design for Learning and Project Work

About this resource
Reviewed: 2020

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.

Related IEL Resources

Sallee Beneke

An experienced implementer of the Project Approach with young children, Sallee enjoys helping others learn to implement the approach. Ms. Beneke is the author of Rearview Mirror: Reflections on a Preschool Car Project, coauthor of Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children’s Work, Second Edition, and coeditor of The Power of Projects: Meeting Contemporary Challenges in Early Childhood Classrooms—Strategies & Solutions, as well as several articles related to the Project Approach and documentation. Currently an associate professor at St. Ambrose University, Sallee is interested in the potential of the Project Approach to support the inclusion of diverse learners in prekindergarten classrooms.
Biography current as of 6/2018