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What's so new about the project approach?

The project, or theme, approach is gaining much attention in early childhood education. The project approach involves an indepth investigation of a particular topic that integrates the curriculum--language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and the fine arts--and extends over a period of days or weeks (Katz & Chard, 1989). But haven't early childhood educators been using projects and themes for years? Teachers have planned units around the seasons, holidays, colors or shapes. Curriculum resource books for teachers have been organized around themes, providing ideas for art, music, dramatic play and language arts. Is there anything "new" or different about the current use of themes or projects in the curriculum?

Several early childhood educators describe the theoretical background and rationale for the project approach and provide examples for classroom implementation. Lilian Katz and Sylvia Chard, in their book Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach (1989), describe the project method, history, research and rationale and give examples to facilitate classroom use. While not directly focused on the project approach, the writings of George Forman and others (Forman & Hill, 1980; Forman & Kuschner, 1977) and of Constance Kamii and Rita DeVries (Kamii & DeVries, 1978, 1980) provide theoretical insights into and resources for the project approach.

The early childhood program at Reggio Emilia, Italy, focuses on the use of projects to explore a topic over time and from many perspectives (Gandini, 1984; Gandini & Edwards, 1988; Katz, 1990; New, 1990). These writings and program descriptions provide insights and a framework for considering how today's use of the thematic or project approach may differ from its past use.

Child-centered Projects

In the past, teachers developed themes or units based on what they thought interested children, as well as what the school district or state considered important. They gathered all the materials and carefully preplanned each lesson of the unit. For example, during group time a teacher began discussing bugs, the week's topic. The children had not been involved in the selection or development of this topic. While many children were listening intently, one child interrupted to ask why they were talking about bugs. The teacher responded that it was spring and there were many bugs outside now. The child then asked the teacher, "Are we done with circus now?" (Circus was the topic discussed the previous week.)

In contrast, the project approach is child-centered. Projects may be initiated by an individual child or by a group of children. For example, children's interest in the nearby construction of a building may elicit an intensive classroom study of the construction process. At other times, while the teacher may initiate the project, the children's involvement may take the project in a whole different direction.

A teacher in the Reggio Emilia program asked the children to collect in a box items that interested them during their summer vacation (Rinaldi & Gandini, 1991). In one child's box were shells. One might anticipate that a study of the seashore could develop from these items. When asked what the child remembered, however, the child responded with "The crowd." The teacher, recognizing the children's interest in the crowd, encouraged investigation of a crowd. Their initial drawing of the crowd disappointed the children because it did not capture the movement, feeling or different visual perspectives of a crowd. Consequently, they discussed their ideas about a crowd, went out into the city to experience a crowd, acted out "crowd" in the classroom, discussed the concept again and repeatedly drew pictures of a crowd. As a result of their experiences, the children's understanding, as seen in their artistic representations of people's movement and facial profiles, was definitely enhanced.

In the project approach, children and teachers collaboratively select the project, plan the activities and decide what materials are needed. Children select their specific activity from a variety of activities that range in difficulty. Sometimes they may choose a familiar task that is comfortable, easy and less stressful, while at other times they may choose a task that is challenging, difficult and risky (Katz & Chard, 1989). Upon completion of an activity, children and teacher collaboratively evaluate what they did and why, what they will do next and how they will do it. Together, they decide when they are finished studying the topic (at least temporarily) and what they have learned from their study.

This approach does not mean that the teacher is less involved in or less accountable for children's learning. Projects are often initiated and developed in response to teachers' suggestions, questions or materials. Projects may be initiated by the teacher in response to an observed need on the part of some or all of the children (New, 1990). The teacher may use projects to directly influence children's learning about a particular topic or to develop a particular social or cognitive skill. Also, not all learning in the classroom is related to project work. The curriculum may include both informal learning activities occurring in projects as well as formal teacher-directed activities (Katz & Chard, 1989).

The teacher is held highly accountable for the children's learning in their project work. In the Reggio Emilia program, teachers carefully collect and save children's work and transcribe children's comments and questions. Albums for each child are filled with observations, photographs and anecdotal records. These albums serve as a method of communicating with parents, documenting children's progress, and providing evidence to children of their importance and the importance of this period of life (New, 1990; Rinaldi & Gandini, 1991).

Continuity in Projects

The project approach to curriculum promotes continuity--continuity across time, themes, curriculum areas, school, home and the outside world. A project may engage and involve children for an extended period of time; that is, until children's interest and curiosity are satisfied (Katz & Chard, 1989). Interest may be renewed when new information is acquired or a relevant event occurs. New projects may have their roots in previous projects. Strategies acquired in past projects may be critical to the success of new projects.

