Section 1: The Project Approach  

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 holds discussions with the children to find out what experiences they have had with the topic 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 that 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 fieldwork 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 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 explains 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.

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Getting a First Project Started with Young Children

Judy Harris Helm
National-Louis University, Wheeling, Illinois

Lilian G. Katz
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Young Children and the Project Approach

Projects provide many learning experiences that benefit the young child. Through projects, children pose questions to be answered or take the initiative for investigation. Projects provide opportunities for the growth of knowledge, skills, and dispositions when children ask their own questions, conduct their own investigations, and make decisions about their activities. Projects provide experiences that involve students intellectually. They provide contexts in which children's curiosity can be expressed purposefully, and they enable children to experience the joy of self-motivated learning. Well-developed projects engage children's minds and emotions and become adventures that teachers and children embark upon together.

Projects are especially valuable for children in the early years because this is a period of rapid intellectual growth that can have important long-term consequences. The pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade years are recognized as key years for the development of communicative competence, including language and understanding of symbol systems. In the preschool years, children begin to develop competencies in many areas such as representation, categorizing, and problem solving. These competencies continue to develop during kindergarten and first grade. In addition, a variety of skills related to competence in literacy begin to emerge during the kindergarten and first-grade years. An understanding of the importance and usefulness of numerical concepts and skills develops, and children begin to learn about scientific inquiry.

Projects with young children, however, present challenges to teachers who are facilitating the projects in their classrooms. Starting a first project in a classroom of young children appears to be especially intimidating to some teachers. Yet many teachers do use the Project Approach in classrooms of very young children. The term "young investigators" is used to describe these children who are 3 through 6 years of age and have not yet mastered reading and writing skills yet are engaged in in-depth investigation of a topic of interest. Projects with young investigators occur routinely in many preschools, child care centers, early intervention programs such as Head Start, and kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

Challenges and Opportunities

One of the challenges to doing projects with young investigators is the limited number of experiences in common for the group. Young children, by the nature of their age, have had fewer experiences than older children. For example, a 3-year-old is less likely to have been to the zoo than a 10-year-old. Even when young children have had common experiences, they are less likely to be able to discuss or represent that experience. For example, a 3-year-old who is interested in investigating caterpillars may not be able to remember having seen a caterpillar just 6 months earlier when she was 2 years old. Even if she remembers it, she may not have vocabulary to talk about it.

Projects are most successful when children have had enough experience with a topic that they can formulate meaningful questions and talk about the topic with peers. This requires that most of the children in a classroom have some common understanding of a topic. Compared with children of elementary school age, young children in a preschool classroom are not only less likely to have memories or to talk about their experiences with a topic, but they are also less likely to have had experiences in common. For example, the chances that a majority of children in a classroom of 10-year-olds have been to the zoo, can remember the trip, and discuss it are much greater than they would be in a classroom of 3-year-olds.

There are also specific skills that make project work easier. These skills include language skills such as forming and asking questions, listening to other children's thoughts, or expressing their own thoughts. These skills are just beginning to develop in the preschool child. Young children are also just beginning to use representation skills such as drawing, writing, painting, and musical expression, which are an important part of project work.

These developmental characteristics of young children can create challenges for teachers who wish to implement the Project Approach. However, slight modification of the Project Approach process can enable teachers to not only meet these challenges but also to maximize the unique nature of projects to benefit the young child.

Exploring a Topic

One of the biggest differences in projects with young children is how the project begins. Figure 1 is a flowchart of the first phase of a project with young children. In phase one, project topics emerge similarly with young children and older children. The teacher may initiate some topics, and other topics may emerge from children's interest. One of the teacher's tasks early in a project with young children is to identify the young investigator's current and emerging interests as well as to consider what new interests they might be ready to acquire. Teachers should not hesitate to encourage children to acquire new interests.

