A tank, some crabs and many periwinkles: a project approach to learning

By Katrina Selawsky

I recently sent families an excerpt of an article entitled The Project Approach to Early Childhood Education by Lilian Katz, PhD. It highlights how projects support children’s “dispositions to be curious, to make sense of experience and to explore the environment.” Projects offer children opportunities to investigate a topic in depth and they are an  important approach to learning at our school.

Projects support children’s dispositions to be curious, to make sense of experience and to explore the environment.

Children graph the growth of a crab.

Children in the Nuthatch class graph the growth of a crab by working together while a teacher looks on. Check out the slideshow below to see a detail of the “crab graph.”

Our teachers incorporate many features described in Dr. Katz’s article: choosing an interesting and meaningful topic, encouraging children to generate questions to investigate, making predictions, comparing and reflecting on results and representing theories and ideas through a variety of media. We also stress the collaborative nature of projects to help support a “community of learners” in which we value the ideas and contributions of each child while reinforcing that our experiences are enriched and deepened by the perspectives and insights of others.

Take the saltwater tank in the Nuthatch classroom. It gives children the opportunity to observe and document changes in the crabs and periwinkles that live in it. As children watch the animals’ movements, eating patterns and growth, they naturally pose many questions and are encouraged to find the answers with books and other resources. With this process, children make connections to their own seaside experiences and trips to museums and aquariums. Children extend these investigations by bringing in related collections and artifacts like the wonderful horseshoe crab shell that now sits next to the tank.

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We encourage children to share their observations and questions by joining conversations and adding  simple signs like “Saltwater News: The rock crab has done it again!” As we display children’s drawings and dictations, a history of life in the tank emerges. Over time, we anticipate recording more of these conversations with the hope that the children will be interested in using them to make their own book.

Just as Dr. Katz suggests in her article, the saltwater tank project offers children strong motivation to develop their academic skills as they expand vocabulary, document through both pictures and words, measure and compare, make predictions, collect information from books as well as from personal observations and use scientific tools.

Some projects will last all year, like the saltwater tank project. Others will be brief and may not involve every child. But it’s exciting to watch them develop!

Katrina Selawsky is the director of the Learning Circle Preschool. She has a masters in education specializing in curriculum development from Boston University and 30 years experience in preschool teaching and administration.