Projects help to integrate the curriculum. Rather than fragmenting the day into subject time blocks, the teacher can interweave language arts, social studies, mathematics, science and the fine arts around the topic of study (Katz & Chard, 1989). Through projects, children understand that school learning can be applied outside the classroom. Math strategies used to solve classroom problems, such as what length the board should be for the puppet stage, may also be used outside the classroom.

Using Piagetian theory, Forman (Forman & Hill, 1980; Forman & Kuschner, 1977) addresses the importance of continuity in teaching. Through continuity, children become aware of what they already know and how this new situation is familiar. Consequently, they assimilate the new information into their cognitive structures. For example, when the teacher says "Remember yesterday when you tried this" or "Remember when you learned about . . ." children recall past learning and use it to build new learning. Reflecting on past problems and strategies may be helpful in solving new problems.

The project approach may lead children to see as continuous and similar things that previously were seen as different (Forman & Hill, 1980; Forman & Kuschner, 1977). For example, when examining topics on children from different cultures or with different abilities, children may begin to focus on the similarities, as well as the differences. They learn that children in different cultures eat different food, live in different types of houses, speak different languages and wear different clothes. More important, they learn that children across the world have a common need for food, clothing, shelter and communication. They begin to view children with disabilities not just as children who have difficulty seeing, hearing, talking, moving or learning, but rather as children who enjoy playing, learning and doing things with others.

Transformations in Projects

Given that the world is constantly changing, it is important that children become transformers of the world, ready to try new options and discover new solutions to both old and new problems. According to Piaget, the principal goal of education is to "create men who are capable of new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done--men who are creative, inventive and discoverers" (Piaget 1964, p. 5). Projects give children the opportunity to be creative, inventive discoverers.

Past teaching methods often offered a static view of reality. For example, a unit on shapes may have taught children about circles, then squares, then triangles, stressing that each shape is uniquely different from the other. In projects, children may actively work with shapes using materials such as geoboards to discover the relationships between shapes and how to transform a square into a triangle and back again (Forman & Hill, 1980; Forman & Kuschner, 1977). Through such activity, children begin to truly understand geometric concepts.

Also, activities tended to be more "one shot" and final, rather than changing. For example, children made a picture or wrote a story at one sitting and then took it home the same day. In projects, however, children may draw the same object over and over, changing their representation as their understanding and knowledge change. Such multiple opportunities to explore an object or topic lead to conceptual understanding.

Meaningful Cooperative Projects

Projects should be based on relevant, meaningful problems in children's lives. Topics should stem from real problems that relate directly to their life experiences. Topics that are studied in school should not be separated from the children's lives, but rather children should see real life in school (Katz & Chard, 1989). According to Piagetian theory, meaningful, relevant projects can lead to children's construction of knowledge. A real problem for a child causes disequilibrium in the child. The child then actively works to solve the problem and, as a consequence, constructs new knowledge. Such knowledge is retained, while rote, nonmeaningful learning is quickly forgotten.

If the project is relevant and meaningful, children are motivated intrinsically to learn and need less extrinsic, teacher-directed motivation (Katz & Chard, 1989). The teacher will generally not need to create an artificial extrinsic reward system. Rewarding experiences in the project further enhance children's intrinsic motivation and they develop a positive disposition for learning (Katz & Chard, 1989).

The project- or theme-based curriculum encourages not only a positive disposition for learning, but also develops social competence (Katz & Chard, 1989). Interaction with others in projects helps develop children's potential (Gandini & Edwards, 1988).

In group projects, children learn how to take turns, negotiate conflicts, see different points of view, recognize similarities and differences between "the self" and others, and evaluate their personal strengths and weaknesses. Interaction with others leads children to refine, elaborate, support and reconsider their ideas. They learn new social skills to enable them to live and work cooperatively with others. The project may include not just one classroom, but all the children and adults in the school, the children's families and the broader neighborhood and community (Gandini & Edwards, 1988).

Project Approach Example

Consider a project on movement to further understand how the project approach can be child-centered, meaningful, relevant, conceptually based and supportive of continuity and transformation. Children are interested in moving and in how other things move. They naturally observe how an insect or animal moves; they explore and manipulate mechanical objects like cars and trucks to see how they operate and they actively move their own bodies in many ways while they play. So the study of movement seems to be intrinsically interesting and meaningful to children.

