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Selecting Useful Topics for Projects

Originally published:

Mother and child watering a plant

Selecting a viable topic is one key to getting and keeping a long-term project going. Useful topics for projects are often different from topics for thematic units. As a young teacher, I learned to plan my units around abstract themes, such as feelings, friendship, weather, and nutrition. These are worthy subjects, but they will not work as a topic for a project because they are an abstract idea rather than a concrete thing or group of things.

This “concreteness” is necessary because project work is a real, hands-on investigation of real people, places, and/or things in the environment. However, if a teacher works with a curriculum that uses abstract themes, she can usually identify a project topic related to the theme (e.g., nutrition/bread, weather/rain, friendship/mail).

Teacher reports about successfully implemented projects reveal that simple, everyday objects and experiences can support deep project work. Sometimes these topics are initiated by the teacher, but often they arise from a thematic unit or from an unexpected experience (see The Worm Project).

Not all schools or centers can afford multiple field trips, but identifying topics for projects that are in or near the children’s classrooms can eliminate that challenge. Successful projects have included investigations of worms, tools, pizza, gardening, and insects—all topics that children can investigate without leaving their building and grounds.

In addition, a topic that demands a field trip may not be useful to very young children. They cannot hold an experience in memory in the same way as an older child can. Therefore, it is important that projects for very young children revolve around topics that they can revisit multiple times in response to their curiosity. For example, if they are curious about an aspect of a plant in the garden, the teacher can then say, “I don’t know the answer to that question. Let’s go see!”

For more on topic selection including a list of criteria for selecting topics, see:

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: 2020