Early Childhood Education

The Project Approach


The Project Approach refers to that portion of the curriculum in which the children are encouraged to initiate, plan, and conduct in-depth investigations of objects and events from their own experience and environment. These investigations, usually referred to as projects, provide contexts for children to examine in depth and detail phenomena which are thought to be worthy of their fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding. In the United States, the project approach is most often found in preschool through the elementary grades.

The inclusion of projects in the curriculum for elementary school children was first reported in the United States early in the last century as applied at University of Chicago Laboratory School. Shortly thereafter this approach was promoted as a method of teaching in elementary schools by William Heard Kilpatrick (1922) under the title “The Project Method.”

This method has a long history in the United Kingdom also, dating back to World War II until the 1980s, when it became a major component of preschool and primary education. Sometimes referred to as “the integrated day” (Katz and Chard, 1989), current interpretations of the project approach include many features associated withprogettazione, one of many impressive components of the world- renowned preprimary schools of the small northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia. In addition to publications focused on this pedagogical approach, several Web sites with information, illustrations, and guidelines about implementation of the project approach are now available (cf. www.project-approach.com).

Current interpretations of the Project Approach suggest that projects are an important element of an early childhood curriculum that, when well implemented, are complementary to other elements of the larger curriculum. In project work, children frequently employ their growing academic skills purposefully in the service of their intellectual pursuits; it is assumed that the dispositions to master and use basic academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, graphing) are strengthened by their obvious usefulness in the eyes of the children themselves. Increasing awareness of the experience and practices of preprimary educators in Reggio Emilia has deepened their appreciation of how “graphic languages” such as observational drawing can enrich their project work. Reggio Emilia has also deepened an appreciation of the value of incorporating the careful documentation of the children’s experiences to enhance all aspects of their learning, as well as to facilitate the involvement and appreciation of their parents.


Features of the Project Approach

Current interpretations of the project approach are more carefully structured than earlier implementations. Projects, defined as in-depth investigations of particular topics, are usually undertaken by a whole class, but in which small groups, or occasionally individuals, focus on subtopics related to the main one. The central feature of project work is that it involves children participating (with the adults) in the selection of the topic to be investigated, the formulation of the research questions, the gathering of the data they decide they will need in order to answer their questions, and in various ways summarizing and presenting their findings.


The Phases of Project Work

Katz and Chard (1995) and Helm and Katz (2001) recommend that projects be undertaken in roughly three sequential phases. This strategy helps young children gain a sense of the sequence and narrative of the experiences included in conducting investigations; it also enables the children to identify readily with the purposes of the work of each phase and to enjoy a sense of the progression as well as conclusion of their efforts.


Phase I—Getting Started: In phase I, a topic for the investigation is typically selected by the teacher in close consultation with the children. On the basis of discussions about possible phenomena to investigate, the teacher can assess the likelihood that the topic will be of interest to a sufficiently large proportion of the children in the class. During these early discussions, children are invited to share their own experiences, opinions, and current knowledge related to the topic.

Children are also encouraged to represent their own experiences related to the topic through drawings, paintings, dictating or writing stories, reporting their memories to each other. Throughout this period the teacher continues to assess which aspects of the topic are likely to be of greatest interest to most of the children, as well as which children might serve as leaders or resources because of their special experiences. The teacher also makes note of which aspects of the topic require further clarification and deeper knowledge and how the investigation can support this learning.

At the close of Phase I, the teacher helps the children formulate clearly their research questions and predict the answers; and share the basis for their predictions. The teacher also provokes the children to challenge each other’s predictions and to think of ways to test them. Phase I concludes with a preliminary set of research questions, to be added to throughout the project. This phase may last several days, or a week or two, depending on how often the children are together, the scope of the topic, and their interests.


