Initial Materials

Foreword: The Importance of Projects

Lilian G. Katz
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In the displays presented in this exhibit, twenty-six teachers from nine schools in three countries present the results of their experience with incorporating the Project Approach into their curricula. The projects you are about to read about reflect the work of children and teachers in many different types of schools—urban and rural, large and small, public and private. These schools serve families from a wide range of socioeconomic levels. The teachers whose work is displayed here are among the many teachers around the world who are involving their young pupils in projects.

Most of the teachers whose work is shown here are fairly new to the Project Approach. However, the inclusion of projects in the curriculum of early childhood and elementary education is not new. Project work was a central part of the Progressive Education movement earlier this century in the United States. Kirkpatrick (1918) and his colleagues referred to it as the Project Method. In 1925, Rawcliffe, an elementary school supervisor in Cicero, Illinois, published "Practical Problem Projects" describing projects conducted in Chicago area schools during the 1920s in first- through ninth-grade classes.

The project method was further developed in the 1960s and 1970s in the infant schools in England. Today, projects constitute a significant element in the extraordinary work seen in the preprimary schools of Reggio Emilia. From Reggio Emilia much is being learned about the role of the graphic languages and of documentation in enhancing children's learning through projects, and about the roles of teachers and parents in good project work.

What is a Project?

A project is an extended, in-depth investigation of a topic, ideally one worthy of the children's attention and energy. In other words, projects involve children in conducting research on phenomena and events worth learning about in their own environments.

In the process of these investigations children have opportunities to pose questions, to generate theories and predictions concerning possible answers, to seek answers to their questions (answers from which they are likely to generate still more questions), to interview experts and others from whom relevant information can be obtained, and to engage in other activities involved in collecting information.

Projects provide contexts in which children can apply a wide variety of social and intellectual skills in, addition to the basic academic skills being learned in the more formal parts of the curriculum. Thus, in this exhibit the efforts of very young children to write and to represent in other ways the data gathered during their investigations can be seen. In addition, projects provide contexts for young children to argue, cooperate, collaborate, share the responsibility of data gathering, check findings and many other research strategies. Projects also provoke children to in-depth probing into the nature of events and objects around them, to learning how things work and how they are made, to finding out who does what and what tools are used, to discovering the sequences in which actions are taken in the events investigated, and to observing and describing the work done by people in their own everyday worlds. Projects can also involve children in close examination of the natural world around them, help them learn what natural world objects consist of, and teach them to observe closely how things grow and change over time.

Projects can be incorporated into the curriculum in any part of the world. Every environment and the people in it are potential sources of new and valuable information for young children. The knowledge gained and the skills applied in investigating their own experiences supports children's in-born dispositions to learn and investigate what is at hand. Furthermore, knowledge and skills of all kinds are strengthened, not only with instruction, but also through application and use of the kind of skills seen in these examples of project work.

It is useful to keep in mind that young children may come to their school experiences with different kinds and amounts of exposure to books and stories and encouragement to try to read, to counting objects and using pencils, and so forth. However, all children come to school with lively minds marked by a powerful disposition to make the best sense they can of their experiences. Projects provide rich contexts for expressing and strengthening that fundamental disposition. We hope these examples of the work of children and their teachers provoke your interest in learning more about the Project Approach.


Kirkpatrick, W. H. (1918). The Project Method. Teachers College Record. Also reprinted in Schultz, F. (Ed.) Sources: Notable Selections in Education. Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group., Inc. pp. 26 - 33.

Rawcliffe, F. W., (1925). Practical Problem Projects. Chicago: F. E. Compton & Company.

The Project Approach in Action

Sylvia C. Chard
University of Alberta, Canada

Projects, like good stories, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This temporal structure helps the teacher to organize the progression of activities according to the development of the children's interests and personal involvement with the topic of study.

During the preliminary planning stage, the teacher selects the topic of study (based on the children's interests, the curriculum, the availability of local resources, etc.). The teacher also brainstorms her own experience, knowledge, and ideas and represents them in a topic web. This web will be added to throughout the project and used for recording the progress of the project.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project

The teacher discusses the topic with the children to find out the experiences they have had and what they already know about it. The children represent their experiences and show their understanding of the concepts involved in explaining them. The teacher helps the children develop questions their investigation will answer. A letter about the study is sent home to parents. The teacher encourages the parents to talk with their children about the topic and to share any relevant special expertise.

