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Ellie Adamo and Gina Longstreth
St. George’s Episcopal School
New Orleans, LA
Fall 2022

The Car Project took place at St. George’s Episcopal School, an independent school in New Orleans that serves infants through eighth graders. Eleven children, seven boys and four girls, aged 15 months through 2 years, participated in this project. They were students in the Camellia room. In addition, this was Ellie’s first year participating in project work.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project

As our preverbal children started the school year in August, we quickly began noticing patterns in their behaviors. At that time, we relied solely on their actions to observe what they may be trying to tell us through their play.

We noticed that they all loved playing with toy cars. It seemed that they didn’t want blocks, animals, or anything other than cars. Even when they did play with other materials, we noticed that they wanted to hold a toy car while doing so. For example, if they were playing with animals, the animals needed to be riding in a car. As we continued observing, we had to decide what aspects of cars they were genuinely interested in so we could successfully launch a project. We wanted to find out whether their interest was focused on certain cars or cars in general.

These details may seem unimportant considering their young age. As teachers in the Camellia room, we view learning as an interactive process. We always want the children to lead in their learning while we support them with the tools they need. Noticing these details was crucial for the success of our project because purposeful learning occurs best when the environment or topic is inclusive, motivating, and engaging for the child.

At first, we thought the children were interested in exploring wheels, spinning them, and moving them around. We attempted to encourage, research, and support their interest in wheels, but we soon realized they were not interested in the wheels. They were interested in the whole car and cars in general.

As the weeks progressed, we became more familiar with the children’s communication techniques, and their language continued to develop. Therefore, our Car Project took off! We decided we needed to understand what they wanted to know about cars. We began webbing ideas by asking the questions and recording their answers.

At this young age, language is a tool that must be scaffolded. We continued sportscasting, talking through what the children were doing and using our words to narrate what was happening in the classroom. If a child was pointing at a pink car and saying “mine,” we would say, “You want the pink car.” We collected as many different toy cars as we could for them to play with so we could continue to observe and sportscast.

We read books about cars and trucks and frequently named parts of them. We hung pictures of different colored cars, which the children would refer back to, stating their colors or parts (trunk, wheels). The children made art with cars by driving through paint and onto paper. Some of them even washed the cars in the sink! We were the Krewe of Cars for Mardi Gras. (A krewe is an organization that participates in the Mardi Gras carnival.) The children used dump trucks and monster trucks outside and even collected sand in the trunk. We added “garbage truck” and “dump trunk” along with “tow truck,” “race car,” “city bus,” and “monster truck” to the children’s vocabulary.

Car Project Fig 01
Figure 1. Bryeson uses a dump truck to collect sand.
Car Project Fig 02
Figure 2. Rocco paints with the wheels of a toy car.

Phase 2: Developing the Project

To assess the children’s prior knowledge, we made a model drawing of a car. We sat down for the morning meeting and gave Ms. Gina directions on what to draw for a car. They directed her to add doors, a trunk, and a siren to our car drawing. This experience guided us in planning further investigations.

Soon we were offered an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. Ms. Rebecca invited us to explore her car! During the morning meeting, we told the children about our upcoming visit to explore Ms. Rebecca’s car. We asked them questions and recorded their answers or predictions.

Question: What will Ms. Rebecca’s car have?

Answer: “Trunk,” “windows,” “siren on trunk,” “beep, beep”

Question: What color will Ms. Rebecca’s car be?

Answer: “Pink,” “yellow,” “orange”

The children predicted that her car was going to be orange. They were most excited to see the trunk, and they even thought she might have sirens on her trunk. Based on their predictions, we decided that the children would be interested in knowing more about the headlights on cars and how they differ from sirens.

Car Project Fig 03
Figure 3. Martin explores Ms. Rebecca’s car, focusing on the taillights
Car Project Fig 04
Figure 4. Students investigate the front seat.

For months, the toy police car was the hottest commodity in our classroom. Lucky for us, one child’s dad is a police officer with a police car! We invited him to visit. But before he could come to visit, we had to do some chatting about police cars. The children predicted that it would have sirens and headlights, and they made siren noises. We asked if they thought it would have seat belts.

Officer Dave kindly let us explore his police car. He even cleaned it for us. The children got to examine and touch everything. They turned the sirens on and off and then on and off again, as many times as they wanted! They even felt the computer. They brought our toy police car along to compare it with Officer Dave’s car. The experience was so exciting that it was a little overwhelming—a real police car with an actual officer! After exploring the police car, we discussed the computer in the car and the bars and cage between the front and back seats and on the back windows.

