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What is a project-based preschool?

Elizabeth Weiss McGolerick is a freelance writer and editor who contributes regularly to SheKnows, MintLife, AOL, iVillage and other sites. In her articles, Elizabeth covers a variety of subjects including relationships, pregnancy, paren...

Learning for deep thinkers

For parents of children who always say, “Why?” and “How?” and “Show me more,” the project-based preschool approach will give their natural curiosity wings.
Project-based preschool

Problem-solvers and deep thinkers will appreciate having an unlimited amount of time to spend on their in-depth projects while also learning the beauty of collaboration with peers to see their vision come to fruition.

The origins of the project-based teaching method

The modern project-based approach to learning is attributed to early childhood educator Lillian Katz, author of Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach (1989), which outlined this teaching method. According to Katz, the project method was used sporadically in the United States from 1885 until World War II as a central part of the progressive education movement. She became involved in the project approach in the 1970s and has been teaching it ever since.

Through the project approach — defined by Illinois Projects in Practice as an in-depth investigation of a topic undertaken by a class, group of children or individual child in an early childhood classroom or at home — children are nurtured in an environment that does not place limits on their creativity or enforce time restrictions. This flexible framework is believed to promote brain development by encouraging children to collaborate with each other and solve challenges as they arise throughout their project.

The goal is for children to become engaged in their own learning while educators serve as guides rather than instructors. There is no right or wrong answer in project development, which encourages children to take risks and embrace learning through creative thought.

Understanding the project-based learning style

Project-based preschool - Sorting

Some project-based preschools, like Peartree Preschool in New York City, classify themselves as a progressive preschool that is project-based as well as play-based. Denise Adusei founded Peartree when she couldn’t locate the kind of program she wanted for her daughter in her neighborhood. “I found that a child-centered approach was most aligned with what my mother's intuition was telling me, which is that young children learn best through play,” says Adusei.

“The play/project-based approach we use at our school considers children to be active learners and teachers to be facilitators of that learning. Our students work together and with their teachers to negotiate, plan and work through projects,” explains Adusei. “Their lessons are enhanced with real-world connections, field trips and projects. This approach encourages skill application and positive learning habits by attempting to make learning as pleasant, fun and self-motivated as possible. Classroom toys are basic, encouraging children to exercise imagination during play.”

For example, one number-sorting project at Peartree challenged preschoolers to use fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, color recognition, number recognition and sorting skills, while also requiring them to follow directions and employ team work and social skills.

Is a project-based preschool right for your child?

Project-based preschool - Mixing

If you believe that your child would thrive in a relatively unstructured and self-directed environment, a project-based preschool may be the right choice for your family. Project-based programs are designed to allow children to learn independently through exploration and experimentation, with a healthy dose of collaboration.

Problem-solvers already have a great deal of built-in self-motivation, but a project-based preschool is designed to really encourage a love of learning and discovery. The goal is also to give children the confidence to know that they can handle problems on their own.

What is a project-based preschool classroom like?

Project-based preschools set themselves apart by the execution of their work and play. St. Anne’s Children and Family Center in Spokane, Washington, explains: “The project approach involves children in asking questions that guide the investigation and in making decisions about the activities undertaken. Project topics draw children’s attention to questions such as: How do things work? What do people do? What tools do people use?”

Each project is typically carried out in phases. Teachers first discuss topics — from pumpkins to snow, families to buildings, and everything in between — to gauge their experiences and knowledge to learn what the children may be interested in investigating. Then “field work” commences, where investigation and construction take place and expert sources (books, videos, pictures and people) are consulted. Work that’s done in the classroom is tied to real-world experiences and enhanced with plenty of field trips. Once the requisite amount of information has been gathered, children can summarize and represent what they’ve learned through any number of methods — art, a play, music, spoken word, graphing and more.

Children are in charge of their choices — what they do, when and where. Teachers serve as guides, helping children frame their ideas and providing them with usable resources. Throughout project work, teachers look for other areas of interest a child may express that can spin off from the current project.

Image credit: Peartree Preschool

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