Section 3: The Project Approach on the Web 

Methodology in Activity: Two Examples of Long-term Projects

Michael Glassman & Kimberlee Whaley
Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, Ohio State University

This chapter was excerpted from an article that appeared in the spring 2000 issue of the Internet journal Early Childhood Research & Practice. Early Childhood Research & Practice covers topics related to the development, care, and education of children from birth to approximately age 8 and regularly publishes project descriptions. The original article, "Dynamic Aims: The Use of Long-term Projects in Early Childhood Classrooms in Light of Dewey's Educational Philosophy," explores the use of the long-term project as an educational tool in early childhood classrooms. In particular, it focuses on the way in which long-term projects can reflect John Dewey's notion of the "dynamic aim" as a primary force in education. The article concludes with examples of long-term projects partially based on the Reggio Emilia approach from two American classrooms-one infant/toddler and one preschool. This chapter contains these project descriptions. The full article can be read at

In order to better portray some of the ways long-term projects can be used as part of an early childhood education curriculum, we present two examples with two different age groups. The first project we present is based on preschoolers' interest in shadows. The second project involves infant/toddlers' interest in construction. The classrooms we discuss in this section are different from those in Reggio Emilia in some fundamental ways. First, these classrooms are in the central United States rather than northern Italy. The teachers and the children bring very different everyday concepts to activity from those that might be found in the Reggio Emilia ecology. Although we believe that these classrooms and the Reggio Emilia classrooms were working within very similar versions of what Vygotsky (1987) termed "scientific concepts" of education and the long-term project, these scientific concepts interacted with different everyday concepts. The differences may have been even greater because these classrooms were part of a university laboratory school. Both Reggio Emilia teachers and the teachers described here believe it is important to take the children out into a larger "natural laboratory," but Reggio Emilia teachers use the city as a laboratory, while the teachers in the school described here use the sprawling campus of the university.

Second, the classrooms discussed here were mixed-age classrooms rather than single-age classrooms. Mixed-age classrooms present certain difficulties and certain advantages in project development that may be apparent in our descriptions. Third, the infant/toddler example involves age groups much younger than are usually found in discussions of long-term projects. We feel that involving even very young children in project work is highly representative of Deweyan philosophy in that it shows the seamless thread of lifetime education. Long-term projects are meaningful for the youngest and the oldest possible students because the projects emphasize the process of education rather than the content.

The descriptions of the projects that follow were derived from a variety of sources. Teachers in both classrooms regularly kept informal journals and notes about activities that occurred in their classroom. These notes were used to reconstruct the descriptions of each of the projects. In addition, small tape recorders were used to record conversations between children during the course of their activity. These tapes were then transcribed and were used as a data source.

Documentation panels comprised of the text from teacher notes, conversations between children (or a combination of both), and photographs of the children's activities were also utilized for these descriptions. In the infant/toddler classroom, the documentation for the construction project took the form of several "big books" that teachers, children, and parents could revisit in the same way they would read through any book. These books also included transcripts of conversations between parents and children in the classroom taken from the small tape recorders that parents took with them in their cars on the drive home. In addition, these books included documentation by the parents concerning their children's interests in construction that parents had observed at home. Documentation of the preschool project was completed on individual panels and by taking slides that could be shown in the classroom. Thus, both the teachers' and the children's voices are interwoven throughout the descriptions that follow.

Shadows in the Tent

The preschool class (20 children, 3-5 years of age) was interested in camping. The teachers had introduced a class camping trip to bring the families closer together as a community, and the teachers decided to follow through on the children's interest. The children mentioned that they wanted to put up a tent in the classroom and bring in flashlights just as if they were on a trip. They believed that flashlights were something you had to have while on a camping trip. The teachers encouraged this activity, expecting that it would lead in the direction of dramatic play involving camping. While the children were playing with the flashlights inside of the tent, they began to notice the shadows that they were creating on the ceiling and the walls. Soon they were moving their heads in front of the flashlight to create more interesting shadow effects.

