The "Building a Tree House" Project
A Project by Three- to Six-Year-Old Children at Illinois State University Child Care Center, Normal, Illinois

Length of project: 16 weeks
Teachers:  Barb Gallick, Lisa Lee, Scott Brouette

Phase One—Beginning the Project

The project on building a tree house began when the staff made arrangements to have a tree house built in our play yard in a dead elm tree. The children were aware of the upcoming building project because they had assisted in removing bark from the dead tree to prepare for the building phase. The children drew pictures of what they thought a tree house would look like. Questions for investigation were generated from morning meeting discussions that were tape recorded and transcribed for documentation purposes. These questions focused on the characteristics of a tree house and the building process. The teachers hoped the children would experience close observation of a building project.

Phase Two—Developing the Project

We began activities focusing on the tree and designing a tree house. Some children drew on a projected image of the tree in our yard. Many children created models out of clay and "junk" materials in the art area. These models were painted, labeled, redesigned, and became story subjects. The woodworking bench with tools and wood was available regularly. Sketches of the dead elm tree and of a child-made tree house in the neighborhood were made. The children conducted surveys and measured and graphed various types of information related to the tree and the tree house. The children helped illustrate a poem about the tree house and made it into a book. They used tape and blocks to create a representation in our classroom of the actual size of the tree house floor. The carpenters visited our classroom to show their tools and materials, and the children dictated questions they wanted to ask the carpenters. Throughout the building process the children watched and asked questions of the carpenters. The teachers took pictures each day, documenting the various steps involved. At morning meeting each day, we wrote a summary of what had been done the previous day. Parents were involved by reading daily updates and by receiving tours of the building site.

Phase Three—Concluding the Project

For the children, the main culminating event was being able to actually use the tree house for play. The children decided to make two books telling the story of how our tree house was made. In creating the books, we used children's drawings, the photographs of the actual building process, and the narratives written by the children each day of the building process. The child care center hosted an open house to provide parents and the community an opportunity to view our newly renovated play space. This project provided the children with concrete knowledge about the building process, experience in conducting a focused investigation over an extended period of time, and opportunities to represent their learning in a variety of ways.


We were amazed at how long the children remained interested in investigating this topic. The success of this project emphasizes the importance of choosing a topic that is related to the children's experiences and environment. We began the project assuming the children would have prior knowledge related to the topic. Due to the difference in our expectations and the actual stage of the children's development, we learned to focus our own listening skills and our guidance of learning. By the end of the project, the children's knowledge of this topic had grown tremendously. The teachers felt more comfortable in their understanding of the Project Approach and in their role as co-investigators with the children.


drawing of a tree house

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