Where Have all the Projects Gone? Musings about Inquiry in Early Childhood Education

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE and Cindy Green, BSc, RECE. We have written about our long-standing relationship in previous posts and how we connected when we were working at the same community college, teaching early childhood education, many moons ago! We became critical friends, before we knew the term. In our context, we were pedagogical leaders before we truly understood the difference between pedagogy (how learning happens) and curriculum (the content of the learning). We shared a passion for teaching and learning in early childhood education. We loved to talk about all things, early childhood education. We challenged each other but we supported each other, wanting the best for each other.

We were early adopters of emergent curriculum. We felt strongly that our students and other faculty teaching the students were open to what takes place in experiences with children. We advocated for others to consider changing plans to go with what might grow. Each one of us needs to have curiosity, and we need to be able to try something new based on the ideas that we collect from the children and document as we go along. This we learned from Malaguzzi (1994):

Of course, many things that happen in school can be seen ahead and planned beforehand. But many things that happen cannot be known ahead of time. Something will start to grow inside the child and suddenly what is happening in the school will move in that direction. Sometimes what happens starts inside the adults. School can never be always predictable. We need to be open to what takes place and able to change our plans and go with what might grow at that very moment both inside the child and inside ourselves.

When we first heard of this innovative approach to early childhood education that began in Italy shortly after the Second World War, we were curious and excited. Based on the theories of social constructivism and focused on a pedagogy that supports an emerging curriculum, long-term investigations are a key feature of the approach. I (Diane) remember being at a session for early childhood education faculty in Ontario in the very early nineties where I first heard about the place that is called Reggio Emilia and the principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach. It was overwhelming to learn about this complex philosophy and when someone in the audience suggested that it was not realistic in our contexts, the presenter recommended the Project Approach. I immediately went off and purchased the book by Katz and Chard and began teaching my students about emergent curriculum and expecting them in their placements to focus on projects with the children. Later, I wondered whether, I had supported the creation of long-term themes and worried about the structure of the Project Approach and whether it focused too much on topics (nouns) rather than ideas (verbs). This became a musing in my doctoral dissertation, and I wrote about it in an article published in Exchange in 2011.

I (Cindy), also reflect back to the early nineties after first hearing about Reggio Emilia from Lella Gandini and Carla Rinaldi at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference in the US. I left the workshop feeling so energized and curious to learn more. After exiting the session, I remember sitting in the foyer making numerous notes about the notes that I had documented. In those days, I was so busy writing notes it minimized my ability to listen but I sat there and pondered the ideas that I had captured. I knew this was big. It felt right. I didn’t know it then, but I now know that my thinking and practice took a full turn that day. I also became a “groupie”, soaking up Elizabeth Jones’ wisdom about emergent practice and fortunately was able to attend many sessions with her at subsequent NAEYC conferences. Her book Emergent Curriculum (1994), co-authored with John Nimmo, became a favourite. There were so many things to think about and thankfully Diane was there to have conversations with. Diane was and continues to be a mentor, nudging me to think, rethink and dive deeper in my pedagogical practice. For that I am forever grateful.

We continue to muse, thinking and rethinking about early childhood education pedagogy and practice. We wonder if there are still educators implementing the Project Approach? For those unfamiliar, it “refers to a way of teaching and learning as well as to the content of what is taught and learned” (Katz & Chard, 1989, p. 3). It is a set of teaching strategies which enable teachers to guide children through in-depth studies of real-world topics (Katz & Chard, 2000). As suggested by Katz and Chard, projects are intended to be emergent as they develop from the ongoing interests of the children. A project may be for a short period of time or extend over several weeks, depending on the complexity of the project, the authentic questions that evolve, and the resources available to maintain the child’s interest and intrigue in the topic. The similarity between the Reggio Emilia Approach and the Project Approach are that children are involved in project-based learning. John Dewey was one of the first who suggested that project-based learning was ideal. Under the assumption that children learn best when their interest is fully engaged and centred, the project method was used in Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. In more recent times, project work was a central part of infant and primary education during the Plowden Years in England of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the corresponding North American open education years of the same era (Katz & Chard, 2000). In the nineties and early years of the 21st century, we supported our students in placement while they implemented projects and witnessed many early childhood educators engaging in project work. Now in 2019, as early childhood education consultants, we work with small independent child care centres and large multi-site agencies and projects for some reason, are not so evident. Where have all the projects gone? Are they still there but are labelled as an inquiry? Do these inquiries last over time? When children engage in long-term investigations, does it not make sense to assume that the learning will be more evident? We do see a resurgence of emergent curriculum as educators respond to children’s interests in the moment and short term. However, we are left musing, where have all the projects gone? How do you plan and program for children? Do you engage in long-term investigations as co-constructors with children? Do you call these inquiries or projects or something else? How do you ensure that your project work supports authentic learning over time rather than the children remembering facts about a topic?

We would like to share this example, based on the photo above.