The teachers noticed the intense interest that the children were showing in the shadows. These events coincided with some beautiful autumn days, so they decided to take the children on some "shadow walks" around the campus. The teachers were very aware of the questions the children were asking with their eyes and their bodies as they suddenly became more aware of the shadows they were creating. There was interest in a natural phenomenon that had not been there before (or at least had not been expressed).

The teachers combined the walk with a number of "challenges" to the children to help guide their natural interest. The addition of challenges is, in many ways, a subtle method of introducing discipline into interest. The children are encouraged to take their interest and use it to achieve an aim. The challenges become progressively more difficult, one building on the other, so that children are both successful in achieving aims and in realizing that one aim immediately leads to another activity and another aim. The teachers gave the children a number of challenges:

  • Think about where your shadows would be. Go to a place where you think you'll see your shadow, where you think you won't see your shadow.
  • Try and make your shadows touch (Fig. 1).
  • Try and make your shadows touch without your body touching.

The challenges helped the children to become engaged in the activity as an aim-driven activity rather than as simply an interest-driven activity. The aims came directly from the activity, and they caused the children to develop their own aims such as "making the shadow be in front of you" and "making the shadows be in back of you."

After the walk, the teachers moved to small group work. Small groups are part of the Reggio Emilia philosophy on group projects (Malaguzzi, 1998), but small group work in this preschool pre-dated knowledge of the Reggio Emilia program. One of the reasons for small group work in this classroom is the disparity in developmental levels of the children in the mixed-age classroom. Small group work is meant to limit differences in the children's zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1987), but it also limits the degree to which older children can serve as mentors to younger children. It is difficult to know how Dewey would view small groups based on developmental differences. Dewey (1916) was a strong champion of both diversity and maintaining a "real-world" atmosphere. Schools are one of the few places that artificially segregate by age.

Figure 1. The children held hands to make their shadows touch.

Two groups of approximately four children each were created to work on discussions and to explore the potential for more difficult, discipline-based problems in the activity of interest. The two groups were divided according to age and developmental abilities. The younger group (which was completely male) used documentation from the class shadow walks to spur interest. Pictures of the walks were put together in a book along with observations the children made about their shadows. The teacher in charge of this book was able to use the combination of the pictures and the children's own words to help them develop questions, ideas, and interests.

The question in which children showed the most interest was whether shadows could move. The children decided that some shadows could move and some shadows could not move. The teacher took the children outside again, but this time, instead of observing their own shadows, the children observed the shadows of other things. The aim became to see if shadows of different things could move. The children found shadows that they thought were permanently fixed, and they made chalk drawings of the shadows. They then revisited the chalk drawings and were able to conclude that the shadows moved while they were away.

The achievement of the aim naturally led to another activity involving the movement of shadows. The children in this group returned to making shadows with artificial light. The teacher set up a spotlight and challenged the children to make shadows with their own things. The teacher expected the children to become interested in the size or the intensity of the shadows. Instead, the interest turned social, with children becoming interested in layering each other's objects (e.g., using shadows to put a tail on an object by layering two objects against the light). The friendships of the children came into play, and they became more interested in working together to create different shadow patterns than the shadows themselves. There was a discussion about the content of the shadows. One of the younger boys suggested that shadows have bones, but he was quickly convinced by his friends that they do not.

The second group was composed of more developmentally advanced children. There were actually two groups-an older mixed-gender group that was shown the same documentation as the younger group, so that they had a chance to cement their thinking and suggest directions for further exploration, and a completely female group that engaged in activity based on those conversations.

