Joshua is bubbling with excitement when his father picks him up. "We took pictures today! There were light meters, and the guy used a power pack. I got to hold the photo umbrella!" His father is genuinely surprised by the words Josh is using and amazed to find himself in a conversation with his four-year-old about portrait shots and close-ups."

Scenes like this one occur often when children are involved in the project approach, when intense involvement and in-depth exploration foster intellectual growth, positive attitudes toward researching, and a bevy of tangential learning experiences.


Listening to children, observing their play, and being on the alert for topics that pique their interest are just starting points for this process of teaching and learning. After you and your group have chosen a focus, the project approach involves children in an in-depth exploration of a topic of interest -- thinking about what they already know, asking questions that guide their investigations, and making decisions about the work to be done. As knowledge increases, children begin to process and express their learning through such activities as collecting data, making observational drawings, and constructing models. The life of a project is fluid, growing and changing as children explore. Keep in mind, the best projects come from studying things that are part of children's everyday lives, such as balls or the boiler room in your building.


When a professional photographer used Joshua's school as the setting for some pictures he needed, the children couldn't contain their excitement about what he was doing and everything he was using - the sounds, textures, and functions of the tools of his craft. There was so much to investigate and so much to ask: "Why do you need that box? What does it do?" "Why do you have an umbrella?" "Is this your job?" "Can I hold that camera?" "Is it heavy?" "Will it break?" Some children wanted to see every test shot. Others wanted to look through the lens. Even a young three-year-old went to search for the toy camera she remembered seeing in the prop box. Their teacher smiled: Perhaps it's time to do a project on photography.

Consider organizing your approach to project work in three phases. In the beginning phase, follow children's leads to determine the project topic, make an instructional web for your own preparation, and find out what children already know and want to know. During the second phase, investigate the topic based on children's questions and directions. And in the third phase, as interest peaks, end the project by reviewing what you've learned and participating in a group culminating activity. Just keep in mind that the project approach is a journey that you and your children take together. Children, with your guidance, determine both the goals and the pathways to reach them.

Phase One: Beginning the Project

Young children show their interests in many different ways. An object brought to class, an event, a place they've visited, even a story, can ignite just the right spark of enthusiasm. Children's questions, as well as their conversations, offer important clues. And, as you already know, even the youngest children with limited verbal skills can let you know when they're interested in something. Three-year-olds push their way forward to get a closer look, pick special items to treasure, or hoard significant "souvenirs." Joshua's teacher had a head start. The photographer and his assistant, gear in hand, inspired spontaneous investigation.

Whether it looks like your children are particularly curious about cameras or machines that build or dogs that help the blind, when it seems that a topic has the potential to be a successful project, test the water by allowing children time to "mess around" with related information. Bring in a few artifacts. Informally engage children at group time and individually to find out what they know and what they would like to know, paying close attention to their degree of enthusiasm.


Successful projects focus on topics related to children's everyday experiences. A great subject invites children to use their senses, offers many possible artifacts, relates to a variety of learning areas, and lends itself to getting acquainted with experts and their tools.

If a topic appears truly to capture children's interest and meets most of the above criteria, you can begin to plan for a full-blown project.

First, create an instructional web. This process serves to help you think as well as plan. Write the name of the topic in the center of a fairly large piece of paper and ask yourself the following questions: What might children want to know about this topic? What concepts could I bring to the process? Which areas of development could this topic enhance? What media might children use in their investigations? What are some resources we could use? One teacher, for instance, got the sense that her group might like to do a project on school buses. Her web branched out to such related topics as different kinds of buses, engines, mechanics, where buses go, colors of buses, and bus drivers. Possibilities for concept activities included language (responding to Why? Where? When? and Who? questions) and counting and/or graphing the number and kinds of bus seats, steps, wheels, lights, windows, buttons, and so on. Included on her web were possible field trips and experts, books she could read to children, and the idea of making posters that could go on the sides of buses. The possibilities seemed endless, and her excitement grew. The purpose of taking the time to do an instructional web is to see whether the topic has enough depth and breadth. Moreover, if the idea does become a project, you've thought about it in advance. Your mind is on the subject. Though children may not take the subject exactly where you anticipated it might go, you'll be more likely to pick up on their leads and introduce appropriate words and resources.

