Projects in the early years

Projects in the early years

Hartman, Jeanette A

A greater number of early educators are attempting to provide programs that are sensitive to children’s needs. This trend is in response to position statements by leading education organizations concerning appropriate practices (Bredekamp, 1987; Moyer, Egertson & Isenberg, 1987; Spodek, 1991). As they change curricula, these early educators are also transforming the way they teach. One way they have responded to the call for appropriate practice is by using the project approach to teaching. Project work’s roots are in the Progressive Education era, near the turn of the century. It is much like Dewey’s (1916) reconstructions and Kilpatrick’s (1918) project method. Project work also is similar to discovery learning (Bruner, 1961) and Thelen’s (1960) group investigation model. In the last three decades, however, the use of projects and discovery learning has given way to the influence of behaviorism and scope-and-sequence curricula.

Over the past decade, interest in projects has resurged as educators rediscover children’s receptiveness to holistic learning approaches. Consequently, educators are returning to the ideas espoused by the early proponents of project-type learning. Also, inquiry learning and socialization approaches are being incorporated into today’s practice (Gamberg, Kwak, Hutchings & Altheim, 1988; Hartman, 1991; Hartman, DeCicco & Griffin, 1994; Katz & Chard, 1989, 1993; Spodek, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978).

The authors will describe the evolution of a project, explaining three phases through which the children and teacher progressed and elaborating on particular aspects of the process that captured children’s interest. The authors will also address teachers’ concerns by responding to common questions about projects and their implementation.

Definition of a Project

Increasingly, early childhood specialists are advocating project work with young children (Hartman, 1991; Isenberg & Jalongo, 1992; Katz & Chard, 1989, 1993; Kenney, 1991; Trepanier-Street, 1993). Project work may be defined as children’s in-depth investigations of topics that interest them. The children themselves have considerable influence on the project’s direction and depth. In many ways, projects are the exact opposite of “coverage” teaching and “teaching to the test.” Rather than focusing on bits of information, projects require children to connect related information that is usually learned over time (at least 2 weeks). Topics are related to places and events that are familiar and concrete to children, such as a school bus, the school office, a house or their neighborhood–all of which children can directly examine.

The Beginning of a Project

Teachers or children can initiate a project. At the beginning of the year, or if the project approach is new to the teacher and children, a “starter topic” may be helpful. This is a topic with which the teacher feels comfortable, both in terms of the content and required level of teacher involvement. For instance, teachers often feel comfortable with a project on homes. Children in the class are likely to be familiar with many types of homes. Subsequent projects, however, should stem from children’s interests. Personal investment in the learning process helps children remain motivated over time (Barbour & Seedfeldt, 1993). The following is an example of a project derived from children’s interests.

The Construction Site/House Project

This project was developed with the help of a group of 4- and 5-year-olds. This was the first time these children had participated in such an approach, and they responded well. The project began as an investigation of a construction site. Over the 4-week duration, however, the topic shifted to an examination of a house. Hence, the project became known as the “construction site/house project.” The photographs in this article show the evolution of the project from start to implementation and conclusion.

Phase One. During this phase (week 1), the teacher and children focused on starting and preparing the project. The project’s topic was selected in response to the children’s growing interest in a construction site adjacent to the school. The children regularly passed by the site or watched the commotion from he play yard. At first, they talked briefly with each other about what they observed (e.g., “Did you see that big truck?”). After a few weeks, they were quite preoccupied with the nearby action. They stood by the fence for longer periods of time and talked more extensively about the construction activities. Some children asked the teacher questions such as, “What do those big trucks do?” and “Who are those people over there?” While indoors, many children watched the construction site through the windows, instead of participating in the regular class activities. They were especially interested in the earth mover vehicle, the “big shovel.”

Recognizing the children’s ongoing interest in the construction site, the teacher asked them, “Would you like to learn more about what is happening next door?” The children unanimously responded, “Yes!” The project had begun.

The initial main goal was to narrow down directions the project could take and establish a common focus. A common focus was important so that children could work cooperatively, contribute to each other’s social and intellectual efforts and sustain a steady work pace. In Phase One the class:

* agreed on a topic

* discussed what the children already knew about construction sites

* walked to the construction site (or a guest speaker could become involved at this point)

* recorded initial impressions about the site in writing and art work

* interviewed a construction worker

* read related books (see Appendix)

* photographed the site and the project planning activities

* planned and gathered necessary materials (e.g., ingredients and tools for paint).

During Phase One, the teacher informally assessed what the children already knew and what they wanted to know about the topic. The children generated many questions, which were written on a large sheet of paper and monitored during group gatherings. A newsletter explained the project’s goals and activities to parents and caregivers. As the project evolved, photographs recording its progression were displayed centrally. The children and families inspected the photographs time and time again.

