Current thinking supports early years practice that promotes independence in young children and helps them to develop the skills they will need to become proficient life-long learners (DfE, 2012). This article explains why the project approach is ideal for achieving this aim.
The project approach involves taking a topic or an area of interest and studying it in detail. Professor Lilian Katz and Professor Sylvia Chard (2000), key thinkers in this area, define a project as ‘an in-depth study of a particular topic… in which children’s ideas, questions, theories, predictions, and interests are major determinants of the experiences provided and the work accomplished’. Projects are based around the questions, ideas and theories of the children and entail hands-on exploration and practical investigation.
Project work is central to the Reggio Emilia Approach where practitioners plan projects that stem from the curiosities of the children. Projects vary in length and scale; a small project might span just a couple of days or weeks and involve a class, group or individual. However, larger projects can last as long as a couple of years and involve a whole year group, school or even the wider community.
During a project, practitioners support the children by providing them with the materials, tools and guidance they need to extend and develop their investigations. They also observe and compile written and photographic records of the children’s activities. In Reggio Emilia this is referred to as documentation and is considered an important teaching resource that is used to help the children reflect upon their learning.
Projects can be carried out with children of any age. The aptitudes and abilities of the children will determine how complex a project becomes. Younger children, or those with communication difficulties will benefit from simple projects that encourage hands-on investigation and stimulate conversation, promoting language development. Older children, or those with broader knowledge and understanding and better-developed academic skills will be able to engage in more complex projects.
Project work should not be confused with topic work. The project approach is about taking an area of interest and using it as a basis for in-depth enquiry or research. A project involves cross-curricular learning, where children naturally encounter a range of curriculum subjects in the process of investigating one particular area of interest. This is different to topic work, which entails choosing a theme and thinking up subject related activities to fit around it.
Projects are planned alongside the children and allowed to evolve in a direction that is determined by their emerging questions and interests. The practitioners’ job is not to control the project. Instead, the practitioner takes a supportive role by providing any resources and guidance that the children need in their investigations, as well as planning supporting activities that help extend their understanding. Children learn to think and find out for themselves instead of simply receiving information from others.
Children have a natural urge to explore their environment and investigate phenomena. Physical exploration of objects as a way of learning has been endorsed in the work of many early years pioneers. Frederick Froebel emphasised the importance of play and physical interaction with the environment, especially outdoors. He explained that children re-enforce learning by re-enacting their experiences through play. Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Susan Isaacs are just some of the early years pioneers who supported this view.
Like in the past, it is now generally agreed and proven through research that young children should be exposed to ‘direct and immediate’ learning experiences and be provided with ‘opportunities to be active and take the initiative to learn’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al, 2002). The EYFS identifies active learning and playing and exploring as key ‘characteristics of effective teaching and learning’ (DfE, 2012).
The practical nature of project work means that children acquire knowledge, develop understanding and practise skills through physical exploration and hands-on investigation.
The project approach involves group-learning experiences that encourage children to enter into dialogue, leading to the social construction of knowledge and understanding. During a project children constantly interact with each other and engage in conversation. This discussion helps them to make sense of their experiences and process information.
Creative and critical thinking
Projects provide an ideal arena for promoting sustained shared thinking. Practitioners encourage children to use a range of thinking skills by joining in with the discussion and debate, and posing questions for children to consider.
The initial provocation
There are various ways of picking out a starting point for a project, which could be triggered by any number of things, such as a topic, object, picture, event, question or child’s interest. An idea may come as a direct result of a child’s actions or questions. On the other hand, practitioners might build upon observed interests and use them as inspiration for setting up a provocation.
Planning the project
Once children are presented with a provocation they are gathered together to share their experiences and think about what they would like to find out or do next. A mind-mapping session helps practitioners to gain a clearer idea about the children’s understanding of the topic and any areas where they have difficulties. The children’s questions, ideas and suggestions are recorded and practitioners meet together to discuss and use these as the basis for planning the project.
Practitioners then provide resources and set up activities that will help the children learn more about their chosen topic. The children might investigate individually, in groups or as a class and practitioners work alongside them to help develop and extend ideas. For example:
Adult-led focused activities: It is useful to plan some adult-led focused activities that aim to develop the children’s knowledge and understanding of the subject area. For instance, if the project is about how a bus works some focus activities about different vehicles and their working parts would be a useful starting point.