Give children time to "mess around" with the topic. The younger the children, the more time they will need. Read some stories together, encourage them to talk about and draw their experiences and bring in some artifacts for children to handle and draw.

Create a children's web. Again, write the topic in the center of a large piece of paper. But this time ask children to tell you what they already know, recording each of their contributions. When they were discussing the school bus project, for example, children offered such insights as "A bus has a lot of wheels and seats." "There's a stop sign that comes out." "There is a back door and a front door." "You need a key to start it." "There is oil in the bus and a horn." Of course, there were many more contributions, and the teacher recorded them in abbreviated words with shorthand illustrations.

Move on to what children would like to know. In Joshua's class, the children learned a lot just from the experience of having Jimmy (the photographer) in their room. So, after building a children's web on photography, the teacher asked a few open-ended "wh" questions: "What do you want to know?" "Who would you like to know about?" "Where would you like to go?" "When should we start?" This process not only helps children learn to ask questions, but as you add their responses to the web, children can see ideas begin to form and their interest grows. Use the children's web to help the group decide on the questions they will seek answers to in phase two and zero in on field sites and interviews.

Just a reminder: It's not unusual to consider several topics before the right one emerges. If, however, during the process a topic just doesn't seem to have the potential for lasting exploration, don't feel you've wasted time. After all, children have still learned about something they're interested in. The same topic, at a different time, with a different group, may spark enough interest and curiosity to fill your room with learning and intellectual exploration for weeks.

Phase Two: Developing the Project

Directed by the questions that children generated in phase one, this phase is the heart of project work. Children interview and work with experts, visit field sites, and explore all sorts of other resources. They begin to find answers to their questions and ask new ones. At the same time, they may be observing and recording their findings, making predictions, and discussing and dramatizing what they are learning. Take time to go back to the children's web to review and revise. Start a project word list, writing down new words as they become a part of children's vocabulary.


Part of nitty-gritty project work is arranging for children to interact successfully with adults who know enough about the topic to answer questions and who also relate well to young children. If your group has become captivated with learning about birds, a senior citizen (and practicing grandpa) who has learned about birds through years of caring for them may be a better expert for your group than a university professor who specializes in ornithology. Older children with hobbies also make good experts. And letters home to parents explaining your latest project often result not only in some terrific resources and artifacts on loan but also family members who volunteer to bring their particular expertise to children's search for information.

After you've had time to talk with your experts about children's developmental level, arrange a time for them to visit, share what they know, and answer questions. Hopefully, you'll be able to develop an ongoing relationship, and they may even lend your program a few artifacts for children to study. A firefighter might leave a helmet for children to examine, try on, and draw. A photographer might be persuaded to leave a small light table so that children can view slides they've taken together.


Field-site visits differ from traditional field trips because children participate in the role of investigators actively seeking answers to their own questions.

Plan a pre-trip visit. If at all possible, arrange to talk to your hosts to explain the project approach and that children will have specific tasks they're hoping to accomplish during their visit. Talking about the needs of your group goes a long way toward ensuring a meaningful experience. Also, on your pre-trip visit, scout the area for sketching opportunities - objects that children can draw and safe places where they will have a good view. One teacher, whose group was doing a project on fast food, got together with a store manager, who put a French fry basket on a table for children to draw. During a grocery store project, children sketched the cash register, the freezer compartment, the shopping cart, the fruit display, the front of the store, and even the big store sign. When another group decided to do a project on drive-up banks, the bank manager fenced off one of the drive-up lanes so that children could investigate and draw the equipment.