Car Project Fig 05
Figure 5. Bryeson gets a good look at the sirens.
Car Project Fig 06
Figure 6. Declan sits in the back seat.

Another opportunity for fieldwork arose when we found out that a school bus was going to be on campus. We got to explore a school bus and see how big it was. It was yellow, just as the children had predicted. We brought our wooden school bus to compare, and we found that they were very similar. We noticed that both the toy and the actual school bus were yellow and had wheels, windows, and a light on the roof. The actual school bus also had headlights, mirrors, and a stop sign.

Car Project Fig 07
Figure 7. Students admire a school bus.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

During the morning meeting, we talked about showcasing our knowledge by building our own car. We asked the children what our car would need. We referred back to our drawings and the charts displayed on the wall, and we revisited our fieldwork. The children stated what they thought we would need to include (e.g., headlights, trunks, doors, windows). We polled the children to find out what color our car would be. We then asked them whether they wanted to build a small or medium car. They decided to build a medium car. That meant our toddlers would have to use teamwork and collaboration. The teachers outlined a car on a cardboard box and cut it out.

Car Project Fig 08
Figure 8. Left, students discuss what our car needs. Middle, Lottie uses our car drawing to dictate what our car will need. Right, our poll.

After that part was done, the children started to assemble our car. During small group, they took turns cutting, gluing, and taping two large cardboard boxes together. We asked them if they would like a turn helping us cut the tape and cardboard. Some chose to help cut the tape while others helped cut out windows for our car.

After the car was assembled, the children wanted to decorate it. We tried to find different shades of green paint, but we couldn’t find that many. We decided to assist the children in making their own shades of green. Each child got a cup of green paint and added white and yellow paint to make a shade of green. We also helped them throw in other colors, such as different amounts of orange and blue paint, to see what they would get. Pouring the desired amount and mixing the paints with paintbrushes was interesting to the children. One mixture made a cool lime green color.

Car Project Fig 09
Figure 9. Students build the car by taping, gluing, mixing paint, and painting.

After the paint on the car dried, we taped the outline of the car onto an assembled car. We then added chairs to the inside and went for a ride! To present what we have learned, we played with our car as a whole class and let some children from the Sunflower class check it out.

Figure 10. Children enjoy the car they built.

The children learned that trucks are much different than cars, and cars are much more than emergency vehicles. It was so interesting to witness this project come about and progress over a few weeks. The Camellia children went from saying “beep, beep” to pointing out headlights, garbage trucks, city buses, and race cars and going “zoom!” and calling for tow trucks after a toy car flipped over. Their curiosity for life is admirable. We are excited to figure out what they will investigate next.

Teacher Reflection

We both came in with a basic understanding of cars. However, our 1-year-olds had very little knowledge of cars. Our students showed an intense interest in cars, constantly playing with cars, pointing cars out during our outside walks, and profoundly concentrating on their toy cars. They began opening the toy doors and saying “wheels.” We knew this would be the perfect topic for this group of children.

Reflecting on the Car Project, I (Ellie) felt excitement and pride in our students. I remember asking ourselves, “Is this even possible with 1-year-olds?” Could we do this with children who were so new to this world and who were acquiring new language? The best part about the Project Approach is that it is child-led. This was my very first experience with the Project Approach. Diving into the Car Project offered hands-on learning for students and educators in this instance.

The Car Project had nothing to do with us and everything to do with the children. I learned very early on to drop all adult expectations for this project. That’s when this project took off—when we stepped back. One-year-olds are extremely capable. The primary tool we could offer them is language.

We talked about cars throughout our day. It started with naming the colors of their parents’ cars and progressed to different vehicles, car parts, etc. Their excitement quickly became ours when a student pointed to the headlights on a toy car and said, “Siren!” They didn’t know they were asking us a question. They were ready to learn even more than we could have expected.

Looking back, I would have started the Car Project without adult expectations. The project flowed naturally once we dropped our expectations. When it was time for our students to use their new knowledge of cars, they dictated everything our car would need. They didn’t leave anything out, from the doors and windows to the taillights.

Initially, I thought we would need to guide these 1-year-olds more than we did. They had questions, we had answers. A project about cars can be ongoing; cars are an everyday part of life, and we dug into the basics with our 1-year-olds. My main takeaway from this project is that the Project Approach is beneficial to all, even the youngest of students.

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