Adult-supported group investigation: This is central to the project and involves the children working together to undertake an in-depth investigation of their chosen topic with the help and guidance of practitioners. The age and ability of the children will determine how complex the investigation is and to what extent the children are able to take the lead.
The investigation central to the bus project might involve children having access to a real bus that they can thoroughly inspect. This could involve studying the engine; looking at how the seats are arranged and fixed; finding out about the steering and controls; and studying the wheels and undercarriage.
The children might photograph and draw pictures and diagrams of the bus. They might use information books and the Internet to gather facts about buses. They may also compare the bus to other vehicles and their parts and look for similarities and differences. All the while practitioners observe the children and help them to share and sustain thinking with carefully considered open questioning.
Enhancing continuous provision: A range of materials and resources should be made available to the children so that they can engage in their own self-directed explorations of the project theme. Examples that would support the bus project are information books about buses and vehicles, toy buses, a role-play bus and an interactive display of vehicle and engine parts.
Projects are open-ended and developed through a process of ongoing observation and discussion. Practitioners use their observations and formative assessments of the children’s activities to steer the project in response their changing intentions. This is instead of a plan that asks the practitioner to direct the children toward meeting predetermined objectives. This means that much of the planning is retrospective, outlining some starter activities with predicted outcomes but leaving space for filling in additional activities and outcomes as they transpire.
Documenting the project
Observation is a fundamentally important part of project work and practitioners plan to ensure that children’s investigations are thoroughly documented using written and photographic observations, as well as digital recordings. Any work the children produce is also kept or photographed.
Focused observations: Practitioners chose one particular child and observe and record their activity for up to 20 minutes. This is done in writing and might be accompanied by photographs.
Snapshot observations: Practitioners note down interesting occurrences or comments the children make during the project. These might be recorded on post-it notes or purpose designed note sheets.
Digital recordings: Practitioners video the children’s activities or record their conversations. This is an especially useful technique because it allows practitioners to collect a large amount of information accurately and authentically.
Work samples: Practitioners collect examples of drawings, paintings or pieces of writing that the children produce. These are annotated with any comments that the children make to support their work, as well as any thoughts the practitioner has at the time.
Using documentation to inform planning
The project approach involves a cyclical process of open-ended planning that is informed by ongoing observation, reflection, discussion and interpretation.
Throughout the project documentation is used as a tool for reflection and to inform ongoing planning. Practitioners take time to reflect upon their observations and shared between practitioners, as well as with parents and the children too.
Discussion between practitioners and with parents: All observations are shared amongst practitioners. Gaining this range of perspectives and helps to create a more rounded picture and provides opportunities for gathering additional interesting information. There are times when some observations might be puzzling to practitioners and could benefit from being shared with parents, who may be able to shed some light.
Reflection with children: Photographic observations and digital recordings are particularly useful for encouraging reflection in young children because they provide an audio or visual stimulus for discussion. Photographs can be mounted on low-level displays or arranged into books, and videos can be played to individuals on a laptop or large groups using the interactive whiteboard. Practitioners help children to reflect using open questioning and helping to facilitate group discussion about the observation.
After reflecting upon, sharing and discussing documentation, practitioners consider the implications for the ongoing planning and development of the project. The planning is then revisited and added to or amended accordingly. The project continues and the process begins all over again.
Working in this way is supported by the assessment arrangements as set out in the revised EYFS Statutory Framework:
Ongoing assessment (also known as formative assessment) is an integral part of the learning and development process. It involves practitioners observing children to understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles, and to then shape learning experiences for each child reflecting those observations.
The project approach provides early years practitioners with the means to promote a variety of aspects of good foundation stage practice. When involved in project work children are encouraged to actively participate in the planning and development of their own learning. They gradually become independent learners with the support of knowledgeable adults and gain the confidence to voice their own thoughts and opinions.
Department for Education (DfE) (2012) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. DfE Publications.
Katz LG, Chard SC (2000) Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach. 2nd ed. Ablex Publishing: USA
Siraj-Blatchford I, Sylva K, Muttock S, Gilden R, Bell D (2002) REPEY. Institute of Education, University of London and Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford.
The Project Approach in Early Years Provision by Marianne Sargent features examples of projects that have been carried out in a range of foundation stage settings. It comes with a CD-Rom that contains adaptable and printable resources to support practitioners planning and carrying out projects.