Phase Two. During this phase (weeks 2 and 3), the class concentrated on implementing the central activities of the project. The children became more clearly focused on goals. Therefore, they worked more independently of the teacher and were able to sustain a good pace. In Phase Two the class:

* established specific roles and responsibilities

* erected a “building” out of boxes

* read more related books (see Appendix)

* followed through on previously made plans (e.g., making paint for the building)

* added details (e.g., labeling, painting, cutting out windows and doors)

* discussed activities that corresponded to content areas (e.g., measuring for windows involved math and making paint involved science)

* viewed more photographs of their progress

* shared work samples and stories during group time

* participated in dramatic play

* wrote a class story.

During Phase Two, the teacher had time to help children pursue their individual interests relating to the project. One child, for example, wanted to know if the construction site had lights and wires. The teacher and child discussed similarities between the construction site and the classroom structures. After examining the classroom’s physical layout, the child asked some peers to help add lights and telephone wires to the make-believe construction site. By the third week, the structure looked more like a house than a construction site. Indeed, children began to refer to it as the “house.” This change in focus influenced the nature of their activities during the third phase.

Phase Three. At the beginning of Phase Three (week 4), the children clearly modified the project. They added greater detail to their house: wallpaper, homemade telephones, clotheslines, carpet scraps, cushions, artwork on the interior walls and mailboxes. They did not show any more interest in the construction aspect of the project (i.e., adding more boxes or paint). Instead, they wanted to use their project through role-playing. Inside the house, they held a birthday party. Later, they exchanged mail with the “people who lived in the house.” Observing this cue, the teacher asked the children if they would like to add a post office next to the house. Some children asked for dolls and clothes to wash. In response, the teacher also added a water table and a clothesline next to the house.

The project eventually ended when a student teacher began a hospital project. The children’s interest shifted toward the details of that project. To help conclude the house project, the teacher consulted the children about what to do with the materials used in the house project. The children and teacher decided to take apart the boxes and store them for future projects. The teacher also invited children to reflect on their progress by talking about what they had learned. Photographs and creations that had been collected over time enhanced their reflections.

Other culminating activities that could be developed are viewing a videotape of the project, creating a class play or making a class quilt. The class could also invite adults to visit and discuss different types of jobs that relate to the project.

Concluding Remarks About the Construction Site/House Project

The construction site/house project illustrates how children incorporate concepts they learn into artifacts they invent. Children’s construction of models that resemble the phenomenon under investigation (e.g., a structure made of boxes) is a central hallmark to many projects. Such construction also allows children to intellectually build on the concepts they are learning. Although children do not always have to build something, construction can be the highlight of a project and can enhance the process by giving children an opportunity to work collaboratively.

Common Questions About Projects

Educators who want to try a project approach to teaching may have concerns about its implementation. The following questions and responses are based on the authors’ discussions of the project approach with teachers, administrators and parents, and on their own experiences as teachers.

Question: How do I prepare colleagues, children and parents for projects ?

Response: Before starting projects, talk to administrators and parents about how projects support learning of essential skills and knowledge. For example, show them how certain aspects of project work can meet literacy goals. Also, explain to the children that they will spend time building objects related to their surroundings or to recent events. Emphasize, however, that they will continue to read, write and do math problems. When teachers initiate projects, children may say, “But teacher, we didn’t do our reading, writing or math today.” Such explanations about projects will help children and their parents understand that learning can take place in the context of projects, rather than as separate lessons and isolated blocks of time.

Question: If I include projects, will children still learn the skills and knowledge that I am accountable for teaching?

Response: Yes. The major advantage of project work is its use of inquiry learning (Hartman, et al., 1994; Hartman & Hartman, 1993). Children have opportunities to go beyond memorization or knowledge to higher levels of thinking–application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Brandt, 1993; Hartman & Eckerty, 1992; Katz & Chard, 1989). These benefits are similar to those derived from informal literacy learning (Smith, 1992), which allows children to immediately use learned skills and knowledge. Children learn how to use words, for example, when making labels and homemade books for a project (Berger, 1991). They also can apply simple math and science concepts as they manipulate materials to create their project. As the children negotiate rules and learn about roles, people and professions, they are exploring meaningful social studies concepts.

Longer term benefits include observation and documentation skills. Children sustain an interest in an activity and apply the skills acquired during projects to other activities (Brandt, 1993; Smith, 1992). Enhancement of children’s self confidence and strengthening of friendships are other long-term advantages (Hartman & Eckerty, 1992).

Question: Will I have more discipline problems and less control of the classroom if children participate in projects?

Response: Discipline problems may actually decrease when children work on projects. Children who are bored or frustrated by tasks that are too easy or too difficult are likely to cause discipline problems. Projects allow for multiple approaches to learning and, therefore, children remain focused and interested. The same student who fidgets and disrupts others when restricted to paper-and-pencil tasks often proves to be very creative and bright during project work. Furthermore, children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder respond more favorably to inquiry learning than to traditional methods (Landau & McAninch, 1993). Frequently, this type of student simply needs more experience-based learning than usual. The root of children’s behavioral difficulties often stems from undirected curiosity. Using projects can help channel that curiosity in useful ways, and allow these children to contribute to the class.

