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Darby Harden and Tasha Verdeyen
Proto-Tykes Childcare Center
Sullivan, Illinois

Proto-Tykes Childcare Center provides high-quality full-day educational programs for infants and toddlers, 6 weeks to 3 years of age, and preschool-age children, 3 to 5 years old, in mixed-age classrooms. The center was founded in 1989 by a local company to provide on-site child care for its employees. As enrollment grew, in 1992 the center also began serving the children and families of another local company. Ten 3-year-old children were involved in this project, which lasted almost 2 months.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project

During our observations of the class, we noticed a significant interest in horses from two of the children—Joseph and Emma. Many conversations took place between them about horses, and different roles were being explored in the dramatic play area on the topic of horses. When we had the opportunity to visit a local farm in March 2007, the children were disappointed that the farm had no horses. After this experience, we continued to observe and document the children’s interests for 2 more weeks before we decided that horses would be a topic worth learning more about.

After the teachers completed an anticipatory planning web, we moved forward by incorporating new materials into the classroom, such as horse equipment and equestrian books from the local library. By exploring these new materials freely throughout the day, the children increased their knowledge about horses. They also gained new vocabulary words that enhanced more complex thinking and discussion.

When we created the topic web with the children, they were curious about where horses lived, what they ate, and some different characteristics of horses. We helped the children find answers to these questions in library books.

Figure 1. Alex and Braden explored the saddle after it was brought into the classroom. They insisted on taking the girth strap and wrapping it around their waists to turn it into a seat belt.
Figure 2. We created a topic web with the children.

One of the questions that the children wanted to investigate was “What do horses eat?” When they began talking about horses eating grass, we decided to grow some grass of our own.We incorporated grain into our sensory table and began growing grass in clear glass containers.

It wasn’t until our field site visit that the children were able to see alfalfa hay. They also wanted more information about the equipment used with horses. A saddle was brought in and set up in the dramatic area. We also placed different types of combs and brushes, saddle blankets, and pictures of the different breeds of horses throughout the classroom and stationed materials at the easel.

Because this was our second project, we had higher expectations of what would be accomplished compared with the first. We were more experienced, we had done more research, and we knew that we wanted to take this project farther than the first. During this experience, we wanted the children to go more in-depth and take more initiative, rather than it be completely guided by the teachers. We wanted them to ask more questions and truly begin to start researching and finding answers to those questions. One of our goals for our classroom is to gain more parent involvement, and this goal was definitely accomplished throughout this project.

Phase 2: Developing the Project

During the second phase of the project, the children spent time investigating what horses ate, equipment and supplies that were needed, how many times per day horses ate, different types of horses, different horse jobs, and different ways horses move. We visited two local farms where the children were able to get close to the horses. They fed and groomed the horses, they explored a horse trailer and barns, and they took short rides on one of the horses at the last stop.

After the field site visit, the children’s confidence seemed higher than before the visit. They were able to name different horse breeds, and their vocabulary had grown immensely. The book that was the most helpful was The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds and Horse Care. The class spent a lot of time just looking through the book at all of the pictures. If they had a specific question, they would find one of us and we would help them find answers.The children were able to find most of the answers to their questions in this book. Our other resource was Linda Elder (whose farm was the location of one of our site visits). She was able to answer a lot of the children’s questions. I (Darby) had also grown up with horses, so I was able to keep bringing in different equipment.

As I mentioned earlier, parent participation and involvement are continual goals in our classroom. We are always looking for ways to bring parents into our projects. We had one parent volunteer to attend our field site visit with us, and another parent printed horse pictures off of the Internet for us to explore. We also had parents coming in daily with information that their children had been discussing with them at home, but it wasn’t until the end of the project that we were able to really get the parents truly involved.

The children represented their learning in many different ways at every stage of the project. They used clay to make a sculpture of a horse, they made observational drawings from horse pictures, and they created drawings of barns. They spent time outdoors building pastures and barns with large blocks. We had the saddle set up in the dramatic play area with cowboy boots and other equipment. The children used real horse shoes to make prints in clay and in paint.

One unique aspect of this project resulted from the children’s interest in the halter that goes on a horse’s head. The children were having trouble deciding how to use it, so we asked around for suggestions on how we could somehow create a horse head big enough for the halter to fit on. A fellow teacher knew a man who was good at creating structures out of cardboard. He agreed to create the sculpture, and he gave us instructions on how to use papier-mâché. You could tell by the children’s reactions that they were really excited when the horse head arrived. They were pretending to feed it and brush it. We explained that it was up to us to finish the project and make the horse look real.They all helped tear strips of paper and glued the strips to the horse. Before we finished the horse, we talked about what color the children wanted it to be, and they decided to paint it dark brown. They also wanted to paint a white blaze on the horse’s forehead (a term they learned through this project). Their biggest concern was making sure that the halter was going to fit the horse. One of our center teachers volunteered to paint the eyes for us. When the paint was dry, Joseph asked if we could put the halter on our horse.

Figure 3. Grant took a ride on Lady at the home of Marsha Harshman (on our field site visit).
Figure 4. The children worked together to paint a papier-mâché horse head sculpture.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

Toward the end of the project, we invited families to the classroom for an evening of discovery. The project for the night was for each participating family to construct a horse out of clay. It was very enjoyable to hear the families talking and laughing, and it was obvious that the children enjoyed having their families in the room helping them on their project. When the horses were complete, they were displayed on our shelves where the children could look at them each day. They are still displayed in our classroom as part of our class history.