After a topic emerges, teachers do some anticipatory planning to see if the topic holds promise for incorporating some of the developmental tasks for children of this age level. Teachers may also begin to think of the practicality of the topic as a project, looking at such considerations as the availability of field sites and visitors or the availability of concrete objects to study. During this part of the Project Approach cycle, teachers of older children might spend time talking about memories and having children represent what they know. The teacher of young children will instead provide activities that create common experiences and memories for the children. These are called focusing activities. These activities may include reading books, doing a first field site visit, setting up a play area related to the topic in the room, or bringing in an expert. These focusing activities are more teacher-directed in classes of young children than in classrooms of older children. They enable children to develop a beginning vocabulary so that they can talk about a topic and ask questions. At this point, the project experience looks more like a thematic unit with the teacher providing the experiences and resources. This time period in phase one with young children is sometimes called "messing around with a topic."

Figure 1

Figure 1. (left) Phase one of a project. (P = Parent Involvement Opportunity; material in rectangles = Teacher Activity; material in hexagons = Child Activity; material in hexagons and rectangles = Teacher and Child Activity.)
During this time, the teacher does extensive observation of children's interest and enthusiasm about the topic. Young investigators may demonstrate this interest for the teacher by asking questions or requesting more information on the topic. With younger children, who may have limited verbal skills and vocabulary related to a topic, the teacher can look for expressions of interest through their behavior, perhaps by observing their spontaneous play. Three-year-olds will push forward for a closer view of an item that interests them. They often pick up items, or hoard "souvenirs" of experiences such as objects collected on a class walk. The very young child also signals interest by extending the typical length of time spent focusing on objects or listening to conversations. Young investigators, who are interested in a topic, even though very young, often attend closely to what other children say and think as well as listen to the teacher. If the interest of the children grows or remains at a high level and if the teacher's preliminary investigations indicate the topic is practical for a project, the topic may be selected as a project. If, however, interest has begun to wane or the teacher decides the topic is not likely to result in benefits that warrant the amount of time a project will take, the topic may be dropped and the teacher waits for a new topic to emerge or initiates a new topic. This period of time in which topics are explored can still be valuable learning time for children. All topics do not make good projects; however, they may be good topics for reading about or exploring in other ways. In a classroom of young children, a number of topics may come and go before a project topic takes hold.

Formulating Questions

Near the end of phase one, after a topic emerges as a viable topic, the teacher can help the children record in a meaningful way (web, list, or chart) what they know about the topic. Sometimes teachers who are new to projects hesitate to use webs because they feel that young children cannot read words and do not understand the relationships represented by the connecting lines. However, experienced project teachers report that young children seem to understand and respond to webs more readily than to lists. The process of having their words written down appears to be understandable to many 3-year-olds. Adding drawings or photos to the web assists the youngest children in connecting the written representation with their words and the words of the other children. Many 4-year-olds are actually able to explain the relationships between words when the teacher connects them on the web and are also often able to recognize the words. The key to success in making webs with young investigators is in the preparation and support given to the children during the first webbing experience and the care taken to be sure that children have enough prior knowledge of the topic to relate to the web in meaningful ways.

Young investigators can then formulate questions about what they want to know. With older 4-year-olds and 5- and 6-year-olds, questions often come quickly and naturally, and the teacher records a list of questions that serves as the bases of the investigation. With younger children, however, asking what the child wants to know often results in the telling of a story instead. The teacher can help the youngest investigators develop questions by carefully tuning in to the child's interest and framing some of the children's thoughts into questions:

  • "Is that something you would like to know about?"
  • "Would you like to know how to use that?"
  • "I am wondering about . . .? What do you think?"

Some teachers ask these question while children are looking at photos or drawings related to the topic. At this point, teachers might also use the technique of beginning a question and letting the children fill in the rest:

  • "Where is . . .?"
  •  "Who . . .?"
  •  "What is . . .?"

Sometimes the teacher may also deliberately provoke thought by introducing an artifact and discussing it with the children:

  • "What do you suppose this is for?"
  • "How do you think this might fit with this?"

