Saturday, August 20, 2011

Day Two: The Project Approach, Topic Selection

Well, what was supposed to be my musings of day two of The Project Approach seminar has taken me over a month to write.  Duties of running a summer camp, hiring new staff and mothering three active children in the summertime took precedence.  Now I find myself preparing my class and school for opening again in a couple of weeks.  I am furiously rereading my notes and handouts and trying to decide what, how and why should I implement my learning.
The morning of the second day was heavily focused on topic selection.  I was very interested in this area as with Emergent Curriculum, I was constantly monitoring the children for their interests so that I could follow their lead.  If a strong interest did not seem to emerge we would try other provocations and wait.  We called these ordinary moments.  Wonderful learning experiences were still happening during these times between focused topics, but they were not necessarily related to one another.  Trying to decide what the greatest interest of the group was often proved difficult and sometimes the topic seemed too complex or abstract to study at the level a four year old would understand. 

Lillian Katz and Sylvia Chard explained that following children’s interests can be risky and create pitfalls as not all of their interests are necessarily the best topics for project work. 

For example dinosaurs, a often chosen topic in preschools and one my class has studied in the past, is not a good choice with this approach because one of the main criteria for topic selection with Project Approach is that it has to be relevant and many opportunities for direct observation need to be available.  We cannot take children to actually see dinosaurs and they cannot dig up actual dinosaur bones.  When I described how I would boil chicken bones and hide them in the sand in marked off lots to simulate paleontologist expeditions, they told me I was teaching children to find chicken bones, and draw chicken bones… not about dinosaurs. 

The criteria for topic selection with Project Approach are:

1.       It needs to be relevant to the child with sufficient opportunities for direct observation
2.       It needs to be within at least some of the children’s regular experience
3.       The class needs to have access to local resources and experts on the topic; the children need to be able to take a lot of data on the topic, to actually experience it.
4.       It has to have potential for representation in a variety of media; can the children write about it, draw about it, make models of it, etc. 
5.       It should encourage children to develop an interest worthy of their time; it is rich enough to last for an extended period of time.
6.       It is the right size; optimal specific; dogs rather than pets(too abstract), but not just Mrs. Smiths dog(too specific)

The purpose is to help children make better, fuller, deeper sense of their own experiences.

An example given was the topic foodFood as a whole is too broad of a topic, and My Favorite Food is very limiting and clich√©, but Foods We Don’t Like allows opportunities for surveys, drawings, discussions, investigations, representations, experiments, and much more.  Food is something all children have in common.  It is real, relevant and rich.

Thinking about topic selection for a project this way, they explained that it can even be done in conjunction with a theme.  For example if your theme is the seasons, your topic may be The Changes in the Trees around Our SchoolSeasons is very broad, but The Tree Project lends itself to walking to the trees, doing some drawings & paintings of them, forming some questions about the trees and then discovering some answers.  There are opportunities to revisit the site many times to collect more data.  This is a worthy topic as it gets the children interested in their specific environment. 

Some extremely interesting projects done with preschool children were shared including a project done on balls, a nearby train station, a shoe store, and a study of geese along the river.  One idea that has me intrigued was proposed by a colleague at the workshop; a study of keys-so practical, so much a part of our daily lives and often a topic of interest to children.

This idea and one on cameras has my mind percolating.

I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on topic selection and any projects that have been particularly successful for you.  


  1. Keys really are fascinating. The mechanics of how they work, the fine motor skill of using them, the dramatic play opportunities of things to do with keys, the variation of keys...Plus they are mysterious and very adult!

  2. I teach at a middle school but love many of the ideas you present and try to think of how I can incorporate PLAY with my eighth graders. So thank you for this. For this particular piece, thinking of themes - I would like to explore maybe some less concrete "life" themes with my kids. Of course, this late at night after a rough school day proves difficult to be coherent...but maybe a theme of friendship. That sounds too broad - so I need to contemplate on how to take data on it, experience it, maybe sort and categorize types of friendships? Maybe Healthy Friendships?

    Or somehow making sense of our world - their immediate world. I will keep thinking on this project approach and see what it out there to bridge my learning curb from your bright young minds to my rebellious/needy/apathetic all in one joys of my heart.

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