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Fun Home Projects with Preschoolers
One of the most exciting and effective curriculum models in early childhood education is called the Project Approach. It goes all the way back to the early days of the 20th Century in assimilating the 'learning by doing' recommendation made by the great American educator and philosopher, John Dewey. The contemporary researcher and scholar who has most effectively advocated this position (and improved on it) is Dr. Lilian Katz of the University of Illinois. Dr. Katz has urged teachers of young children to reserve a significant portion of classroom time for the children to engage in integrated learning units based on their own interests and observations. The project allows the child to carry out his or her own investigation into a subject of personal interest. The topic of the project can be almost anything meaningful in the life of a child—cars, airplanes, hospitals, fireman, pets, etc. Projects may last for only a week or so or may continue for several weeks or months, depending on the continued interest shown by the child. The project minimizes the need for formal instruction, as it serves as a hub around which language and math learning occur and in which social skills expand and mature. It is actually an early research project carried out by the child, a foray into high adventure.

Projects are Appropriate for Home Learning

Although we tend to think of the Project Approach as belonging mainly to group educational programs, it is just as effective when used individually at home. In the group setting, the plans of any one child might have to be forfeited to the collective will of the other children. At home, the child's very own interests and inclinations can guide the activities and thus be even more individually tailored.

What Makes a Good Project?

Anything that calls for some investigation and coordination of ideas and actions by the child and that becomes a true adventure can be a good project. Although it is essential that the project reflect some interest on the part of the child, good projects can nonetheless be initiated and gotten under way by the parents. They can get the child started by responding to an interest they have detected and then gradually allow the child to take over more of the leadership as the project assumes a definite form. In general, good projects will involve more than one source of information—books, field trips, interviews, etc. Here are a couple of suggestions of projects that can be very effective with children between roughly three and five years of age.

Summer Vacation. This is not one your child will think of, at least not the first time. But, chances are, it will lead to a repeat based more completely on his or her own ideas. Start by saying something like, 'Let's make a book about our trip to the beach (Grandma's, Disney World, whatever). Here are the pictures we took. Let's put them in this book.' (Use one of the readily available scrapbooks that allow you to insert pictures into plastic envelopes; these can be easily rearranged in the event of a mind change. I especially like the small ones that take only two pictures per page and have space between in which writing can be inserted.) Let him or her give the book a name and print it up. After the pictures are arranged and you have talked about them, let your child 'dictate' a few lines to go with every one. Then, print or type them on paper and insert the commentary into the book. Calls to relatives can supplement the child's memories, and extra information about shells or shore birds or airplanes can be added. Then, several weeks later, read the book as a bedtime story. I promise you, he or she will be interested. Don't forget to date the book and add the child's age. In later years the 'book' will be re-read along with comments, such as 'Did I really look like that?'

Collections. Children love to collect things—a habit that can become very expensive for parents! (I still have my son's extensive collection of Matchbox cars and trucks. And I recently visited in a home that prominently displayed every stuffed toy the owner had ever had.) But their collecting interests can spawn many related activities. The children cannot initiate the supportive activities because they don't know about them; here is a place where parental input is especially important. For example, consider the child who is interested in road construction equipment. A worthwhile 'field trip' for a child interested in building equipment is simply an opportunity to go near a construction site and observe. Then, a trip to the library to learn more about the specific machines observed in action will help put the experience in context. Again, a scrapbook would be a nice way to capitalize on the interest. If you sponsor a project such as this, try to resist the temptation to choose the category of collection—dinosaurs, stamps, coins, Barbies, etc. Let that come from the child's own interests.

With increasing age, the child should increasingly become the 'principal investigator' and you merely a 'research assistant.' But a period of apprenticeship during which you help get things started and offer guidance and suggestion about options for pursuing the interest will be extremely helpful.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education