Making meaning: The Project Approach

By on January 30, 2010

Photo © Elena Derevstova


The most important job of a young child is to make sense of his or her world. Our job at school is to aid the child in this quest. There is no end to the questions that children have about the world they live in: Where does the water for the bath come from? How do the vegetables get to the grocery store? Does the bus driver keep the money that the passengers pay to ride? Why does it rain? At school, when we are responsive to the interests of children, they are very motivated to learn. One way that we can be responsive to children’s interests is by using the Project Approach.


Children have a much wider range of capabilities than they have usually been permitted to show in the regular classroom. In order to show these capabilities, they need learning environments that are responsive to the many individual differences that influence learning. Children learn in different ways, have different styles, and build on very different backgrounds of experience. Children also achieve at a higher level in school if they are interested in what they are doing. The Project Approach taps the children’s interests and supports their learning differences. Children are expected to work cooperatively on complex and open-ended tasks as well as follow instructions in step-by-step learning. The Project Approach provides one way to introduce a wider range of learning opportunities into the classroom and has a developmental basis. Projects can expand a child’s learning. 


The Project Approach is a way of structuring the work in a classroom so that children are acquiring and applying skills, assuming responsibility for the kinds of work they undertake, learning to make good choices and studying a topic in depth over a period of time. Although the word “project” has many meanings, used in the Project Approach, it has a specific meaning:


A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about… The key feature of a project is that it is a research effort deliberately focused on finding answers to questions about a topic posed either by the children, the teacher, or the teacher working with the children. (Katz, L.G. (1994) The Project Approach)


Lillian Katz, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose work the definition comes from and Sylvia Chard, Professor Emerita of the Department of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta, have written a number of books on the Project Approach and are considered to be experts in the field of early childhood education. Their site provides background and the theory behind the approach as well as resources for teachers.


Teachers at The American School in Japan’s Early Learning Center had the opportunity to work with Dr. Chard several years ago and that experience has shaped their program ever since. The use of projects at the nursery to kindergarten level allows for the varying learning needs, skills and interests of the children with the aim of making learning memorable and meaningful. The Project Approach provides one way to introduce a wide range of learning opportunities that are responsive to the different ways children learn, their different backgrounds and experiences and their different stages of development.


Each project has three distinct phases. The first phase involves picking a topic that stimulates the interest of the whole class and the teachers gauge the children’s understanding of the topic and gather their questions about it. These questions set the stage for the research that children will be doing when they investigate their topic. In Phase I, the teacher’s role is to share an experience with the children concerning the topic of study and invite children to share their stories. The children are encouraged to draw, write about, and dramatize their understanding of the topic. The first phase concludes with a list of questions the children would like to investigate.


The second phase involves fieldwork and discovery. Phase II involves planning fieldwork and inviting experts to the classroom to present to the children. Real objects and processes are investigated, questions are answered, more questions are posed and explanations are sought. Experts may share firsthand experiences or expertise, and often children will visit a site on a field trip to see relevant objects, plants, animals, vehicles, events, equipment or people. Children read, write, draw, build, compute and gather data. 


In the third and final phase of a project, the children share their findings with others—their parents, peers, and older or younger children. The emphasis in this stage is for children to communicate what they have learned to the people who are important in their lives. In each phase, the children are involved in various kinds of work as they draw, discuss, dramatize, write, collect data, calculate, diagram and record observations in preparation for their final presentations.


In such a project, students form small groups and engage in committee work as they study their project topic. “Committee work is so important because it gives the children the chance to work on important skills: collaboration, cooperation, communication, thinking and initiation. These skills will help the children learn and deepens their understandings of diverse subject matter. At school, and later in life at the office, committees form, discuss each other’s ideas, plan and decide together what needs to be done and make products,” says ASIJ ELC kindergarten teacher, Connie Shimizu. “Through committee work the children learn to show respect for diverse ideas and opinions. The children must listen to others and think about what others say, as well as, to articulate their own ideas. They also learn to make questions. The children need flexibility in their thinking as they consider alternative points of view. The children must also take some initiation as they decide what questions and ideas to pursue. Children need to talk about the information they are learning.”


“The greatest learning takes place in dialogue between people—learning is a social process and not just an intellectual event,” notes academic Peter Senge from the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The Project Approach taps into this form of social learning and engages children in ways that traditional lesson plans often fail to. Compare the way a project approach is more student-focused to a traditional teaching unit:


Project Approach:

Teaching Unit (Traditional classroom):


• Planned by the teachers in negotiation with the children

• Planned in advance by the teachers

• Goals are continuously negotiated between the children & teachers 

• Teachers preset goals (i.e. children will learn that there are 15 matches in each sumo tournament)


• Children get meaningful choices about what work they do

• Teacher selects activities and materials

• Children research the answers to their own questions

• All children do the same work

• Research always involves an expert or fieldwork as well as books

• Children memorize isolated facts 

• Students wor
for their own sa
isfaction according to their own ability

• Some research using mainly books

• Every child is successful because each child made something that was an integral part of the project

• Students work for the teacher

• Teacher is seen as the expert and the child as deficient


An example of such a project is the kindergarten study of Japanese culture. The children break into committees around some aspect of Japanese culture that is of interest to them, for example, sumo, paper, Japanese food or kamishibai (storytelling with picture boards). These committees determine what they know and what they want to find out about their topic and how they will share their learning. Children visit the neighborhood noodle shop, make their own paper, study tapes of sumo tournaments, and watch a kamishibai troupe to learn about their area of study. As their culmination pieces, the children write and present their own kamishibai stories, put on a sumo tournament, make a paper museum, and turn their classroom into a soba shop. 


A specific example a recent project at ASIJ’s Early Learning Center was a kindergarten class study of sumo. The study culminated with a presentation for the parents, but the process of study was the most meaningful part for the children. The students started their project by talking with each other about what they already knew about sumo, what they wanted to find out and how they could find the answers to their questions. They did their research in committees by reading sumo books, attending a local tournament, watching sumo videos, looking at sites on the internet, reading books and magazines and interviewing “sumo experts” who had knowledge to share with them. The children were able to get their questions answered and then share what they had learned with their parents. They had many ways to demonstrate their knowledge: clay sculptures of sumo wrestlers, drawings, paintings and a basho (tournament) that they put on for their parents. They were able to show that their knowledge of sumo was extensive after their study. 


In the Project Approach, children pursue a topic of study for a long period of time, and in this way, they infuse their work with energy, commitment and ownership. With that time, energy and commitment also comes a depth of understanding. Academic skills such as questioning, listening, reading and writing are needed for the children to do in-depth thinking. This can benefit academic achievement, social and emotional development, problem-solving, creativity and encourages parent involvement—all things a good pre-school or elementary program should value. In the Project Approach, teaching and learning are an adventure for all investigators, young and old alike.


Further Information:

Engaging children’s minds: The project approach (2nd ed.) – by Lilian G. Katz & Sylvia C. Chard. (2000).

The Project Approach, Making the Curriculum Come Alive – by Lilian G. Katz & Sylvia C. Chard


Judy Beneventi has been the Director at ASIJ’s Early Learning Center since 1999. Prior to that time she was the Assistant Principal at the Elementary School for seven years. Judy worked as an elementary and middle school teacher at another international school in Tokyo and in Lima, Peru, the State of Montana in the US, and in the State of Victoria in Australia. Judy was named National Distinguished Principal in 2007. She holds a teaching degree from Carroll College in Helena, MT, and her Master’s degree in educational administration from California State University, Northridge.

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