Getting started with a topic for project work is often the most difficult part of the process. There are many sources for provications to get the children interested in a particular topic; materials on a table for them to investigate, a visitor who comes to the school to share something, an interesting item or discovery the children find outside and many others. Sometimes the ideas comes purely from the children and other times, the impetus is provided by the teacher. As Lillian Katz once explained in her Engaging Children's Minds seminar, children will not be interested in something, to which they have never been exposed. Giving them many different materials, interesting objects, nature items from your environment, exposure to people in your community and so on widens the topics in which they could become engaged.
In our threes classroom, the teacher began by reading some owl stories and songs. The children liked the books so she invited a naturalist to come to the school and not to do an entire program on animals, but to bring an owl. They were able to see an owl up close, ask questions, meet a typical prey source (she also brought a gerbil) and hear about how they could see some owls right in our neighborhood. They were very engaged in this owl visit, so now the teacher has the beginning of project. How will this class develop this further? Since this class has not been exposed to project work that much, she will need to scaffold the process for them, giving them options as to how to represent their learning.
In my class, the four year olds, as we were observing the children during the first several weeks of school, many of them were playing fire fighter with the dress up materials. They were turning the brooms and mops into hoses and "spraying" their friends. They were filling their jacket pockets with the "supplies" that they would need.
With this interest that spanned the group, we decided to invite the local fire chief to visit us and bring his truck up our hill for the children to investigate. Before this we shared memories of fire trucks and visits to stations. The children drew a fire truck from memory.
We discussed the things we were wondering about or the things many of them thought to be fact, in preparation for our visit. Before the chief arrived, I talked to him about how this wasn't the standard preschool fire safety visit. We had some specific questions for him ( which I emailed him beforehand), we also wanted time to sketch the truck. The girls were asking about women fire fighters, so he made sure to bring Fire Fighter Sarah with him.
The children noticed so many details about the truck in their sketches such as the headlights, the wipers, the various letters and numbers on the truck and all of the "buttons".
Then one of our students went home and excitedly told her family about the day. It turns our her dad is a volunteer fire fighter. He brought in some old equipment for us to have and invited us to visit his station.
Some dramatic play, sharing of a previous experience and a visitor...our project study has begun.