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student-led  inquiries with young learners: How to get started
Student-led inquiries: Project work with young learners
24 Jun, 2016. 11 Comments. A Day In First Grade, Back to School, First Grade, Kindergarten, Preschool, Science, Social Studies. Posted By: Kristen Smith

student-led inquiries with young learners: How to get started

I love the summer because it allows me the time to reflect on the year that just finished and read a ton of professional development books. This summer I have a list of 8 books that I would like to finish before the start of the school year. I am currently reading a FABULOUS book called “Young Investigators: The Project Approach In The Early Years” by Judy Harris Helm and Lilian G. Katz and I am loving it. This book explains the nuts and bolts on how to incorporate project work in your preschool, kindergarten, and first grade classrooms.

Chapter 1: Projects and Young Children

I love project work because it enables my children to go in depth with their learning. They really like to investigate and really like to explore. Project work allows me to meaningfully bring real artifacts into the classroom for them to get down, get their hands into their learning… just a real in-depth exploration of the topic. I like project work too because it covers ALL areas of the curriculum and does not focus on one thing such as literacy. A project can help me integrate all areas of the curriculum in an engaging way.” -Lora Taylor, prekindergarten teacher 

I started reading this book on a car ride with 3 kids and two adults in tow. As I began to read, I realized that this was not going to be a book that I could just “skim.” Rather, I quickly found myself searching the car for a pencil or pen so that I could underline and write notes in the margin. Every word resonated with me. In the first chapter, the authors define what exactly the project approach is. A working definition is: “a project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about. The investigation is usually  undertaken by a small group of children within a class, sometimes by a whole class, and occasionally an individual child. The key feature of a project is that it is a research effort deliberately focused on finding answers to questions about a topic posed either by the children or the teacher.” (Katz, 1994, p.1) This approach is very similar to PBL (project-based learning) as in it is centered on the learner and gives students the opportunity to dig deep into what they are interested in.

One part of this chapter that really struck me was how she differentiated between the project approach, units, and theme teaching. As a teacher who used theme teaching up until the last two years, I found myself wondering what the exact difference was between “theme teaching” and “project based learning”. She says, “A theme is a broad concept of topic such as “seasons” or “animals.” When using a theme, teachers assemble books, photographs, and other materials related to a theme.”  I did all of those things when I theme taught. She defined units as “consisting of preplanned lessons and activities on a specific topic that the teacher considers important for the children to know about, such as “magnets.” I did that, too. The distinguishing factor between these methods is the focus is not to help children pose questions to be answered or take the initiative for investigation. She goes on to say that the methods DO have an important place in early childhood education but that students can go much deeper if given the opportunity. Projects provide contexts in which students curiosity can be expressed purposefully and that enable them to experience the joy of self-motivated learning.

In the project approach, inquiries and topics are either student or teacher-led focused on finding the answers to problems and questions that emerge.

Differences between teacher-planned activities and the project approach

Benefits of using the project approach

The project approach teaches students how to take ownership of their learning, ask questions, and investigate to discover the answers to their questions. I saw this very clearly in our dinosaur inquiry. During this topic my students asked so many questions about dinosaurs and took the initiative to find out the answers to their questions. In fact, we had an anchor chart up for the duration of the unit where my students wrote questions on Post-It notes to help focus their learning objectives. The book states, “The generation of a list of questions to focus the project is a key indicator that the learning experience is a project and not a thematic unit.” I definitely will be using this method, along with class webbing, even more next year. 

Student-led inquiries: Project work with young learners

They researched the answers to their questions using our classroom books and wrote  pages and pages of information.

Student-led inquiries: Project work with young learners Student-led inquiries: Project work with young learners

They also used art to document what they were learning. They were so very proud of their work.

kindergarten students constructed a dinosaur out of recycled materials during a reggio-inspired dinosaur unit

Using the project approach helps students grow emotionally, socially, and academically. Research shows that there is a relationship between the role that children have in determining their own learning and the development of social skills. Because so many of these activities involve group activities and explorations, students learn how to work with their peers and problem solve.

Chapter 2: Getting Started 

There is a fabulous diagram in the book that shows the phases in a project.