It is usually easier to stimulate the formulation of the research questions by asking the young investigators what they would like to know more about or find out about. For example, in anticipation of the visit of an expert, the teacher can more easily get the children to generate a list of questions by asking them what they would like her to talk about, tell them about, say more about, show them, than by asking them "What questions do you have?" It is especially important with young children to view the first list of questions as a beginning for the investigation process. The list may be replaced with an entirely new list as a new facet of the topic captures interest and may dwindle as answers are found.

Moving into Phase Two

Once questions to investigate have been generated, they serve as the foundation for the investigation. Determining the direction of the project shifts to the young investigators. Children, with teacher support, can now make decisions about what to investigate, how to find the answers to questions, and who to talk with or visit. They have the knowledge to progress in the project because the teacher has taken the time to focus the children on the topic, listen to their interests, and build the common experiences that will be the foundation for investigation and exploration. The project is off and running!

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Making Sense of Location: Mapping the Kindergarten Park

Sylvia C. Chard
University of Alberta, Canada

Most young children enjoy making marks on paper. They appreciate the opportunity to communicate ideas in drawing or "writing" that can be "read" by others. They will put considerable effort into representing a reality that has some personal meaning to them. The opportunity to make field notes on a field visit to observe real phenomena firsthand is welcomed by children as young as 3 or 4 years old. Their willingness to carry clipboards on a field visit and their concentration as they work to record their observations on paper attest to many children's appreciation of the process of representing their experience. In this paper, I would like to indicate some of the characteristics of young children's map drawing and to invite teachers to examine the maps their children draw for the learning possibilities inherent within this activity. Map drawing is all about the question "where?"

What Does the Question "Where?" Mean?

I will begin with a personal story. It was a long time ago-before I knew anything much about early childhood education. My husband and I and three sons-ages 2, 4, and 5 years-moved from England to America. As the departure date approached, I began to prepare the boys for the move that was to change their lives. We talked about America. One day my youngest son, 2 years and 10 months old, said, "Mummy, where is America?" After a moment's pause, I took him to the window and pointed down the street in a westerly direction. "If you follow the roads for a very long way you get to the sea, then if you take a boat and keep on going across the sea, you come to America." "No," said my son, "I mean, where is America?" His question hung in the air. I tried again. "We will take an airplane and fly for a long time till we get to America. There we will find a house like this one in a road like this one . . ." "No, NO!" said my son, "WHERE IS America?" "See here," I said, hopelessly recognizing my inability to answer his question. I took the globe from the table, "These green places are land, and this blue part is the sea. We live here on this map, and America is over here." "NO, NO, NO!!" wailed my son, now becoming distraught, "I said, WHERE IS AMERICA?" At this point, I saw only the impending tantrum developing over my failure to understand. I gathered my son into my arms and took him to a chair where I told him a story about a family who moved house and packed up all their things to go to another place. It did not satisfy him in terms of his original question but allowed normal relations to be resumed for the time being.

What does it mean, this question "where?" The location of any object is usually understood only in relation to other objects. For young children, objects and people are located in rooms in relation to furniture. "Where's my Teddy?" ("Under the cushion.") "Where's the cat book?" ("On the table.") As children get older and their horizons expand, they ask, "Where's Daddy gone?" ("He's gone to work.") "Where does that bus go?" ("It goes downtown.") The answers to questions about location require the questioner to imagine a mental placeholder, to anticipate the answer. Satisfactory answers to the question "where?" provide information that enables the questioner to construct a fuller understanding of the location of a given object, person, or place. The idea of a location as the name for a large area full of buildings and streets within which is situated the place you call home is a complex matter for a young child. Even more so is the concept of a single name for a large landmass within which are mountains, prairies, forests, lakes, and cities. Learning about location has to begin simply in experiencing everyday life.

