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.

What Is the Project Approach?

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.

How to Get Going

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.

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).