Phases of a project (Katz)

There were a few things that I gleaned from this chapter on getting started. The authors suggest that when choosing a topic, there are a few factors to consider. Common experiences was a huge factor. In order for students to adequately engage in a project, they must be able to have background knowledge of the topic they are investigating. The more background knowledge they have, the more they can contribute to the questions and suggestions of the unit. The author recommends building a common experience for your students to help create schema. A common experience might be going on a field trip, taking a walk, bringing in a pet, or something that happened to a friend in class. Last year I had a girl in my classroom who had two huskies and shared about them often. My students were VERY interested in her dogs and loved asking her about them. During morning meeting she would often share an anecdote from her dogs’ lives (ie.) them getting a bath or getting their summer haircuts!) This would have been a great topic to explore with my students.

In the project approach, topics can either be teacher-initiated or child-initiated. Sometimes topics emerge from something that happened in class. (broken bones, loose teeth, pets having to go to the vet, going on vacation, finding a monarch butterfly at recess, etc.) Teachers might also initiate a project because of the potential it has to develop into a full scale project. “Teacher-initiated projects work best with young children if they are broad enough to allow for a wide range of possible interests among all students in the class.” Next year I am thinking of starting the year off with a “human body” project. Because this has many potential roads to travel down, I am excited to see where it might lead us! The human body and doctor’s office is also a shared experience for my students. They will be able to offer much early on in the year. The book states, ” the more the learning experience is connected to the children’s own immediate daily reality- to their own concept of self- the more successful it will be.”

Choosing a topic in a project based learning classroom

Once a topic has emerged, you can tie topic concepts with goals and standards. In doing this, you greatly increase student engagement.

initial project activities to build background knowledge/ making a tie between a topic and a standard to increase student engagement

During our rock inquiry last year, my students were very interested in learning about rock features. I tied this into two standards. The first was adjectives. My students observed a real geode and the geodes that we grew in an experiment. Then they wrote facts with adjectives to describe the rocks. We turned this into a venn diagram with hula hoops. This provided a fun, hands-on way to cover many language skills.

A Day In First Grade-172 A Day In First Grade-175

Knowing that we needed to hit the standard of why objects sink and float, this was also an easy connection! My students loved going to this discovery station again and again. It really made them think when our GIANT pumice stone floated!

A Day In First Grade-141

Other ways to build common experiences/ interest/background knowledge/and have students show what they are learning in a topic include:

outdoor investigations

A rock inquiry in kindergarten-29

shared experiences (looking at a friend’s rock collection)

A rock inquiry in kindergarten-34

art projects to document what they are learning

A Day In First Grade-3 A Day In First Grade

constructing

A Day In First Grade-42

dramatic play

A Day In First Grade-106

So when does all this happen? The book recommends at least 45-60 minutes of uninterrupted child-initiated learning. In my classroom, I end our day with “exploration centers.” I am debating on changing the name of this time of the day to “investigation time.” They extended our school day this year by 30 minutes and I am very grateful for those extra 30 minutes. I will add them on to our child-led learning time. This will allow us to go even deeper into our topics and investigations. During this time my students explore, investigate, discover, build, write, draw, read, and play! During this time I meet with small groups and work on projects with students, document what I am seeing, record conversations, and listen to what my students are interested in. It is a wonderful time in our day.

Stay tuned for a recap of the next few chapters in the book! I highly recommend it! You can find it on Amazon if you want to read along with me!

What do you think thus far? If you have wanted to start inquiry based learning in your classroom, what has been a struggle for you? What inquiry was your favorite from this past year?  I’d love to chat with you about this! Comment below!

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11 Comments
  1. Deborah Mendoza -

    Hi Kristin,

    That book looks great and I plan to get it. What are the other books on your summer reading list?

    • My summer reading list includes:
      *Young Investigators: The Project Approach In The Early Years
      *Becoming Young Thinkers: Deep Project Work In The Classroom
      *Free To Learn by Peter Gray
      *Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day by Kristine Mraz
      *In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition (Early Childhood Education) by Lella Gandini
      *Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2 by Renee Dinnerstein
      *The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd Edition (Books)
      Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella, Forman, George, Praeger
      *Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning
      by David Sobel and Patti Bailie

  2. Ana -

    Sounds like an inspiring resource, Kristen! I would love to know the titles of the other 7 books on your summer reading list! I’d be happy to share mine too! 😉😊 Ana

    • My summer reading list includes:
      *Young Investigators: The Project Approach In The Early Years
      *Becoming Young Thinkers: Deep Project Work In The Classroom
      *Free To Learn by Peter Gray
      *Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day by Kristine Mraz
      *In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition (Early Childhood Education) by Lella Gandini
      *Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2 by Renee Dinnerstein
      *The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd Edition (Books)
      Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella, Forman, George, Praeger
      *Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor LearningDec 1, 2015
      by David Sobel and Patti Bailie

    • Ana, what are you reading this summer??