A group of children were playing with some blocks on a table. One child lined the blocks up and said that he had created a road. Another child said, “then we need cars”. He went to the shelf and took five small cars, holding two in his right hand and three in his left and placed them on the table.  They began “driving” the cars all over the table but did not use the road that had been built. One girl picked up her car and walked away. She went to the loose parts shelf and brought over a basket of popsicle sticks. ” Here” she says, “this is to get the cars onto the road”. One child picked up two sticks and placed them down to create a ramp. Another child followed and did the same. They drove the cars up onto the road and then used more sticks to create ramps going off the road.

We are wondering what you would do to respond to this scenario. If you decide that the children are interested in cars (noun) where would that lead? Would the children be able after investigating cars over the long term be able to recite parts of cars, types of cars? Or would you focus on the building (verb) of the ramps or the lining up (verb) of the materials? Where would that lead? We are calling to you, the readers of this blog to muse along with us as we wonder about emergent curriculum and where all the projects have gone? Are long-term projects now referred to as inquiries? Please share by commenting below.

6 thoughts on “Where Have all the Projects Gone? Musings about Inquiry in Early Childhood Education

  1. Working on a project with the children can only happen when educators and children come together to learn from one another and support each others thinking and continue to extend on questions and ideas. We must be patient as progress on a project is usually slow as children need time to think and process ideas. Some educators might mistake these “slow times” as loss of interest and the end of a project. I have found that these projects always evolve again as new materials and ideas are introduced by both the teacher and children. Maybe projects are occurring but we are not fuelling the fire to keep them going. My favorite moments in learning all take place as a project unfolds. We must be patient and not look for instantaneous moments of learning only, so we can document and move on. Stories take time to evolve and show all the learning which is possible when we follow a childs interest.

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    • Our children have played with small metal cars like this too. I have tried to “balance” myself with the children exploring the fantasy of the cars racing (some threw the cars to achieve speed), teaching ramp building to achieve speed, putting out number lines to introduce the idea of measurement as a means to “win” as another idea where the fastest car won. I also introduces other objects, thinking it was the movement that was the focus of the play (marbles, wooden cylinders).

      It was the action of movement that was their focus. We borrowed some Keva blocks from the library and the play is now being extended and co-operation is a new focus of the play.

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  2. Good Morning Ladies,

    I love the idea of Projects, and have from time-to-time been able to see a project unfold in the classroom. Some of the obstacles I have noted is that staff is so concerned about documenting the learning that they are not appreciating that there is so much more to be learned; constant expectations from management to keep the environment “fresh” also deters this type of learning because you feel the need to constantly observe new interests to satisfy the centre’s criteria; staff is unaware that PBL is even an option – I have had many ask me what it is; the environment not suitable for scaffolding the children’s learning; and, as much as learning should be child led I still see so many co-workers creating cookie-cutter activities and expecting the children to complete them. That is not what emergent learning, play to learn, Reggio based/inspired is about. I totally agree with what Maria said – we need to be patient as we observe, and look at it from the child’s perspective, not our own.

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    • I have been called the ‘dabbler’ because I pursue my passions and find inspirations from everything and everyone around me. This is probably the result of having that “kind of learning” opportunity when I was in grade 2. We completed passion projects all year long. I still remember making a life size horse with the help of a resource teacher, Mrs. Yip. She showed me how to cut out fabric using a pattern, to sew, to stuff with batting and to use buttons and yard to add details to the horse. But, she did more than that. Over the period of a month, Mrs. Yip taught me about empathy, optimism, resilience, persistence and flexibility. The mindset needed to be a life-long learner (Mraz and Hertz, 2015). She also taught me to celebrate my successes. These outcomes are all possible because I was giving an opportunity to pursue my passions and ‘a mentor’ was present to help facilitate. As a primary teacher today, I think about the learning that could come from the process as much as the product, and help children find inspiration around them. So instead of seeing someone as a ‘dabbler’, look deep into the transformation that comes from the discussions, the brainstorming processes, collaboration, and the resulting ideas while working on passion projects.

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  3. Inquiry seems to be the most accepted term in my PS-12 school environment; because of this I term students’ projects (born of their emergent interests) “explorations” within our inquiry based program” in Preschool. Honestly, it can be exhausting to keep up with what is palatable in terms of terminology in early childhood… i always feel that whichever communication I use, half of my message is to advocate for children’s initiatives to be respected and the other half for my work as an early childhood educator to be respected as well.

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  4. I wonder if the project shifts when we notice what the children are doing, recognize the potential of the child as competent, curious and capable of complex thinking when we respond through our actions after we pause and reflect on the learning for the children and ourselves in relation to the children. It moves the project from one of thematic resemblance to a space and place of childhood as a critical presence of educator and child living in the moment. When I think of cars and the potential of nouns to verbs, I wonder if I begin the process of thinking of connections. For example, cars, transportation, movement, wheels, rolling, from here to there, textures, bumpy ride, smooth sailing etc.
    I still wonder if our context influences our thinking within a place and space in relation to our learning

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