Mapping the Kindergarten Park

One group of kindergarten children in a child care center recently made a study of a nearby area of snow-covered grassland with a few trees and a picnic table. This space eventually became known by the children as the Kindergarten Park. First the children talked about parks they knew and outdoor places they liked to spend time in. Then they took pencils, paper, and clipboards and walked to the space with the trees and the picnic table. It was winter, and there was snow on the ground. The children found interestingly textured surfaces to make rubbings of. They investigated the snow ("Can we eat it?"). They took it inside the classroom and sorted the various small rocks, leaves, and sticks that were mixed with the snow when it melted. They found an insect. Snow was definitely not good to eat. They refroze the melted snow water in the freezer and decided the snow was also ice. Under the snow, there was the remains of last year's grass. "Was it dead or was it still alive?" was a question much debated throughout the life of the project on the park. Thus, one question led to another as the project progressed.
Figure 2

Three dimensions to two

The most significant learning for this group of kindergarten children was about location. Together with their teacher, they decided to make a model of the park-a replica, a diorama. The teacher and the children gathered up what they might need to represent the park. They took a piece of Plexiglas out on to the snow and looked over at the park. They decided which objects should represent which items in the reality of the park and its surroundings. There were the snow hills to be represented by large shells. There was one evergreen tree, and there were several deciduous trees with no leaves to be represented by fir cones. There was the picnic table. There was the fence, and there were people to be represented engaged in various activities. The children discussed the nature and relative location of these items as they developed their representations and decided how each feature of the scene should be represented.

The children took the diorama back into the classroom, and their teacher used the hot glue gun to stick down the various items in fixed locations. This diorama became the focus of various kinds of play by the children acting out the different perspectives on the park taken by other interested users, the people, the magpies and blue jays, the fox, the snowshoe hare, and the insects. Meanwhile, day by day, the blocks, chairs, and a table, bolts of fabric, cushions, and whatever else could be commissioned to represent some feature of the park enriched the context of these kindergarten children's dramatic play. Visiting experts included a naturalist and road safety expert. A collection of books about parks, animals and birds, plants, and gardens was available for children to look at and for the teacher to read to them.Figure 3

Sharing Examples

Already in the project described above, the amount of exploration of space and location is considerable. Following the construction of the diorama, the teacher read to the children from the book Me on the Map (Sweeney, 1996). There was also a tourist map of the town in which the child care center was situated available for the children to investigate. On one visit to the little park, the children set out with their clipboards, plain paper, and the intention of making maps. The diversity with which the children responded to the challenge of map making was surprising to their teacher. One child made a map from her house to the school and from the school to the little park. Another child drew various items in the park in realistic spatial relation to one another, a tree, the picnic table, and the cinema across the road. Twins stood beside each other facing opposite ways and drew in different directions, each starting with the same tree in the foreground.

In the next few days, map making became a favorite activity. The children made maps of all kinds of spaces. Parents commented on children asking to see where they were going on the map, and where they lived on the map. Children drew maps at home, of their houses and streets, and of rooms in their homes. They were fortunate to have a teacher who watched them, learned the various individual levels at which they were understanding their experience of the park, and helped them each to represent their understanding in the form of maps that increased in complexity as time went by.

Figure 4Figure 5

Some benefits of map making for young children

Figure 6What were these children learning as they worked through their preoccupation with maps? Maps are representations of physical location. Usually the representational activity known as mapping involves one-to-one correspondence with phenomena observed in a given place and their represented location on a page. However, the choice of details to be represented in maps even for adult use is quite selective depending on the use to be made of them. For instance, there are maps with little detail for people wanting to drive from one city to another. There are also maps that are used by people to find their way through a network of streets in order to arrive at a particular building within a city. These do not usually indicate actual houses, trees, or other quite large landmarks that may be seen along the way. Then there are pictorial maps designed for tourists who use them to locate particular buildings or monuments of local interest in a place they are visiting. Young children tend to draw large scale, including representations of the landmarks on their maps, combining front and side elevations of buildings with bird's-eye-view map drawing of the streets. In one of the maps drawn by the kindergarten children of their little park, there was a large cinema that could clearly be seen on the other side of the street from the park.


