The Project Approach


The traditions of school age care have stood the test of time. Most programs offer children the opportunity to engage in crafts and education based activities with the goal of entertaining the children, learning, and having fun. These are wonderful institutions that provide many children with fun, happiness, and joy during their out of school time.

In the beginning of my career in school age care, we created activities for the children and offered them on a daily basis. These activities were based on the time of the year, seasons, holidays etc. The children had fun and enjoyed doing crafts, and playing outdoor games but the work was missing something. As we planned for each succeeding year, we repeated many of the popular activities over and over and sprinkled in some new activities to break up the monotony. 

Then half way through my career I learned about the project approach. I first learned about the project approach during a community training and from colleagues in a new program. In this post, I want to share the evolution of our experience with the project approach. If you look up the word “Project Approach” online there are many explanations and variations of what the practice entails. I am going to ignore others interpretations and share our story. What it looked like at the beginning of our journey into child directed learning and what it looks like now fifteen years later.

Our journey with the project approach started simply. As educators we would discover the interests of the children and then plan activities for them to try based on those interests. At the time the projects were fixed, meaning there was not much improvisation in the children’s work and much of the work looked similar. It was a process not an exploration.

Our first iteration then evolved into an in depth study. Again the children would express an interest in a subject and the educators would respond by asking the children what types of projects they would like to engage in. The difference from our first attempt is that the children chose the project idea and the educators helped to facilitate it. Children and educators worked together on long-term projects and our collaborative creations became quite elaborate over the years. 

The next iteration evolved from a desire to have the children take more of a lead in their investigations and for the educators to truly come alongside the children as more of an observer, mentor, and co-learner. In this iteration children would have questions or desires to explore certain materials or concepts and the educators would instead of facilitating the work would engage in dialogue with the children to see where the work could go in search for answers. This may seem similar to the second iteration, but one big difference is that the investigations would evolve more slowly, and the project work from these investigations would be more detailed and though provoking. This is how our first attempts at documentation and displaying the children’s work as part of a learning journey developed. This was our evolution of the project approach. Everyone has a different journey. 

 What did we learn from this journey? 

This was our firsthand experience with developing our teaching style over fifteen years. Even though schools in Reggio Emilia, and the United States inspired us, our journey was representative of the people and place where it happened and this is what influenced the evolution of our work. 

To this day, we live in all three stages of evolution in our teaching practice. Our work with the children most often resembles the last iteration but just as often we find ourselves as educators using all three methods of programming to meet the needs of the children in our care. The wide variety of age ranges, new and more experienced parents in school age care, invites us to use many methods of teaching to bring the learning community forward and into a place of shared values and processes of learning.

Most projects we collaborate on come from the questions, likes, and ideas of the children. Some of our collaborative work features new investigations and other work is related to things children have seen and want to replicate like the Slime craze of last year. The real goal for our work is to have the children initiate the work whether it is a process art project or an in-depth question we can all ponder together.

All projects have an undetermined shelf life. Some end before they get started and other projects last a long time. Some projects have lasted the entire school year and carried over into the beginning of the following year. It is up to the children how long we work and investigate an idea. Many projects evolve in spurts and are revisited on an intermittent basis.

All work with the children is rooted in play. Play is the foundation of what we do. All of our work together is conceived through play. The children first and foremost are with us to take a break from school. Projects and the search for answers are secondary. That is the true nature of our work in school age care. This means that project work comes and goes and often the children use their time to play with each other, materials, games, read, draw, and then sprinkled in is time for investigations and deep thinking. Project work takes place when the children are ready. 

As educators we are ready when the children are. This is the nature of our work. To help children explore their questions and work on projects together in the search for answers. 

What is the evolution of your work with children? What influences have guided the evolution of your practice?