Phase 2: Developing the Project

Opportunities for the children to do field work and speak to experts are arranged. The teacher provides resources to help the children with their investigations; real objects, books, and other research materials are gathered. The teacher suggests ways for children to carry out a variety of investigations. Each child is involved in representing what he or she is learning, and each child can work at his or her own level in terms of basic skills, constructions, drawing, music, and dramatic play. The teacher enables the children to be aware of all the different work being done through class or group discussion and display. The topic web designed earlier provides a shorthand means of documenting the progress of the project.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

The teacher arranges a culminating event through which the children share with others what they have learned. The children can be helped to tell the story of their project to others by featuring its highlights for other classes, the principal, and the parents. The teacher helps the children to select material to share and, in so doing, involves them purposefully in reviewing and evaluating the whole project. The teacher also offers the children imaginative ways of personalizing their new knowledge through art, stories, and drama. Finally, the teacher uses children's ideas and interests to make a meaningful transition between the project being concluded and the topic of study in the next project.

This summary outline has explained some of the common features of projects, but each project is also unique. The teacher, the children, the topic, and the location of the school all contribute to the distinctiveness of each project.

Documenting Projects

Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer
Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

How do you know what children are learning in projects? How can you tell how best to facilitate students' learning through the project process? How can you help others to see the value of project work in your curriculum? These are all questions that a teacher beginning project work may ask. Because each project is unique and each group of students approaches the project topic in its own way, there can be no prepackaged plan for a teacher to follow, no teacher's guide. The teacher must assess accurately the knowledge and skills students have and need, and the effectiveness of the learning experience. The teacher gathers resources, asks questions, provides access to experts, and arranges site visits based on the results of analyzing and interpreting the evidence gathered of students' learning rather than on a detailed pre-set plan.

The processes of carefully collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying evidence of learning is called documentation. Documentation enables the teacher to effectively manage the project process and optimize learning opportunities. When shared with others, documentation also provides evidence that students are mastering curriculum goals.

The displays in this exhibit present evidence of children's learning. There are photos, videotapes, samples of children's work, anecdotal notes, student products, and child and teacher reflections. The displays and the project notes in this text provide insight into how the work in these projects flowed and progressed in these classrooms. Care should be taken not to use them as "how to manuals" but rather, just as the teachers did, to use them as evidence of a unique, dynamic process which took place over time in each of these unique classrooms.

How to Get Started

Teachers can prepare for the documentation process by gathering together materials that are helpful for documenting. These include post-it notes for writing down observations and folders for collecting children's work and anecdotal notes. Some teachers find it helpful to place pens and notepads around the classroom so that students can jot down observations and thoughts quickly. It may be helpful to have a checklist for your classroom with children's names and any particular knowledge or skills that you are wanting to observe or document during the project process. A camera, film, and tape recorder can be very helpful. At certain times during a project, a video camera is also helpful.

Care should be taken to capture evidence of children's knowledge and skills at the beginning of the project. Making a web provides a written record. Some teachers encourage students to add to or alter the web as the project progresses as a way of visually representing their learning. Recording or writing down exact words in statements and questions also enables assessment of change in vocabulary and understanding.

Documentation during the Project

The teacher might also want to consider keeping a journal. Many teachers take time each day to outline what was done on the project that day and to write about anything significant which took place. These entries can focus on the class, an individual child, a group of children, the project work itself, or the teacher and the teaching strategies.

It is helpful to look at a required curriculum outline or developmental checklist and to think about how evidence of learning in these areas during the project can be collected. For example, a student may find a need to collect data. This event may provide an opportunity to document a child's ability to count.

A time can be set aside daily to summarize and reflect on the observation data and items collected. Documentation can guide the teacher in planning what resources to access, experts to bring in, or field experiences to initiate. Any skills identified as needing to be taught can be introduced during non-project times of the school day.

Children should be encouraged to express what they are learning in many ways. These expressions, in a variety of media, become documents of children's ideas and understandings. Some means of expression displayed in this exhibit include narratives such as conversations, written stories, and books; writing such as captions and signs; constructions such as block structures, play environments, dioramas, and models; artistic expressions such as drama, drawing, painting, sculpture, musical expressions, and photography; and webs and lists.

Teachers can display selected items in the hallway and room that communicate what children are learning. Written descriptions will enhance the displays when they include the significance of what is displayed such as what the children have learned, why the item was chosen for display, the processes used by the class, or what an individual child learned. The description provides the viewer with an understanding of the educational value of the children's experiences. Adding to displays as children's work advances and projects progress increases the value of displays and maintains the interest of observers. Students can be involved in documenting their own project work. Even the youngest children can assist in making a book that tells the story of their project. Older students can evaluate and select what they judge to be their best work for display and can write their own descriptions and captions.