      • Ana -

        Hi Kristen … Sorry I am just now getting to your question!

        I am reading/re-reading:

        About the Authors by Katie Wood Ray & Lisa Cleaveland
        More About the Authors by Lisa Cleaveland
        In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray
        Talking, Drawing, Writing by Horn & Giacobbe
        Of Primary Importance by Ann Marie Corgill
        Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller
        Reading with Meaning (2nd edition) by Debbie Miller
        Choice Words by Peter H. Johnson
        A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick by Shanna Schwartz
        A Mindset for Learning by Mraz & Hertz
        Number Talks by Sherry Parrish

        I really want to get Purposeful Play (Mraz) and the book you reviewed here too! :)

        I think you would also like:
        Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors
        Teaching STEM in the Early Years

        So many books … So little time! 😉

        Looking forward to more of your posts!
        Ana

  3. Ana -

    Oh! Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly is great too!

  4. I was wondering how you allow the students to rotate through your exploring time. When I read Puroseful Play, it recommended having students choose an area, make a plan, and stay there the entire time, then share time. Is your exploring time similar?? I love your inspiration!!

    • Lauren- I read that, too. In my class last year I let the kids free flow and play where they wanted to. This year I might try it the way the book suggests. It will be new for me but I see it working really well. We can explore together!

  5. hi there. I was doing some research and came across your blog! I am THE Lora Taylor who did the camera project with her students. I am so happy to see that you used this book and began incorporating the project approach!

    • Hi Lora! Thank you for the inspiration! :) Also thank you for stopping by my blog!

11 Comments

  • Deborah Mendoza -

    Hi Kristin,

    That book looks great and I plan to get it. What are the other books on your summer reading list?

    • My summer reading list includes:
      *Young Investigators: The Project Approach In The Early Years
      *Becoming Young Thinkers: Deep Project Work In The Classroom
      *Free To Learn by Peter Gray
      *Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day by Kristine Mraz
      *In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition (Early Childhood Education) by Lella Gandini
      *Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2 by Renee Dinnerstein
      *The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd Edition (Books)
      Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella, Forman, George, Praeger
      *Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning
      by David Sobel and Patti Bailie

  • Ana -

    Sounds like an inspiring resource, Kristen! I would love to know the titles of the other 7 books on your summer reading list! I’d be happy to share mine too! 😉😊 Ana

    • My summer reading list includes:
      *Young Investigators: The Project Approach In The Early Years
      *Becoming Young Thinkers: Deep Project Work In The Classroom
      *Free To Learn by Peter Gray
      *Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day by Kristine Mraz
      *In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition (Early Childhood Education) by Lella Gandini
      *Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2 by Renee Dinnerstein
      *The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd Edition (Books)
      Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella, Forman, George, Praeger
      *Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor LearningDec 1, 2015
      by David Sobel and Patti Bailie

    • Ana, what are you reading this summer??

      • Ana -

        Hi Kristen … Sorry I am just now getting to your question!

        I am reading/re-reading:

        About the Authors by Katie Wood Ray & Lisa Cleaveland
        More About the Authors by Lisa Cleaveland
        In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray
        Talking, Drawing, Writing by Horn & Giacobbe
        Of Primary Importance by Ann Marie Corgill
        Teaching with Intention by Debbie Miller
        Reading with Meaning (2nd edition) by Debbie Miller
        Choice Words by Peter H. Johnson
        A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick by Shanna Schwartz
        A Mindset for Learning by Mraz & Hertz
        Number Talks by Sherry Parrish

        I really want to get Purposeful Play (Mraz) and the book you reviewed here too! :)

        I think you would also like:
        Tinkerlab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors
        Teaching STEM in the Early Years

        So many books … So little time! 😉

        Looking forward to more of your posts!
        Ana

  • Ana -

    Oh! Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly is great too!

  • I was wondering how you allow the students to rotate through your exploring time. When I read Puroseful Play, it recommended having students choose an area, make a plan, and stay there the entire time, then share time. Is your exploring time similar?? I love your inspiration!!

    • Lauren- I read that, too. In my class last year I let the kids free flow and play where they wanted to. This year I might try it the way the book suggests. It will be new for me but I see it working really well. We can explore together!

  • hi there. I was doing some research and came across your blog! I am THE Lora Taylor who did the camera project with her students. I am so happy to see that you used this book and began incorporating the project approach!

    • Hi Lora! Thank you for the inspiration! :) Also thank you for stopping by my blog!

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