Question: How much of the program should consist of projects?

Response: The prevalence of projects should depend on the class environment, teaching style, children’s interests and available resources. Projects can encompass the whole curriculum, or be only one part of it. First, decide what scheduling changes need to be made. Also, consider available space, program characteristics and whether to offer other learning/interest areas during project work. In a kindergarten class, for example, the teacher can alternate free play and project time. Story time can be used for charting progress and reading homemade books about the project and circle time can be used for group planning. In 1st through 3rd grades, project planning and implementation can be incorporated into language arts time.

Remember to start with small-scale projects (e.g., creating a classroom “library” with homemade books and shelves made from old boxes). Later, move on to larger-scale projects (e.g., a more elaborate library). Do not view projects as an “add-on” to everything else in the schedule. Instead, try to view them as a resource to bring together topics, themes and approaches.

Question: How do I decide on project topics?

Response: Ideally, topics should provide children with first-hand experiences that relate to a familiar person, place or thing. In this way, children can be directly involved in the project’s planning, implementation and termination. Teachers can also generate topics by asking open-ended questions such as: “How do people communicate at school?” or “How are houses built?” Generally, teachers can determine relevant topics by observing and talking with children and their families. The teacher may want to initiate the first project, remembering to find a connection to children’s lives. Basing projects on children’s backgrounds becomes easier as the teacher gets to know the class better.

We do not recommend using abstract, vicarious topics, which limit children’s opportunities for direct investigation. Such topics do not sustain children’s interests for long. With abstract topics, teachers must relate a lot of the information and spend too much time “gearing children up” for the process (Barbour & Seefeldt, 1993; Dearden, 1984; Katz & Chard, 1989; Robison & Spodek, 1965). (For further explanation about the distinction between projects, themes and units, see Katz & Chard, 1993.)

Question: Where do I get materials? Will projects be expensive?

Response: Teachers may already have useful materials at hand or available in the school. If not, the teacher and children can gather items as part of the project. Children especially enjoy bringing odds and ends to school and finding uses for the materials–many of which do not occur to the teacher. Because most materials can be scavenged or donated from families or merchants, projects do not have to be expensive. In fact, the less money spent on a project, the more inventive and interesting it becomes. Common project materials include: glue, paint, boxes of many sizes (try appliance stores), safe lumber scraps, carpet and wallpaper pieces, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, yarn and string, construction paper, sturdy tape and supplies for writing and drawing. If available, cameras, video cameras and computers can be used to document the project.

Question: How do children with special needs respond to projects?

Response: Projects expand the range of learning possibilities and allow children to find their niche in the classroom. Since project work focuses on children’s proficiencies, it is less threatening to children who have special needs than traditional, academic classrooms that have a more narrow approach and definition of ability (Hartman, et al., 1994). The authors have found that linguistically different children, for example, are more likely to experiment with oral and written language during informal events. Children with special needs may also benefit from the emphasis on collaboration and support and being paired with other children. Every child can contribute in some way to a project. A child with a visual impairment, for example, can interview a guest speaker while her partner takes notes. Afterwards, they can discuss the interview and how it applies to the project.

Question: What criteria would I use to assess children?

Response: We recommend using alternative assessment and portfolios for evaluating children’s learning during project work. Teachers can employ observations, dictations, retellings of stories and events, teacher-made checklists, anecdotal records and interviews. Children’s learning strategies should be analyzed. Portfolios contain the products of observations and assessments and can include photographs, videotapes and chronological samples of children’s work. Assessment will be more authentic if it includes various accounts of children’s abilities and interests (Grace & Shores, 1992; Isenberg & Jalongo, 1992; Perrone, 1991; Valencia & Pearson, 1987; Wiggins, 1993).


Are projects worth your time and effort? Give them a try. Then let children’s responses determine whether or not a project approach to teaching is meaningful. What you likely will observe is that project work breaks down numerous cognitive and social barriers. With project work, “…the curriculum does not deny [children] their culture and heritage, their interests, or their needs” (Seefeldt, 1993, p. 5). Children will appreciate the opportunity for self expression, extended learning and understanding through inventing (Piaget, 1973). They will welcome activities that have personal meaning for them both individually and as a group. Basing programs on children’s interests and backgrounds is consistent with contemporary perspectives about appropriate practice, authentic learning and diversity (Brandt, 1993). Through project work, early educators can effectively achieve many of the time-honored goals of educating young children.

Authors’ Note: We want to thank Mary Renck Jalongo and Douglas K. Hartman for their feedback. Thank you also to the children, parents and staff at the University of Illinois Child Development Lab.


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Jeanette A. Hartman is Assistant Professor, College of Education, Arizona State University West, Phoenix.

Carolyn Eckerty is a Kindergarten Teacher, Villa Grove Elementary School, Villa Grove, Illinois.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education Spring 1995

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