At the End of the Project

Sharing of documentation can educate others about the learning which occurred over the course of the project. The teacher can plan when and how to share documentation with parents such as parent-teacher conferences. Displays can be moved to more central areas of the school to be more visible. Project books and videos can be sent home with children to share with parents. Children can reflect on the learning experience as they review the documentation. Their words can be recorded and added to the narratives accompanying the display.

Results of Documentation

Time spent documenting children's learning can be a good investment. Careful documentation of a project can provide evidence of the wide ranging and in-depth learning that takes place when using the Project Approach. This type of learning, along with students' dispositions, are often not assessed or measured through standardized group-administered achievement tests. Documentation during a project can enable the teacher to see strengths of students not always measured in traditional assessment. Perhaps the most important benefit, however, is that documentation informs and directs the teaching process. Doing a project without documentation denies the teacher the gift of seeing into the minds of the children, matching strategies and materials with needs, and challenging children's thinking. Documenting enables the teacher to maximize the project approach experience and to become a partner in learning with the child.

(The ideas in this chapter are based on Documenting Young Children's Learning, Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer, Teacher's College Press, in press.)

Frequently Asked Questions about Project Work

Eileen Borgia
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville

During the past few years, we have had many opportunities to help teachers learn to carry out the principles of project work in their classrooms. There have been numerous occasions for us to conduct workshops, courses, seminars and institutes, and to discuss informally the fine details and challenges that are of concern to teachers. More recently, the PROJECTS-L Listserv has become a forum for addressing in-depth some of the issues. The following are a few of the most frequently asked questions that we have identified. There are no definitive right answers, but we hope that the following discussion will be helpful.

In my school, teaching is traditionally systematic, individual instruction or direct instruction to large groups. Learning is teacher controlled and directed. Must I give that up to do project work?

It isn't that you have to give up customary methods and activities; rather, you add new and interesting ones that help children use what you have taught them in more formal instruction. Project work provides an opportunity for interactive learning, intrinsic motivation, integrated curriculum, investigation, discovery, and application of skills. Children often choose from activities suggested by the teacher. Project work offers children the opportunity to experiment and work independently or in small groups. Curriculum concepts are not only "covered" by the teacher's instruction; they are also learned and applied because they become necessary tools with which to accomplish an investigation and report its findings. It isn't that you give up things; you simply take a different approach to what is already there in the curriculum, and thereby enhance children's total learning.

Is project work more suitable for special populations of children (i.e. average, gifted, middle class, at-risk)?

The projects in this book show the range of possibilities and diverse settings in which project work is done. A teacher can apply the principles with any individual or group of children. Teachers in several countries have successfully used projects with children ranging from toddlers to college students; in groups of children considered to be average, at-risk, learning disabled as well as gifted; in both homogeneous and heterogeneous age groups; and from all socioeconomic levels. Project work allows children to work at their own level and encourages divergent thinking so that each child's special talents can emerge and complement those of others in the class. Children can learn from each other and develop an appreciation and acceptance of individual differences. In other words, all children, not just a selected population, can experience and benefit from the richness of good project work.

How can a teacher allow multiple activities and experiences to go on simultaneously, without losing control of the class?

Although it might take some initial adjustment, teachers who adopt the project approach gradually learn to manage several things going on at the same time in their classroom. Teachers often describe their role in project work as facilitator, guide, or consultant to the project "workers." A positive, encouraging attitude with clear expectations and procedures for leaving the classroom, conducting field experiences, and using class time are as important for teachers who do project work as they are for teachers using more formal teaching methods. They gradually involve the children in sharing some control over events, and encourage them to make their own decisions on a variety of issues, such as the work routines, the distribution of responsibilities for work to be done, and expectations for the project. Even teachers who have no assistants still do projects. It helps to teach the children strategies for negotiating, cooperating, working as teams, and assisting one another. Teachers frequently report how unprepared they were for the extent to which children assumed responsibility for their own work and "ran with" the project without them.

How much time should be devoted to project work?

Time varies with the people, the topic, and the setting. Longer periods of time provide rich opportunities to observe and interact with children, record anecdotes, monitor progress, and assess what practice on skills or new knowledge to include during formal instruction. The amount of time per day allocated to project work may also vary throughout its course, perhaps larger chunks of time during Phase 3 when preparing and presenting culminating activities. Analyzing your current day may reveal snippets of time, which when rearranged, could become larger chunks of time for project work. The more creatively a teacher integrates the requirements of the curriculum into project work, the more time will be available for it. When times for routines are dovetailed, for example, snack and rest room breaks are taken informally, and children gain a few extra minutes to continue work on their project.