In a project on movement, children may choose to investigate and represent their thinking in multiple ways. They might examine the parts of a spider, snake and caterpillar for similarities and differences in movement and for how the organic parts influence movement. This examination may lead to sculpting in clay the eight legs of the spider or the segmented body of the caterpillar. Children' might explore different ways they can move their bodies: moving fast, slow, smooth or choppy; moving with different parts of the body; moving in small or large spaces. Poetry, music and rhythm patterns may be created to accompany these body movements. Children may observe movement in nature, such as the trees or the grass moving in the wind, and choose to represent this motion in creative body movements.

Children may examine the moving parts of mechanical vehicles such as cars, trucks and airplanes and then work cooperatively to transform boxes and other construction materials into these vehicles. They might become intrigued with how a crane or a bulldozer can lift and move large objects and then simulate these movements in their play. Pulleys, gears and other mechanisms can be used in construction play and manipulated to determine their effects on movement. Children may use oral language and drawings to plan how to move a large box across the room, suggest different ideas to each other, negotiate their plans and revise their ideas. They may investigate the various roles people play in the operation of moving vehicles, such as ticket agent, baggage person, mechanic and pilot. In dramatic play, they may set up an airport and act out the various roles.

Children may use written language to gain further understanding of movement and to represent their ideas. Books, both fiction and nonfiction, are a good source of information. They may write their own books or stories or write directions on how to use their various mechanical inventions. Written props such as tickets, signs and maps may be created for dramatic play. Distances moved by vehicles may be measured, compared and graphed.

Several movement activities are described by Forman (Forman & Hill, 1980; Forman & Kuschner, 1977). In one activity, children watch the shadow of a feather falling in the breeze and then have to overcome the typical patterns of drawing a static feather in order to capture the falling movement in their drawing. In another activity, children represent movement by rolling cars through paint and then rolling the cars on paper and observing the car tracks. In a third activity, a swinging pendulum represents movement by draining sand onto black paper. The curves the sand traces on the paper represent differences in strength and direction of the push on the pendulum.

Kamii and DeVries describe other movement activities to promote physical and logical mathematical knowledge (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987). One suggested activity involves moving different weight objects across the floor by blowing on them through a straw. This activity provides the opportunity to construct serial correspondences by connecting the weights of the objects to the distances moved. The effect of the blowing intensity on the speed of the object can be observed. Also, the movement of an object, such as a coffee can placed on its side, may depend on the timing and positioning of the blowing.


When the project approach is implemented in the early childhood classroom, children have the necessary time and multiple, active, concrete experiences to become absorbed and engaged in learning (Katz & Chard, 1989). They are involved in the selection of meaningful, relevant projects, in project development and in ongoing evaluation. Through projects, children develop cognitively by learning new concepts or enriching old concepts and by learning new problem-solving strategies or applying old strategies to new problems. They have multiple opportunities to represent, to elaborate and to refine their thinking. They view themselves as problem-solvers and transformers of reality and develop a positive attitude toward learning. By working together on projects, children gain new social skills and become socially competent. In these ways, use of the project approach leads to positive dispositions toward learning, feelings of social competence and enhanced cognitive and social development.


DeVries, R., & Kohlberg, L. (1987). Constructivist early education: Overview and comparison with other programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Forman, G., & Hill, F. (1980). Constructive play: Applying Piaget in the preschool. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Forman, G., & Kuschner, D. (1977). The child's construction of knowledge: Piaget for teaching children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Gandini, L. (1984). Not just anywhere: Making child care centers into "particular" places. Beginnings: The Magazine for Teachers of Young Children, 1, 17-20.

Gandini, L., & Edwards, C. P. (1988). Early childhood integration of the visual arts. Gifted International, 5, 4-17.

Kamii, C., & DeVries, R. (1978). Physical knowledge in preschool education: Implications of Piaget's theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kamii, C., & DeVries, R. (1980). Group games in early education: Implications of Piagetian theory. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Katz, L. (1990). Impressions of Reggio Emilia preschools. Young Children, 45, 11-12.

Katz, L., & Chard, S. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

New, R. (1990). Excellent early education: A city in Italy has it. Young Children, 45, 4-10.

Piaget, J. (1964). Cognitive development in children. In R. Ripple & V. Rockcastle (Eds.), Piaget rediscovered: A report on cognitive studies and curriculum development. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Rinaldi, C., & Gandini, L. (1991, September). Beginning theme project work with children. Paper presented at the Hundred Languages of Children Conference, Detroit, MI.

Mary Trepanier-Street is Professor of Education, School of Education, The University of Michigan-Dearborn.
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Author:Trepanier-Street, Mary
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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