Toddlers and Projects: Some Definitions
Over the last twenty years, the field of early childhood education has seen a
growing emphasis on project work, or what has become known as project-based
education. Drawing on Dewey’s (1916), Montessori’s (1967), and Piaget’s (1971a)
ideas that children “construct” knowledge, a generation of early childhood
educators has focused on projects not just as vehicles for learning but as a curric-
ulum model and learning outcome (Malaguzzi 1998; Katz and Chard 2000). The
teacher’s role in project-based learning is to facilitate children’s emerging skills
of inquiry and investigation.
The benefits of project work include the following:
It is built on children’s initiative.
It focuses on fostering children’s curiosity and learning habits as opposed to
focusing on specific content or academic skills.
It promotes a stance and approach toward learning that is sequential,
observation-based, responsive, and systematic.
It accommodates different learning styles and strengths, and it teaches chil-
dren with different learning styles how to work together.
It encourages collaboration and negotiation.
It encourages abstract reasoning, critical thinking, and initiative.
Two curriculum models in particular have brought project-based education to
the forefront of our field. The state-subsidized child care centers and preschools
in Italy, especially those in the northern town of Reggio Emilia, first came to
attention in the United States in the 1990s with their traveling exhibit, The 100
Languages of Children. It is not a coincidence that our introduction to the Reggio
Emilia approach was a collection of children’s artwork. American early child-
hood educators have grappled with the aims and details of Reggio Emilia since
then, but no one has missed the power of their methods in helping children use
art to make sense of themselves and the world and in putting children’s creative
capacities at the center of the curriculum.
The Project Approach, developed by Sylvia Chard and Lilian Katz, reflected
an awareness of America’s preoccupation with measurable outcomes and stan-
dards in education. The approach argues that play-based preschool education
is important not because it is a prelude to education but because it creates a lab
for learning how to learn. As Katz and Chard (2000, 38) put it, “Project work
is the part of early childhood curriculum that provides contexts for children to
strengthen their intellectual dispositions as well as to apply their developing aca-
demic skills and to strengthen the dispositions to use them.”