A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about, usually undertaken by a group of children within a classroom. The Project Approach can be a useful addition to the curriculum because it capitalizes on children’s natural interest and motivation and the satisfaction that comes from being an expert on a topic. Unlike many teacher-initiated components of the curriculum, the goal of a project is for children to learn more about a high-interest topic, rather than to find right answers to questions posed by a teacher. A typical project lasts about six to eight weeks.
Project work provides the children in the class with a common focus, which supports the inclusion of diverse learners and the development of class community. It supports children in using their strengths to make contributions that benefit others and provides teachers with opportunities to differentiate instruction to support children’s full participation.
Every group of children is unique, and therefore every project is unique. However, there are certain events and strategies that are typically present in a project. For example, it is useful to think about projects as having three phases.
In Phase 1, the teacher identifies a project topic, learns what the children already know about it, and determines whether there is sufficient interest to support a long-term investigation.
- Identify a useful topic: This is one of the most important factors, and it influences whether a project will develop beyond Phase 1. Topics can be identified in a variety of ways. For example, the project topic might emerge from events in the lives of the children (e.g., the construction of a greenhouse near the school might lead to a project on plants or greenhouses, or the news that the families of several children are expecting babies might lead to a project on babies). On the other hand, the teacher might decide to initiate a project on a topic that they think will be useful (e.g., it might be a topic that will appeal to a child who is socially withdrawn, or it might be a topic that is likely to appear at a certain time of year). And, sometimes, the topic of a project emerges from an earlier project (e.g., a project on fruits and vegetables leads to a project on grocery stores).
- Build a web: Once the topic is established, the teacher begins to record the children’s current knowledge about the topic on a web. The children revisit the web and make additions throughout the project.
- Engage with the topic: Topic-related stories, objects, and experiences spark children’s interest in the topic and lead to topic-related representation through play, discussion, and the arts.
- Determine if project continues: At the end of Phase 1, the teacher determines whether there is sufficient interest and curiosity among the children to support an in-depth investigation. The children’s initial questions are recorded on a chart that can be revisited and added to as the project continues.
Lesson Planning in Phase 1
- Lesson planning in Phase 1 is similar to planning a thematic unit. It centers on experiences that will spark children’s interest in the topic and helps the teacher assess children’s current level of knowledge.
- A great deal of the work involved in planning a project takes place toward the beginning as the teacher anticipates activities, materials, and experiences that will satisfy children’s curiosity about the topic.
Phase 1 Roles
The teacher’s role in Phase 1 is two-fold. On the one hand, their role is to plan engaging activities and experiences that will support the development of the project. At the same time, their role is to observe and actively listen to determine what the children already know about the topic and what they want to learn.
The child’s role in Phase 1 is to show their current knowledge about the topic through play, discussion, and representation (e.g., dictating stories, drawing pictures from memory, pretending during play).
In Phase 2 children explore high-interest aspects of the topic and record their findings in a variety of ways.
- Participate in firsthand experiences: Children conduct the investigation through experiences such as experimenting, observing, asking questions, and recording data.
- Create observational drawings: Children use observational drawing as a way to record data. Children often use clipboards as a surface for observational drawing in the field (e.g., on field trips, on the playground).
- Conduct surveys: Children conduct simple surveys to learn what other children and/or adults know or feel about aspects of the topic. For example, in a project on grocery stores, a child might ask others where they shop.
- Add to the topic web: As the children learn more about the topic, their ideas can be discussed and added to the web.
- Add to the question list: One question often leads to another, so as additional questions arise, they can be added to the list. Children can make predictions about answers to one or two questions selected by the teacher.
- Interview guest experts: Whenever possible, one or more guest experts are invited to visit the classroom to answer the children’s questions.
- Conduct fieldwork: Children do fieldwork to discover answers to questions. For very young children, this might be a trip to a place they can visit and revisit (e.g., observing ants on the playground). Older children might travel farther and revisit through photos and/or video. In either case, the children do this fieldwork to collect data about the topic in its natural setting.
- Reflect and continue investigating: Children and teachers use documentation of the project to reflect on what has been learned and to prompt further investigation.
Lesson Planning in Phase 2
- Lesson planning in Phase 2 is driven by the children’s questions. The teacher gathers materials and plans experiences that will help children find the answers to their questions.
- The teacher can invite the children to help with the planning. For example, if the children are curious about grocery stores, they might ask the children to help think of ways they can find out more about them.
Phase 2 Roles
- Establish an area where the history of the project can be documented, discussed, and added to on an ongoing basis
- Arrange for a guest expert and share children’s questions ahead of the expert’s visit
- Arrange for fieldwork and make an advance visit
- Help children notice significant aspects of objects or experiences
- Teach children to do observational drawing
- Provide materials and opportunities for individual and group constructions
- Observe what the children say, make, and do over time to assess progress
- Continue to bring in artifacts and experiences in response to children’s developing curiosity about the topic
- Teach children how to use tools for investigation.
- Invite children to make predictions about answers to one or two of their questions
- Learn topic-specific vocabulary
- Discover jobs or other roles related to the topic
- Share questions and ideas with others
- Help other children with group constructions (e.g., a class mail truck during a project on mail)
- Observe using all the senses
- Record observations (e.g., through dictating, two- and three-dimensional art, block construction, and play)
- Answer questions through experimentation, surveying, research in books, observation, and interviewing experts
- Suggest additions to the project history board
Once the children have satisfied their curiosity about the topic, the project enters Phase 3, which celebrates accomplishments and brings closure to the project.
Conduct a culminating event: Children summarize their learning, often through holding an event where they display final documentation of their work and share what they have learned. Depending on the time and resources available, this could be as simple as inviting another class to visit, or it could be as elaborate as an open house for family, friends, and community members.
Lesson Planning in Phase 3
Lesson planning in Phase 3 is driven by the need to support children’s ability to plan and carry out the culminating event.
Phase 3 Roles
- Scaffold children’s participation in planning and preparing the culminating event
- Scaffold children’s participation in discussing, selecting, and preparing final documentation of the project
- Participate in selecting and preparing final documentation of the project
- Help plan for and prepare the culminating event (e.g., making invitations, deciding on refreshments)
- Participate in the culminating event (e.g., greeting guests, giving reports)
How to Learn More About the Project Approach
- Read and discuss an introductory book about the Project Approach, such as The Project Approach for All Learners: A Hands-On Guide for Inclusive Early Childhood Classrooms (2019) by Sallee J. Beneke, Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and Lilian G. Katz.
- Find an experienced practitioner who can serve as a mentor for you
- Partner with one or more teachers to try the approach and develop a community of practice
- Explore the resources available on our Project Approach page
- Join an online community of practice devoted to the Project Approach, such as the Illinois Projects in Practice Facebook group. A community of practice can provide strategies, suggestions, and inspiration as well as referrals to Project Approach trainings and workshops.