The teacher had the children draw pictures that represented shadows. From the drawings, there was a discussion on where the shadows would be in relation to people. The teacher leading this group took a piece of paper and split it down the middle. On one of the pieces of paper, she put a shadow, while she left the other one blank (Fig. 2). On the paper with no sun, the children drew no shadows or shadows that could barely be seen. The teacher then built a bridge with toy building blocks and challenged them to draw a shadow (Fig. 3). The children drew the shadows as if they were coming towards them. The teacher asked what would happen if the sun moved, but this concept was too confusing for the children. The children lost interest in the project. The teacher, feeling that there was nowhere to go with the project without the children's interest, decided that there was little to be gained in pursuing shadow issues at that time.

Figure Figure
Figure 2. A child’s drawing of a shadow. Figure 3. A child’s drawing of a shadow of toy building blocks.

Constructing Construction

The playground for the infant/toddler class (10 children, 6 weeks to 3 years of age) was being torn down by the city in order to replace sewer lines that ran underneath the area. The playground, which had been an important part of the everyday lives of the children, became a full-fledged construction site. The teachers and the children often passed the construction site on walks or as they came into and left school. One of the oldest students (2.7 years) would stop by the construction site each day with his father and then come in and talk about it with his classmates. The teachers, noticing the interest that the children were showing in construction activity, brought more blocks and small construction vehicles into the class­room. The older children in the classroom began carrying vehicles around, showing them to the younger children and telling them what they were ("Gack-o's" for backhoes and "Bull-D's" for bulldozers). The children also started incorporating the vehicles into activities at the sensory tables, bringing them to the lunch tables and parking them close by during nap time.

The teachers took a twofold approach to the children's burgeoning interest. They took the children on a number of walks, both to the original construction site and to other construction sites around the campus (Fig. 4). They also engaged in a form of progettazione. There was an interesting difference between the way the infant/toddler teachers used progettazione and the way it was used by either the Reggio Emilia teachers or even the teachers in the preschool classroom. The teachers developed planning sheets to track their brainstorming about the project based on their observations of the children, and they then used these sheets to guide planning and discussion. What is different about the infant/toddler classroom is that the teachers seemed to focus much more on materials. The materials would elicit interest from the children, and the interest would guide the activity. The teachers would introduce materials such as plaster of paris or popsicle sticks into the environment, or arrange rides for the children in vehicles, and then see how the interest, if there was interest, drove them into some type of disciplined activity.

The disciplined activity emerged as a construction site developed solely through the actions of the classroom children themselves. The children started the site on their private courtyard (Fig. 5), and while the teachers brought in some materials, they encouraged the children to ask for what they thought they needed. The children began to ask for the same materials they saw on the construction sites they visited; they wanted yellow construction tape around the site and wore hard hats and gloves while they worked (Fig. 6). The children were establishing through their own activity a merging of interest and discipline. The older children externalized this merging by drawing the younger children into their activity, showing them the materials and talking to them about what was happening.

Figure Figure
Figure 4. The children visited a construction site on campus. Figure 5. The children developed their own construction site.

The teachers continued to take the children out into the world, visiting construction sites and talking to the workers. The teachers documented much of the project with pictures and videotapes, creating large portable books of the children engaged in different activities. The children were able to take the books home and to discuss them with their parents. This strategy helped to create a second line of interest where children interacted with their parents. Many of the parents reported having long conversations with their children concerning construction, creating a second line of discipline as well. The teachers brought the parents into the documentation process by offering them the opportunity to borrow the small classroom tape recorder and the classroom camera so they could record conversations in the car and stop to photograph construction sites in their own neighborhood. The documentation by the parents was melded with the documentation by the teachers. The interaction between the two types of documentation created further excitement and interest when the parents and children saw things that "belonged" to them displayed in their documentation. One child went as far as to develop his own construction site in his living room at home.

The project took a number of twists and turns that the teachers did not expect. Near the end of the project, some of the children started to become interested in baseball. The teachers expected the children to move on to other interests. Instead, the children combined their interests, first building a baseball parking lot on their still-active construction site and later building a baseball field. After about 6 months, one of the children came into the classroom and said the teachers had to go out and take a picture "Now!"-the construction project on the playground was complete. Soon afterward, the children completed their own construction site in the courtyard. The construction fence came down, the signs were put away, trucks came back in, and the construction was complete.

