The following is an excerpt from an NAEYC online author Q&A event with Lilian Katz and Judy Harris Helm on the book Young Investigators: The Project Approach in the Early Years. The Q&A took place January 17-21, 2011. To view more highlights from 2011 online Q&As, click here.
Why do some projects really take off and others don't? Over time, what elements have you found make for the best projects? Are surprises always part of project work?
Here are some things I've observed that may or may not be helpful to you.
Topics that are most likely to maintain interest are those that children have a high interest in to begin with. If you bring in a snake, children are right there in your lap trying to see it. If you bring in an apple, you are going to have to drum up business! There are so many topics that we think we need to "cover" in preschool and kindergarten that are based on tradition and are not that interesting to young children. Many are better taught as units.
Topics that are part of the real grown-up world seem more likely to maintain interest. I've noticed that children aren't that interested in studying toys. The making of a teddy bear is much less interesting than what cooks do in a restaurant, and, better yet, a restaurant the children actually go to. They want to know about the grown-up, authentic, behind-the-scenes part of their world. They are serious about their learning.
Avoid what I call “covert topics,” or topics selected with ulterior motives. For example, I've seen many projects on recycling, but not many great projects on recycling. I think a teacher can have a predetermined idea of where things are going, and then push that viewpoint. Children pick up on that. In contrast, I've seen great projects on garbage trucks. In the process, children learned a lot about recycling. The difference is that the garbage trucks were important to the children, so these projects became their investigations.
Narrower topics go deeper and seem to keep children’s interest longer. Some projects are so broad that the children lose focus. If you can narrow down the topic, they can relate to it. Rather than pets, dogs are a better topic. Rather than living things, a specific plant or animal is a better topic. When a topic is too broad, too much time is spent talking about variations rather than the how-to, which is of so much more interest to young children. In a project on pets, children study many different kinds of pets, and the topic becomes ho-hum: Some people have dogs, some people have birds, etc. That is just not as interesting to children as how to cut a dog's toenails or how to take a dog's temperature.
Artifacts, artifacts, artifacts. Our children are concrete sensory learners. In training, I often use the 25-item rule. If you can't think of 25 real, authentic items related to your topic that you can have in your classroom for children to touch, manipulate, draw, and so on, it is probably not a good topic.
Taking the time to build background knowledge on a topic helps improve children’s long-term interest in a project. The younger the child and the more diverse the group, the longer teachers need to spend building vocabulary and background knowledge before we come to questions for investigation. We sometimes kill a project by jumping too soon to questions when only half the class understands the topic enough for meaningful questions. When this is the case, children ask the "how many" questions—how many windows, how many doors—rather than more substantive questions, like, "How do they get those hoses up on top of the ladder?"
Consider incorporating contact with other adults. I've seen this happen so often: A project doesn't seem to be going anywhere, then an expert comes in and gives a demonstration or the class visits a field site, and off it goes. The really great projects often have several visitors involved, each bringing a new perspective. If a topic is chosen that is located within walking distance, there can be many visits, with each visit becoming deeper and more focused.
Having said all of that, you are right that surprises are part of project work. I like to use the analogy of a journey. It is more like unfolding a road map than printing out step-b- step directions from Yahoo!. Here is the map, here is your journey. You have many different roads you can go down. At each intersection you and the children decide which turn to take. Sometimes the choice is clear and the result is great. Sometimes you just get there and that is okay, too. Therein lies the adventure!