Figure 7Usually maps are designed to a scale that allows a reader to judge how far apart things are in a miniature representation that translates actual size to a much smaller version. The map is thus a powerful way to reduce and manage information that would otherwise be difficult to understand. A map brings an area of town or rural landscape down to a scale that empowers the reader to appreciate where they are in relation to a wider range of other phenomena. When they have some understanding of the extent of the reduction in size of the location, they can also plan to walk or drive to another location with a good idea of how long it will take to get there. Through early map making and map reading experience, young children can learn about distance. They can also learn about time taken to walk or drive particular distances. Children can acquire a sense of the physical size and shape of areas familiar to them.


Another feature of a map allows a reader to see where things are located in relation to other phenomena represented. When only two landmarks are shown in a drawing, such as a home and a school, both the distance and the curves and angles in the path between them can be represented. However, from such a map, it is not possible to know where the home and the school are in relation to a local park or a shopping mall that are not on the path between the home and the school. A map can also be a means of representing an area that includes several landmarks within it. Then a reader can choose to walk or drive through the area, judging not only the distance between locations but also the relative position of landmarks and the direction of the streets that link them. Through their map making, young children learn about direction and the relative positioning of landmarks in particular places.


People who can read maps do not fear getting lost. Informally, people draw maps of how to get to their houses from well-known landmarks. They draw maps so their friends can find them without getting lost on the way. Usually they draw and label the most important intersections. They also draw and label landmarks at significant points along the way. The scale often gets larger as the destination is approached. Interestingly, young children tend to do the same in their map drawing. One child drew the way from the school to the park with the park taking up most of the space on the paper. Then once they went swimming, the same child drew a map going from the park to the swimming pool, with the swimming pool drawn much bigger than the park. Gradually, children learn to appreciate the value of a fixed scale so that maps they make can provide a reliable aid to help a person find a place. Map making enables young children to experience a growing familiarity with how to integrate these important concepts in relation to location: distance, direction, size, shape, relative position, and scale.

Parents can appreciate children's growing interest in maps

In the case of the kindergarten park, the parents were impressed with their children's desire to learn about maps. Here were some of the comments written to the teacher by the parents:

My daughter was very excited about the "park" project. She liked coloring on wood circles and has done it since. She is also very interested in maps since the project and has made two maps at home. On two separate occasions, she asked about how to draw a map of how to get to our home.

My son liked the park project very much. I heard about it every day as we passed the park on the way to kindergarten. Since the project, my son has become very proficient at drawing maps. He also seemed to really like the close observation aspects: using the magnifying glass, observing the bug in the bug jar house, etc. I think it was a great project for the kids. They really developed a sense of ownership. My son still calls it "Our Park" and notices changes as we drive past.

My daughter is drawing maps of everything at home. The other day she put her easel in the kitchen and drew the bricks on the wall, the birds and their cage, and her sister sitting in a chair. Everything was drawn in careful proximity.

My daughter had a lot of fun with this project. She is always drawing maps of the park. She talked to us about all the events of each visit. I think it was a great idea.


Making marks, early representational drawing, and writing can easily be understood by children as a means of communication, an alternative language by means of which ideas can be shared. When the children in a class make a field visit to learn more about a location, each child's marks on paper can contribute to the collective understanding of the field experience. One form of representation that can be particularly useful to young children is the map. When children make their own maps at class project field sites, teachers can have access to a wealth of information. They can learn about what the children observed and how they understood the various aspects of and relationships among the objects, people, and the events at the location they visited. Gradually, young children develop a basic understanding of how to represent location, starting with their own home and school. This early experience can greatly facilitate the more complex geographical understanding teachers expect children to develop in the later elementary school years.


Thanks to Ann Sheehan for the material about the kindergarten project on the local park. To see Ann Sheehan's own account of the project you can visit on the Web.


Sweeney, Joan. (1996). Me on the map. New York: Crown.