Figure 6. The children asked for the materials they saw on the construction sites that they visited, including hard hats.


The use of long-term projects in the curriculum can be very useful, especially in bringing many of the educational ideals that Dewey envisioned to fruition, but it is fraught with perils and demands great attention and energy on the part of teachers. The teachers must, in a sense, become learners along with the children. The teacher has to be careful to not act as a mentor but as a guide; that is, the teacher cannot think solely in terms of a prearranged destination to activity but must focus on offering a sense of discipline to the activity. Progettazione offers an interesting variation on Dewey's proverbial "lighthouse" (i.e., the teacher sets up the lighthouse to help guide the activity of the student). The lighthouse itself sets a destination, but it also illuminates enough area that students may find port in a different, unanticipated place. Teachers should direct a wide beam of light in their attempts to illuminate areas where children might find their aims. They must be flexible enough to accept the aims that children find through their own activity. In Dewey's (1916) developmental framework, it is young children who are better able to find the interest even in the seemingly most mundane materials and activities; it is the adults who are able to infuse these activities with discipline so that they maintain the momentum that allows for discovery. Children and adults should be able to use each other's strengths in the develop­ment of activity, to feed off of each other and become co-creators in true joint activity.

One of the reasons joint activity where the teacher acts purely as guide is so difficult is because teachers so often want to be mentors. The idea of mentorship is prevalent in many aspects of social relationships in our society. We believe that parents should teach children the right way to do things, that teachers should teach students the right way to do things, that managers should teach subordinates the right way to do things. It is difficult and frightening to escape the notion of teacher as mentor, especially as children move into society. Both consciously and unconsciously, we think it is the teacher's role to offer the neophyte the particular types of knowledge that will allow him or her to succeed in the larger social milieu (Vygotsky, 1987). This assumption is apparent in the two examples from the university preschool offered above. The long-term project in which the teachers were most successful acting as guides, rather than mentors, was conducted with the youngest children. The teachers genuinely became co-learners with the children, exploring topics that neither of them knew very much about. It was the children who had complete control of the activity. The teachers maintained discipline and were able to set up parallel relationships that engendered discipline (with the parents) through documentation. But the children's interest had so much control over the direction and the aims of the activity that even progettazione was primarily concerned with materials that could elicit aims, rather than aims themselves.

The older the children got, the more difficult it seemed to become for the teachers to maintain a non-mentor/guide relationship with the children. The younger children in the preschool shadows project were able to maintain moderate control over their activities. But the teacher of the older group of children seemed somewhat intent on bringing the children towards a specific destination through activity. The differences became apparent in how quickly the children lost interest in the projects as the teacher became more intent on instilling not only discipline but destination.

This discussion leaves some important questions that educators need to ask themselves in using Dewey's philosophies or long-term projects in their classrooms. Is the guide relationship between teacher and child possible with older children? If it is not, is the reason social/historical, or is it the result of the ontogenetic development of the child? Are teachers unable to take a guide approach to the education of young children because non-mentor teaching relationships are so rare in the everyday activity of our society (Vygotsky, 1987)? Or does the development of the thinking of the child force teachers into a mentor-like relationship?


Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

Malaguzzi, Loris. (1998). History, ideas, and basic philosophy: An interview with Lella Gandini. In Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, & George Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach-Advanced reflections (2nd ed., pp. 49-97). Greenwich, CT: Ablex. ED 425 855.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. I. Problems of general psychology, including the volume Thinking and Speech. New York: Plenum Press. (Original works published prior to 1934).