Special reading, speech, art, or special education resource teachers can be invited to work within your classroom, giving the students extra help in the context of their project.

Forty-five minutes to an hour of uninterrupted time is usually a minimum for providing children with satisfying opportunities to work in depth on a topic. Some teachers take a look at the total amount of time available in the week and block out some times that will be devoted to project work. The interest of the children in the topic and the teacher's creativity in integrating the requirements will help determine how much time can be allocated to the project.

As Lilian Katz recently posted to the Projects-L Listserv, "Teachers are best off experimenting with using time. Remember that the approach is experimental, meaning that it might not work. If it always worked, it wouldn't be an experiment!"

Can I do projects and still honor the official curriculum?

The key to this question is how the teacher interprets the curriculum requirements. The curriculum adopted for a school typically prescribes a series of selected skills and knowledge, a scope and sequence for each grade or age level. It is not an either/or proposition: project work or the district curriculum. Think of project work as a rich part of your existing curriculum. It is not "an addition to" or an "add-on." Teachers can use project work as a useful and creative way to address requirements and provide meaningful study of what otherwise could be boring and tedious. It is a matter of approaching project work as a way of making required curriculum come alive!

Skills in the language arts are applied and practiced in children's representation of knowledge. Mathematical skills such as categorizing, finding patterns and relationships, estimating size, shape, depth, quantity, measuring, weighing, adding, subtracting, and so on, become practical tools for investigation during project work. Some curricula prescribe a specific topic to be addressed during a particular grade in school. For example, a reading textbook series often includes stories around a theme, such as animals, nature, or the community. Each theme has the potential to provide a topic for an in-depth study. When required, the adopted textbook can serve as a secondary source of information for the project.

How do I get started?

Doing the first project is probably the scariest. Choose a manageable topic ... one that you are comfortable with, and which meets Katz and Chard's recommended criteria. Begin by brainstorming and making your own web. Have a discussion with the children about the topic, and ask open-ended questions to start them thinking. Encourage them to ask you and the other children questions. They might make a drawing related to the topic. Send a note to the parents asking them to help their children write a memory, or bring a photo to school. Begin your own search for community resources, remembering to look within the school, to the families and the larger community for resources. Gather the materials and supplies such as magnifying glasses, weighing and measuring equipment, string, tape, glue, paper, pencils, paint, clay, or clip- boards. Then explore with the children. It may be slow starting, but be persistent. It is helpful if you have a colleague or friend who will help throughout the project by listening, assisting in initial planning, and helping in the classroom if possible. The Water Project in this book is an example of three teachers who supported each other.

In a recent electronic mail message, Dot Schuler wrote:

All of these questions were foremost on my mind when I 'took the plunge'!  But, the plunge was the hardest part!  The rest was just one amazing discovery after the other!  It was just the beginning of opening up a world of teaching children, and a world of watching children learn, that I never knew!  The questions, after the plunge, are so easy to answer!  But, you must plunge to understand.


Katz, Lilian G., and Chard, Sylvia C. (1989). Engaging Children's Minds. The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Incorporating the Project Approach into a Traditional Curriculum

Judy Harris Helm
Peoria, Illinois

It is difficult to introduce the project approach in a school where the other teachers are using a more direct instructional approach. I believe, however, that all teachers have similar goals for children, even though their understanding of how to achieve these goals may be different.

The suggestions below were generated in a discussion with a first grade teacher in response to the frustrations she expressed about her attempts to implement the project approach in an environment with a tradition of an imposed, discrete, skills-oriented curriculum.

  • You will be in the position of showing your colleagues how children learn in the project approach. The other teachers are likely to be watching to see what you do and how much your children are learning. Accept that role. You will be doing two jobs the first year. This means much extra work, but it will be worth it.
  • Examine the curriculum requirements that are given to you. What exactly does the school (and the district) want children to learn and to know? Make a list of the answers to this question. The goals and specific objectives may be found in the curriculum guide, report cards, standardized tests, or a developmental checklist.
  • Assure your principal and others that you will be addressing this list of goals and objectives, although you may do so in a different way from your colleagues. If necessary, request permission to vary the time schedule for the introduction of the topics and skills. Be sure to make clear that you are requesting flexibility of the time schedule, and not of the content and skills to be covered.
  • Choose, as a first project, a topic which is clearly consistent with the educational objectives of your school and district. For example, if living and non-living things are part of your science curriculum, select possible project topics out of this general concept. In other words, stay with project topics that coincide with the curriculum, especially during the first year.
  • Make a web with children regarding their experiences and knowledge of the topic. Revisit and revise the web with the children throughout the project. Each time you revisit and add to the web, make a copy of it and keep it, always keeping a copy prior to the revisions. The series of webs will show the growth in the knowledge and understanding of your students. Display these webs prominently inside and outside your room.
  • To begin, focus on the project approach in one part of your day. Some teachers set aside a special project time each day when all children focus on some part of the project. Several groups of children may be doing in depth exploration in different aspects of the project; one or two children may be working solo. Other teachers already have a time block called "work time" or "center time" in which children choose the locations in the room to work where materials and equipment have been set up for specific activities. Some of these centers can focus on project work. Other centers may focus on other aspects of the curriculum to be covered. It is best to have an extended time period for project work. Setting aside a block of time like 45 - 60 minutes during which children work at centers, some required and some project focused, can give you that time and still enable work to move ahead on required curriculum materials. Joy of Learning, by Bobbi Fisher, explains how to manage this type of center time.