Phase II—Gathering the Data: During this period the main activity is conducting the investigation, doing the fieldwork involved in gathering data that will answer the previously generated questions. Depending on the ages of the children, and the nature of the topic, Phase II will include first-hand, direct exploration of the objects and environments related to the topic. During visits to relevant fields children might draw what they observe, asking questions of relevant onsite experts. Phase II also usually includes inviting experts into the classroom to answer prepared questions and to show and explain relevant items.

Many projects also include children’s development of surveys and/or questionnaires related to the topic, and interviewing people who have something to say about the topic. Toward the end of this phase the children discuss with the teacher various ways of presenting the results of their research to peers, families, and others.

Many good projects have been conducted without field site visits and use data or pertinent objects collected and brought to classrooms from home. For example, several groups of preschoolers and kindergartners have participated in studies of balls that were part of home collections (sometimes as many as thirty different kinds). The topic “Water in Our Houses” has also involved kindergarten and primary grade children in different communities in bringing complex data from home to their classes to examine, analyze, and summarize together.


Phase III—Bringing the Investigation to a Conclusion: During the final period, the work of the investigation is brought to a close. The teacher involves the children in examining the findings as they correspond to their initial questions and predictions. During this phase a large part of the children’s effort is devoted to deciding how to represent the story of their investigation during the project. Projects often conclude with an “open house” event to which parents and others in the community and in the school are invited to examine the children’s work. These events often involve children in planning formal presentations, considering what their visitors will find most interesting about their work, and making decisions about what to include in the documentation of the project so as to show clearly what has been learned and accomplished. Many projects also produce class books, and photo albums that capture the children’s experiences so that the children themselves can revisit them, and can share them with others who were not part of the actual experiences.


The Project Approach and Children’s Development and Learning

Observing young children engaged in good project work makes it clear that development and learning can be supported by the activities and processes involved, as long as the topic under investigation is worthy of the children’s energy and effort. As the teacher engages the children in discussions related to the topic, they have ample experience of expressing their views, listening to others’ views, arguing, explaining, and engaging in the sort of classroom discourse that supports children’s language development.

In conducting an investigation, children are active rather than passive learners, working in contexts in which they demonstrate their intellectual dispositions to theorize, analyze, hypothesize, make predictions, and to argue. This “active” versus “passive” role in the classroom is thought to be especially important in the development and learning of boys, who are more likely than girls to be expected to be assertive and active rather than passive in many cultures. In addition, children’s emerging academic skills are purposefully employed during project work. The children readily take initiative and take responsibility for seeking answers to their questions by a variety of information-seeking strategies, for example, conducting interviews, surveys, making observational drawings and sketches that will serve as a basis for discussion, planning, and arguments. In other words, the purposes of these investigations and the usefulness of basic literacy and numeracy and other skills are clear to the children themselves.

Project Approach supports a number of dispositions identified as central to children’s learning. Because investigations involve children in extended effort over time, rather than brief one-shot amusing activities, they are supportive of the disposition called interest, that is, the capacity to lose oneself in something outside of oneself. The Project Approach also emphasizes providing contexts that strengthen and support children’s intellectual dispositions, in contrast to more formal instructional contexts that may damage important intellectual dispositions as a result of excessive academic pressure (see Golbeck, 2001 Marcon, 2003). See also Academics; Development, Language.

Further Readings: Golbeck, Susan L., ed. (2001). Psychological perspectives on early childhood education: Reframing dilemmas in research and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Helm, Judith H., and Lilian G. Katz (2001). Young investigators. The project approach with young children. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press; Katz, L. G., and S. C. Chard (1995). Engaging children’s minds. The project approach. 2nd ed. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Katz, Lilian G. (1997). The challenges of the Reggio Emilia approach. In Joanne Hendricks, ed., First steps toward teaching the Reggio Way. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice; Kilpatrick, W. H. (1922). The project method. Teachers college record, 19(4), 319-335; Marcon, Rebecca (2002). Moving up the Grades: Relationship between preschool model and later school success. Early childhood research and practice. Available online at http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4/n1/marcon.html.

Lilian G. Katz