During this project, the children’s ability to collect, describe, and record information was strengthened. They also improved at asking questions and looking for answers. You could see how their confidence in the dramatic play area had grown by the different ways they were using the equipment and materials provided. They were able to help each other and come together as a class when discussing ideas.

Figure 5. Joseph and his father Tim looked at a model horse for ideas as they worked on sculpting their own horse for our collection.
Figure 6. During our family night, Joseph and his mother Kathryn worked on creating their clay horse sculpture.

Teacher Reflection

Darby’s reflection: I The Horse Project was such a valuable learning experience for me. The project created many unique experiences for the children and teachers within the classroom. Each day brought something new. One of the most important aspects of this project was the fact that it was the interest of only two children that got this project off the ground. If it hadn’t been for their love of horses, the other children may not have had the hands-on experience of this in-depth study. It was a pleasure to come in each morning and listen to the children’s newly discovered vocabulary. The transformation was amazing to watch as their building structures and dramatic play became more complex. We were able to compile such an array of intriguing documentation from this experience. The children amazed me more than ever with their ideas that they were able to incorporate into their play.

The entire Horse Project was meaningful to me on so many different levels. I grew up with horses and have always been intrigued by their beauty and capabilities. I felt that it was really easy for me to be in sync with the project because it was something I have always been passionate about. I was able to bring my knowledge and interests to the children because I myself was a very small child when I began to love horses. Another aspect of the project that was special was the evening spent in the classroom with the families. Before this project, we struggled with getting parents involved in the classroom. This was a real turning point for our classroom. After this event, I believe that parents and families know how much their presence is appreciated. It was so much fun watching them use clay for the first time in the classroom with their children. And the excitement on the children’s faces was truly amazing. This is something that we definitely plan to do again!

When I look back on the project 7 months later and the children are still playing with horses and bringing the topic up almost daily, I know that the impact that this project had on the children was great. I don’t know if there is anything I would change specifically, maybe just to have kept it going longer. The really interesting thing to me is that not one of these children has horses at home, yet the project was so intense and the children were so focused. I had always thought that when children share a common knowledge and have had some of the same experiences that a project will be more successful. This project proved that even when children haven’t had certain experiences that sometimes it is worth giving it a try.

After the Horse Project ended, we had difficulty finding anything that the children were this interested in. We tried to follow this project with a study on dogs, and after about 2 weeks they couldn’t have cared less about the topic. It wasn’t successful, but that was okay. It just proved to us that the Horse Project was going to be tough study to follow. This was a great second project. We were able to try new things, find more resources, and use each child’s strengths to see different aspects of the project. By supporting the children through this study and hearing them continually talking about horses even 7 months later, it really validated to me how meaningful and important project work is. It is something that I have grown passionate about, yet I know that I still have a lot to learn. Every project is different and each child is unique, but that is what makes it all so great!

Tasha’s reflection: I enjoyed every moment of this project. I was pleased to see the children engaged in researching and studying horses. It was exciting to come in each day and observe the children’s conversations and dramatic play. When the study began, only Joseph and Emma had a passion for horses, and I am so proud of them for sharing their knowledge and excitement throughout the class. With their interest in horses, they helped other children become excited about the project as well. These two children kept the spirit and the inspiration of this project going. In my opinion, they conveyed their love for horses to the other children, and in return, the other children started to become passionate and excited as well.

It was also amazing how much their vocabulary increased. “Astonished” and “amazed” are the words that come to my mind as I reflect on the Horse Project. As a teacher, I learned new facts about horses everyday. The children, Darby, and I worked as a team to communicate our knowledge about horses. What we did not know we looked up and shared. What intrigued me in all of the phases of the project is that the children still wanted to investigate more. They were very motivated to research and listen to stories about horses.

This project was very beneficial—not only did the children gain knowledge and skills, but their excitement and passion were transmitted to administrators, other students in the building, and parents who wanted to participate. This project was very dear to my heart. What a great thing to witness when other friends get excited, motivated, and curious about what the children will come up with next. One skill that stood out in this project was that all things are possible—if children are determined and open minded, they can accomplish anything.

This project was also exciting because through this project I got to know the parents better. Tears came when parents shared stories about their children taking the excitement of horses home. Comments from parents and the stories they shared were a wonderful blessing and showed me that this was a worthwhile project. What great parents we have!


Darby’s acknowledgments: First of all, I would personally like to thank all of the children for making this such a memorable experience for me. Thank you to the families for coming together and truly becoming a huge part of this project. Thanks to Eric Harris who volunteered his time to assist us on our field site visits. We offer many thanks to Linda Elder and Marsha Harshman for inviting us to your homes. And Mr. Uphoff for creating our horse sculpture. I also want to thank our fellow teachers and administrators for giving us opportunities to take risks and challenge ourselves, and for supporting these challenges, and thank you for just believing in us. With much love, trust and respect, Darby Harden.

Tasha’s acknowledgments: Field site visits, modeling with clay, sculpting, researching books, and making observational drawings are just a few things the children experimented with. With this said, I would like to thank our students, administrators, coordinators, parents, co-teachers, and friends for all of their input, dedication, and reflection to make this project a wonderful success. Love-trust-respect: Tasha Verdeyen

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2022