Project work which coincides with content guidelines can also be scheduled for specific times with the whole class. For example, measuring how far different balls roll in a project on balls can be the math activity when charting and graphing is involved. Writing what is observed on a field trip can be the journal writing activity of the day.

  • Encourage children to do as much writing and drawing as possible about what they are observing and learning in the project. Have them revisit, redraw, and rewrite. This helps children solidify knowledge, become aware of their own learning, and demonstrate to others how extensive the learning actually is during projects. Display these items, showing first attempts (or sketches) and final copies prominently. This documentation can be very powerful.
  • If you have required workbooks or textbooks, are the pages designated? You may be able to choose pages. You can do the minimum needed for children to be successful. Specific pages can be set up as part of a required center activity, or as Bobbi Fisher calls them "I Cares." Work pages, if required, can be done several at a time, or individually, and sent home together or as each one is completed.
  • At the end of each project, go back to your list of required content. Make a copy of it and highlight all those content objectives covered in the project work. Display this list prominently with other project documentation.

These ideas can get you through the first year. When others see the documentation of learning, they will understand the power of projects. Be patient, don't push, be consistent, and document. Good luck!

Notes from a Brainstorming Session of Teachers Beginning Project Work

Gail Gordon, Kathy Steinheimer, Cindy Rocke, and Judy Harris Helm
Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

A group of pre-kindergarten through first grade teachers met to discuss what they had learned from their first attempts at project work. They brainstormed the following list of ideas:

  • We learned that we can have more than one project going on at a time, and that we can have projects in which just a few children are involved.
  • We can select and assign children to do a project and get them involved in more challenging activities, even if the rest of the class is not ready for experiences at the same level.
  • We can have children do more sharing and appreciating of each others' work. During the sharing of information about each others' project, children can begin to understand the idea of growing and learning, how they can get better at doing something, and how they can get new ideas of things to do.
  • We can make more class books about the projects which show the processes we followed and the things that we have learned. These class books can be checked out and taken home so parents can see what their children are learning and can become more involved in what their children are doing in the classroom.
  • We can provide more varied media, including clay, wire, and more scrap materials. These materials can be available in the classroom on a regular basis so that children become familiar with them before attempting to use them to represent their learning. We can have more recyclable materials available for children's use.
  • We can do more constructions as part of our projects, so that the whole school can watch our progress. We can make our constructions in a prominent place (such as in the central court or hallway).
  • We can help children select drawings or parts of their drawings and show them on the overhead projector, so others can see their representations.
  • We can do more pencil work with children and provide clipboards so children can draw and write comfortably in a variety of places.
  • We can spend more time looking at things and talking about what children are observing about how things are made, shaped, etc.
  • We can do more mural or other large-scale cooperative representations instead of individual work all the time.
  • We can teach, during other scheduled activities, some of the skills helpful in project work, including generating lists of things needed or lists of things to do, assigning jobs to different children and/or asking for volunteers, modeling questioning and wondering, and providing practice in construction skills like taping, stapling, building.
  • We can assign more jobs to children for preparation of materials and activities in the classroom, so they become accustomed to independent action.
  • We can provide more pictures and photos of real objects and place real objects and artifacts in art and block areas, and other areas where children try to represent objects.
  • We can teach younger children how to request help from older children when carrying out tasks which require some skills the younger children don't yet have, like cutting large things or tracing their work onto transparencies.
  • We can provide more reference books with pictures for children to study.
  • We can display more work in progress in the classroom for other children to see; then, we can take it down and continue working on it.
  • We can do more drawing of our building and our environment to heighten children's awareness and interest in their surroundings.
  • We can share more of our project approach experiences with other teachers, so that we support each other and experience more of the excitement of learning.

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