Chicken Project Web Site

Candy Mabry
Children's Day School, San Francisco, California 

Learning how to document what children are learning is an important part of guiding projects with children. Children benefit from seeing their work taken seriously by adults. They see themselves as investigators. Parents benefit from knowing what children are learning and how they learn. Their image of their own children changes as they become more aware of their ability to question, investigate, and form hypotheses. The more they know about what their children are learning, the more they are able to interact with them about the topic.

Many teachers are beginning to take advantage of technology in sharing documentation. Because schools and child care centers are beginning to develop Web sites for parent use, teachers are experimenting with sharing project documentation through the Internet. The following pages present the work of Candy Mabry and the Chicken Project, which took place in her classroom ( Mark Mabry assisted in the Web design. 

Teddy Bear Class - Spring 2000


Phase 1: Starting the Project

Our chicken project began in early April because of the interest my son showed in catching one of the chickens on the school's farm. He became very proud of being the first child in the school to be able to catch a chicken and was thrilled to be able to share this accomplishment with his father's preschool class who was doing a project on chickens. I told my class of three-year-olds (the "Teddy Bears") of my son's chicken catching abilities and shared photos with them. We started having my son catch the chicken and bring it into the classroom every day, and so our chicken project "hatched".

The children had little experience with chickens outside of school, and upon seeing a chicken in the classroom they immediately began their lists of wonderings and of knowledge.

What we know about chickens What do you wonder about the chicken?
  • Jackson - Chickens have big claws.
  • Cassi - The chicken is a girl. She lays eggs.
  • Clare - She sleeps in the classroom.
  • Cheyenne - The chicken is a girl.
  • Camilla -They have long nails.
  • James O.- She’s a girl.
  • Griffin - She has a rolly face.
  • Miranda - The chicken is a mommy.
  • Ella - Chickens eat corn.
  • DeAndre- They drink water and eat snails.
  • Libby - It’s a girl.
  • Sophie - Chickens have feathers.
  • Leyla - Chickens lick rocks.
  • Ms. Amber - Chickens eat oranges.
  • James O.- The chicken has brown eyes.
  • Will H.- The chicken has wings.
  • Leyla - Is it a girl?
  • Matthew - Does she have wings?
  • Libby - Why was she getting scared?
  • Will T. - Does she have wings?
  • Camilla - Does the chicken use pencils?
  • Ms. Candy - What do chickens eat?
  • Miranda - Do they eat flowers?
  • James O. - Do chickens eat chicken soup.
  • Leyla - Does she wear socks?
  • Celeste - She has red things between her mouth. What are they?
  • Clare - Does she lay her eggs in a nest?
  • Ella - Why is she asleep near our art file?
  • Matthew - Can the chicken drive a race car?
  • Kalea - Does she lay eggs?
  • Clare - I think the chickens lay eggs and put their babies in them.
  • Camilla - Did the chicken crack out of an egg?

It was at this time that our teaching team sat down to brainstorm our topic web.


We also took the time to come up with a curriculum web as well. We were pleased to discover that we theoretically had a topic that would lend itself nicely to a variety of activities across many developmental areas. This web by no means represents what we will be doing with the children, but it did help us to know that our topic had a great deal of potential.


The one thing that the children all knew was that chickens lay eggs, because in past months we had gathered eggs from the farm for cooking projects. The children anxiously waited for the chicken to lay an egg in our class and when they learned that chickens do not like to be watched when trying to lay, the children decided that a nesting box would help. They worked on decorating a box.


Many of the children have created books and paintings about chickens and eggs. Some have taken advantage of the fact that the chicken likes to sit on the art table to make observational drawings and paintings.

Figure Figure Figure

Some of the children work well on their own and others benefit from a teacher talking them through the process by offering a starting place ("Would you like to start with the feet or the head?") or even narrowing down the observation ("Do you want to draw the whole chicken or a part of the chicken?").

(accidental painting by the chicken was a provocation for looking at chicken feet)

While talking about the chicken we found we needed to know what the names of all of the body parts are, so we searched for, and found, a labeled diagram of a chicken that we keep at the art table for reference.