Be prepared as a group. Review with children what they want to find out from their visit. Decide how you can make sure you'll have a record of the trip to share and study after you get back. Make a list of important questions and who wants to ask each one. You can write each question on a file card for children to "officially" carry, along with a clipboard with drawing paper and a pencil attached to it with a string. Talk about other ways children can participate. Some can take pictures. (Even a three-year-old can use a simple camera if it's handed to him just when it's time to shoot and is guided to the appropriate angle.)

Children can also use their clipboards, paper, and pencils to make field sketches. These observational drawings not only help children focus but also give them something to bring back to jog their memories about the experience and to help them feel ownership of the visit and the project. You might want to practice this skill before your first trip by asking those children who would like to try drawing any of the artifacts you've collected in your room. When you first do observational drawing with young children, help them get started by looking at an object, tracing it in the air with their finger, and then placing their finger on the paper where they will begin to draw. Other children work best when they focus on one specific part of a large object.

Get help. Volunteers can help children find places to work, remember their questions, and keep track of materials. Perhaps a family member can come along and videotape the visit. Someone else might volunteer to take photographs or slides. Consider a pre-trip meeting or send a letter home to help everyone understand how they can enable the trip experience to foster important project goals, especially child-initiated investigation.


As children get more and more involved in the investigation process, they begin to represent what they are learning through concrete activities. Don't expect young children to think of ways to do this on their own, especially the first time you do project work. (See "Learning Centers" on page 32 for activities that came about from one group's interest in photography or to get an idea of the types of activities related to photography children can get involved in even in their own room.)

How you can help. Bringing in a few large boxes or big sheets of paper can trigger an idea. Also revisit field sketches and photographs. Ask questions to spark children's thinking: "What is going on in this picture?" "What were you doing here?" "What did you like about this?" This process helps children take closer, deeper looks at the topic. As children become more experienced, they often give one another ideas and their representational work may extend and expand over several days or even weeks. Your role may also include helping children find something specific they would like to work on or dividing a task they've decided on so that everyone who wants to participate can.

What to expect. Just as children differ in developmental levels and interests, they will differ in the degree and duration of participation. Project work might occur during group time with everyone sharing and thinking aloud. Small groups might explore a particular aspect of the project, or during free play children may choose to build, draw, or write about their evolving interest. During a fire truck project, a group of four-year-olds spent several weeks building an intricate child-size fire truck for play. When it was completed, they played in it for one day and then moved on to related activities that involved drawing and painting. At that point, a group of three-year-olds who had contributed little to the construction began to use the truck for their own elaborate, realistic dramatic play. Remember, too, that children who stand back and observe also learn about the topic and how to do projects. Often they become leaders the next time around.

Phase Three: Concluding the Project

When children seem to be winding down their investigations and related activities, or other topics are capturing most of their attention, begin to talk about culminating your project.

Debrief. Review the documentation you and your group have kept. Compare early drawings and sketches with later ones. Ask children to report on what they've learned or offer tours of their constructions. Again, involve children in responding to open-ended questions to help them realize what they've accomplished.

Ask youngsters how they'd like to share what they have learned. A closing event focuses on what children have learned and gives the group an opportunity to reflect on their roles as learners. Here are just a few ideas: a large display, a book about the project children can borrow to take home, a videotape that tells the story of the project, an open house with families, or a large multimedia mural.

Although simple in structure, the project approach requires connecting with children's interests and following their lead. It is this openness and willingness to be learners alongside children that make the project approach challenging. Teachers who have had true projects happen in their rooms are thrilled with the results. The project approach provides unique experiences that shape not only children's knowledge and skills but also their attitudes about learning and intellectual curiosity. When projects are good, they are, indeed, very, very good for both children and teachers.


Interest in doing the project approach with young children has been renewed through the work of Lilian G. Katz, Ph.D., professor of early childhood education, curriculum and instruction, and special education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Sylvia C. Chard, Ed.D., associate professor of education at the University of Alberta, as well as the exhibits of projects in the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. You can learn more from the following: Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach by Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard (Ablex Publishing Corporation)

The Project Approach Catalog I and II by Judy Harris Helm (ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education)

Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children's Work by Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer (Teachers College Press).